I have few opportunities to visit Dorchester, so when Fiona Leahy invited me to her Smythson collaboration last November, I jumped at the chance. I'd sat next to her at a supper a few weeks before, and she told me of the magic of the Oliver Messel Suite. It was there that she was to have her party. It was a magical evening. But due to always being a bit embarrassed by getting my phone out and a healthy amount of people in attendance, I could not grasp all the staggering details the suite had to offer. The knowledge that the work of such an iconic figure in theatre and decoration had been preserved was a thrilling concept. I made a note to myself that I must find out more and, if possible, visit again. The opportunity came a week ago, and Emma Bowman, Communications Manager at the Dorchester, was kind enough to show me around and fill me in on the history of such an iconic few rooms.
Oliver Messel started his career in the 1920s. His sets & costumes showed amazing initiative and practicality while also being vessels for theatrical escapism, 'A master of theatrical illusion, Messel used mundane materials to deceive audiences into seeing precious gold, gems and sumptuous fabrics. In the 1940 The Tempest, gilded pipe-cleaners became goldwork or embroidery; chandelier drops backed with sweet papers set in pipe-cleaners became precious stones.' (via V&A). Many theatre professionals considered his work amateurish and cheap due to the materials used. Many costume designers at the time refused to work on his designs. Ever practical, he would work on the costumes himself, occasionally enlisting the help of his sister Anne.
Messel's most famous production was The Sleeping Beauty, designed for the Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet in 1946. Messel created something quintessentially English from a late 19th-century Russian classical ballet, symbolising Russian opulence and society. The costumes are an extraordinary mix of periods but adapted into a poetic ideal of England.
Anya Sainsbury remembers performing in Oliver Messel's sets for Tchaikovsky's ballet. She remembers the difference between what the dancers saw on the stage to what the audience took in, 'I don't remember, you know, standing on the stage and saying, 'Oh isn't this wonderful,' because everything was flat, flat, flat. It's only when you got out, the illusion was so extraordinary'.
In the 1950s Messel's work was fading in popularity. Many considered his designs old fashion and out of step with the 'kitchen sink dramas' that were becoming so popular in the 1950s. It was around this time that Sir Rober McAlpine, the owner of The Dorchester, commissioned Messel to design a luxury suite in which he himself would like to live, 'the rooms range from understated English country elegance to unabashed theatrical rococo with hand-painted silk-lined walls, gilded mouldings and a bed festooned with dramatic silk swags and topped with golden acorn finials. The suite created such a sensation that Messel was retained to create two reception salons suitable for lavish entertaining, the Penthouse Suite and the Pavilion.' (source Dorchester). While many might think that was enough to be getting on with, the suite was such a triumph that Messel was enlisted to develop two reception salons suitable for lavish entertaining. The fabulous cherry on top was Messel's dramatic decoration on the facade of The Dorchester to celebrate the Queen's Coronation in 1953, 'The decorations were said to be the best in London.' (source The Dorcester) All in all, one can only think of this as one terrific collaboration that was not only thrilling in its day but, seventy years on, still offers up escapism, inspiration and a great bit of camp luxury.
'An Evening Of Entertaining At Its Finest With Smythson & Fiona Leahy To Celebrate The Launch Of The Notes On Entertaining Book' Set In The Oliver Messel Reception Salons.