All the World's a Stage: The Life and Legacy of Oliver Messel
It’s often been said that had Oliver Messel lived to work another ten years, Mustique would have been one of the seven wonders of the Caribbean. As it was, between 1960 and 1978 he created some 30 house plans, of which over 18 were built – a tangible and lasting tribute to his genius.
Born to a wealthy, well-connected family, Oliver Messel studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and his first exhibited works were masks, which were admired by Diaghilev and led to a commission to design masks for the Ballet Russes production Zéphire et Flore in 1925. Commissions for the theatre swiftly followed, leading to a lifetime of whimsical designs – first in productions in the UK and then on Broadway. As the brittle sophistication of the 1920s succumbed to the Depression, Messel responded to the hunger for escapist nostalgia and fantasy by developing a magpie approach to period detail in order to create a poetic confection-a romantic English tradition. Messel’s most famous theatrical design was for the Sadler’s Wells production of Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn in 1946, which re-imagined a Russian ballet in quintessentially English terms. Other memorable productions and films followed, including The Thief of Baghdad (1940), Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). But then tastes changed, and by the 1960s realism and the appetite for kitchen sink dramas meant that his kind romantic escapism had fallen out of fashion. So he upped sticks, transformed a ramshackle house, Maddox, on Barbados, and a new ‘theatre of design’ opened up to him.