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On 3 October, we are delighted to be selling the collection formerly from Flaxley Abbey in Gloucestershire, former seat of the Crawley-Boevey Baronets.
Flaxley was originally founded in 1151 as a Cistercian monastery and, under royal protection during the reign of Henry II, was used as royal hunting quarters. Since then the estate has had many owners – each leaving an indelible mark over generations - including the Crawley-Boevey family who retained the house from 1648-1960. In 1960, the house was sold, ending the family's 300 year ownership. It was at this point that Tony Award winning theatre and set designer Oliver Messel was commissioned to re-model and revitalise Flaxley Abbey and garden. Here, Oliver's nephew, Thomas Messel tells us more about his life and this important commission.
Oliver Messel (courtesy of the Messel Family Archive & Collection)
Oliver Messel was Britain’s most celebrated stage designer, a world in which he was pre-eminent throughout most of the twentieth century. His career started at the age of 21 in London with designs for Diaghilev’s Zephyr and Flora and ended in New York for the Metropolitan Opera House’s 1976 production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Sleeping Beauty.
Messel was born in London in 1904, the youngest son of a wealthy and cultivated family of well-established Anglo-German bankers, whose country home, Nymans in Sussex, is now a property of the National Trust and famed for its magnificent gardens.
Messel family 1906??? (courtesy of the Messel Family Archive & Collection)
Artistry was in his blood. His great uncle, Alfred Messel, was one of Germany’s leading architects best known for his Pergamon Museum in Berlin and his grandfather, Linley Sambourne, was the chief political cartoonist of Punch magazine, whose extraordinary London home, 18 Stafford Terrace, is now a museum known as Linley Sambourne House.
Messel left Eton at the age of 17 to study painting at the Slade School of Art where he proved himself to be a capable portraitist. In his spare time, he used to make masks out of papier-mâché and wire which brought him to the attention of both Sergé Diaghilev and the London impresario Sir Charles B. Cochran. This was to change the direction of his career from that of a portrait painter to that of a theatre designer.
For ten years Cochran engaged Messel on his London Revues and plays, where he was to work closely with Noel Coward, Cole Porter, George Balanchine and Max Reinhardt. It was Messel’s all-white sets and costumes for Helen! that shot him to fame in 1931, which were popularised by his friend, the interior designer Syrie Maugham, whose ‘white on white’ style is still in fashion today.
Messel’s talent, allied with his good looks and charm soon placed him at the centre of a circle of high-spirited brilliance known as The Bright Young Things; a constellation of artists, writers, musicians and poets which included Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler, Stephen Tennant, the Sitwells, William Walton and Lady Diana Cooper.
By now Oliver Messel was a household name as a theatre designer so the next logical step was film. His first film, The Scarlet Pimpernel was screened in 1935, starring Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard, which was quickly followed by his Hollywood debut with George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard.
Messel with one of his masks (courtesy of the Messel Family Archive & Collection)
During the war, Messel was commissioned as a captain in the Royal Engineers to command a camouflage unit based in Norwich, whose Assembly Rooms he discovered to be in a dilapidated condition. These he restored and was able to use as his headquarters.
Before the war, he had established a good working relationship with Vivien Leigh and it was with her as Cleopatra, that in 1944 he designed the film Caesar and Cleopatra, co-starring Claude Rains and Stewart Granger. In all, Messel designed 12 films in his lifetime, the last being his 1956 Suddenly Last Summer, starring Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.
Messel at work (courtesy of the Messel Family Archive & Collection)
Of all his work for the stage, Messel’s sets and costumes for the 1946 ballet, The Sleeping Beauty is his most celebrated. For this, using his powers of resourcefulness, he was able to conjure beauty, colour and romance out of the meagrest of wartime rations and dazzle a grey and war-torn London. The production was the debut performance of Ninette De Valois’ Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House and starred Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton, with the music under the baton of Constant Lambert. Messel’s The Sleeping Beauty was performed all over the world for the next fourteen years and is now revived as a permanent part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire.
The Royal Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty, 1946 (courtesy of the Messel Family Archive & Collection)
The 1950s are sometimes referred to as the age of ‘neo-romanticism’ and it was throughout this decade that Messel was at his happiest and most productive. During these years he designed 29 new productions for stage, opera and ballet, which were performed all over the world, including nine consecutive years at Glyndebourne.
Oliver Messel had set out in life to be a painter and that talent coupled with his reputation as a stage designer led him to paint murals and to decorate houses.
Oliver Messel in his studio on Yeomans Row (courtesy of the Messel Family Archive & Collection)
In 1952 he was commissioned by The Dorchester to create a series of spectacular rooms to celebrate The Queen’s coronation the following year. These are on the 8th floor, known as The Penthouse and Pavilion Suites, designed for parties and receptions with the Oliver Messel Suite on the floor below. The rooms are unaltered and still in regular use, as also is the little silk-lined jewel box of a theatre on the west coast of Cumbria, known as Rosehill. But the fate of the Raynes shoe shop, ‘the prettiest shoe shop in the world,’ which he created in 1959 on Bond Street, was not so happy as it was destroyed by developers in the mid-1980s.
The interior of Rayne Shoe Shop (courtesy of the Messel Family Archive & Collection)
It was through Sir Edward Rayne’s introduction that Oliver first met Mr and Mrs Baden Watkins in 1960, the new owners of Flaxley Abbey. Flaxley is a deeply romantic mansion set in a wooded Gloucestershire valley. Its buildings encompass all architectural periods from the medieval to the late Georgian. In many ways, it reminded Oliver of his own parent’s home of Nymans. His work for Flaxley coincided with the death of his mother and his inheritances from his family homes Nymans, Homestead Manor, and 104 Lancaster Gate. This meant he had a large collection, including his own personal collection, from which to supply and gift to the house.
Flaxley was for Oliver a labour of love, during which he decorated and advised on the furnishing of the interior as well as creating a new wing and laying out the gardens into a series of canals, fountains and pavilions, influenced by the historic Dutch gardens at Flaxley and the Westbury Court gardens nearby.
The mid-1960s theatre witnessed a reaction against the romance and beauty that Oliver could provide, in favour of concrete and barbed wire realism. Coupled with this he was suffering from arthritis so decided to move in 1966 to the warmer climate of Barbados, where he intended to settle down to paint. He restored and redesigned, with his partner Vagn Riis-Hansen, Maddox, an old plantation house on the west coast, which attracted so much admiration that his career took off in a new direction as an architect. He was to design 35 buildings over the next twelve years. Not only did he work on projects for the Bajan Government and private individuals on Barbados but also he was introduced to the island of Mustique by Princess Margaret, when she asked him to design a house for her, on the plot of land that Colin Tennant had given as a wedding present to her and her husband, Oliver’s nephew, Tony Snowdon. Over the next ten years, Oliver was commissioned by Glenconner to design 30 houses on the island, of which 18 have to date been built, whilst also designing a stage version of Gigi in the U.S.A. and The Sleeping Beauty for the American Bicentenary celebrations at The Met in New York in 1976.
On the 13th of July 1978, Oliver Messel’s charmed life came to an end and it is in the garden at Nymans that he is now buried.
Messel in the Gardens at Maddox (courtesy of the Messel Family Archive & Collection)
The Auction Catalogue
The auction is now onlinehere. To view or download a pdf of the page turning catalogue, see below. The printed catalogue contains the following auctions:
The Collection formerly from Flaxley Abbey: An Oliver Messel Commission (Auction date: 3 October 2022)
Chilham Castle: The Selected Contents from a Christopher Gibbs Interior (Auction date: 4 October 2022)
To purchase a catalogue, the cost including postage is: UK: £30; Overseas: £50. To purchase a printed catalogue, please visit our Catalogue Subscriptions page and select: Flaxley Abbey and Chilham Castle
AUCTION: The auction will take place at Dreweatts Donnington Priory on Monday 3 October 2022.
VIEWING IN LONDON (HIGHLIGHTS ONLY): Venue: Dreweatts, 16-17 Pall Mall, St James's, London SW1Y 5LU Monday 12 - Thursday 15 September: 10am - 4pm
VIEWING IN NEWBURY (FULL SALE): Venue: Dreweatts, Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE Thursday 29 - Friday 30 September: 10am - 4pm Saturday 1 - Sunday 2 October: 10am - 3pm There is no viewing on the day of the auction.
Online bidding is available via dreweatts.com with no additional online bidding fees applicable. Please register at least 48 hours in advance of the auction as you may be asked to provide documents to verify your identity. Registration for new clients will close at 12 noon BST on Sunday 2 October. To create an online bidding account or register to bid click here.
For telephone and commission bids, please email: email@example.com. Commission bids may also be placed via your online bidding account.
Bidding in personat our salerooms is also available.