Oliver Messel Archive


Oliver Messel (Messel, Oliver Hilary Sanbourn 1904 - 1978) was a well regarded theatre, ballet and film designer of the first half of the twentieth century.

Messel was born into a wealthy stockbroking family who were resident at Nymans in Sussex, now the property of the National Trust

Oliver's first professional commission was to design masks for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes' production of Zephyr et Flore. Among his stage and screen credits were the costume designs for the films The Scarlet Pimpernel, Romeo and Juliet, Caesar and Cleopatra and set design for Suddenly Last Summer as well as the ballets The Sleeping Beauty (first performed in 1946 and revived many times since then) as well as various operas for Glyndebourne.

Oliver was a "bright young thing", a bohemian young socialite in 1920s London, and was well-connected within the circles of theatre, society and aristocracy. His sister Anne became Countess of Rosse through marriage, and her son Anthony Armstrong-Jones married Princess Margaret in 1960. 

In 1966, Messel retired to Barbados for health and financial reasons. During his time in Barbados, he turned his hand to architecture, designing villas for friends in Barbados and nearby Mustique. His final production was Sleeping Beauty for the American Ballet Theatre New York in 1976.

The personal papers of Oliver Messel held here at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection were those that he took with him when he moved to Barbados in 1966 and those created during his residence in Barbados. On Oliver Messel's death in 1978, the contents of his house and studio were left to his nephew Thomas Messel who retained custody of them until they were sold to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection in 2015. 

The purchase of the Personal Archive of Oliver Messel happened with support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries and others.  The cataloguing and conservation of the Personal Archive of Oliver Messel has been made possible with funding from the Heritage Lottery fund, the Linbury Trust and others. 

What the collection holds

The Personal Archive of Oliver Messel contain correspondence and material relating to his professional commissions as well as correspondence, sketches and photographs relating to his architectural commissions after 1966. There are also photographs of Messel's friends, acquaintances and of visits to various places. 

It is currently being catalogued as part of a two-year project to catalogue and conserve this important collection. The collection will be fully catalogued and available for consultation by 2019 and in Autumn 2018 the Theatre collection will be holding an exhibition on Oliver Messel to celebrate the life and work of this key figure of the twentieth century.

The online catalogue for this collection can be viewed here: 
OHM - Oliver Messel Archive

Further information

The V&A Theatre and Performance collection in London holds a related collection of the professional papers of Oliver Messel. This collection is composed of material that was left in storage at Kensington Palace when Messel moved to Barbados in 1966. On Messel's death it was bequeathed to his nephew Lord Snowdon who transferred it to the V&A, initially on long loan before it was purchased by the V&A. 

Oliver Messel Magic
The magic of Oliver Messel Image credit: James De Vries
Oliver Messel's design for the bluebird dress from 1976 American Ballet Theatre New York production of Sleeping Beauty.
Oliver Messel's design for the bluebird dress from 1976 American Ballet Theatre New York production of Sleeping Beauty. Image credit: University of Bristol Theatre Collection
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