On Monday 3 October, we are pleased to be offering The Collection Formerly from Flaxley Abbey: An Oliver Messel Commission. The interiors of Flaxley Abbey in Gloucestershire were designed by theatre and set designer Oliver Messel, one of the most iconic figures of twentieth century design, whose romantic, whimsical, and wholly original style has influenced a generation of architects and decorators. The collection represents one of his most important and complete commissions, being the only country house ever to be designed by him. Here, Oliver's nephew, Thomas Messel, picks out just a few of his top picks from the collection.
Thomas Messel's Top Picks
Lot 165: A Brussels biblical tapestry 'The Discovery of Moses', early 18th century, Frans Van der Borght workshop Brussels | Est. £3,000-5,000 (+ fees)
Formerly the Messel family collection at Nymans
Removed to the Drawing Room at Holmstead Manor in 1947 after the disastrous fire and thence by descent to Oliver Messel
Supplied by Oliver Messel to Frederick and Phyllis Baden Watkins for Flaxley Abbey
"I love the strong sense of theatrical drama in this tapestry which no doubt will have caught Oliver Messel’s imagination as it hung in his parent’s home. The scene depicts the moment in the Old Testament story when baby Moses is found in the bull rushes of the River Nile to the astonishment of Pharaoh’s daughter and her entourage. Gesture and pathos conveys the heightened atmosphere of the emotional connection with their discovery of the foundling baby, even as Pharaoh’s daughter dips her toe tenderly into the water. Behind the central group a curtain acts as a foil, pushing the figures forward, towards the viewer and simultaneously drawing us into the intimacy of the story. At the same time the cloth acts as a device leading the eye around and beyond the figures, infusing the scene with a sense of mysterious space and tension as to what may lie behind this vulnerable group. The beauty and temperature of the woven colours, the voluptuous detailing of the palm trees and the foliage reminds me of Oliver Messel's set designs for his The Little Hut of 1953 and his Flight from the Seraglio of 1957."
Lot 41: A carved giltwood mirror, late 18th/early 19th century, in the manner of Thomas Chippendale | Est. £6,000-8,000 (+ fees)
The Crawley Boevey Family
"There are some really magnificent mirrors in this sale and it is hard to select my favourite, however, on balance, my choice must go to this masterpiece of 18th century rococo carving, after the designs of Chippendale, that also retains the delightful discolouration of its original mirror plates.
Original pairs are always hard to find, such as the delicate oval pair (Lot 37) and the mid-18th century pair (Lot 129). There are also some outstanding virtuoso pieces, such as the richly carved and gilded Charles II mirror (Lot 246), and the carved pine rococo mirror (Lot 83). The Stoke Edith Mirror, (Lot 153), reputedly made by my distant cousins, the Foley ladies, in the mid-18th century attracts me. I recall a time in the 1960s at Pelham Place, where this mirror was in Oliver's studio and he showed me how it had been made with sculpted and carved papier mache."
Lot 7: A set of eight George II walnut and parcel gilt dining chairs, circa 1730 | Est. £10,000-15,000 (+ fees)
Possibly Palazzo Altieri, Rome
Formerly the Messel family collection in the Dining Room at their 104 Lancaster Gate residence
Thence by descent to Oliver Messel
Purchased from Oliver Messel by Frederick and Phyllis Baden Watkins for Flaxley Abbey
"As children, these used to line one of the corridors at Holmstead, where my sister Polly and I were under strict instruction not to touch them. The early English eighteenth-century "Age of Walnut" is my favourite period of furniture design and this important and historic set of chairs is a perfect example. In 1986 Baden Watkins kindly lent me one of these from which I made a number of copies, some of which my wife Pepe and I had at Bradley Court."
Lot 36: A set of four ebonised, parcel gilt, and painted armchairs, circa 1810 and later, in the manner of John Gee | Est. £2,000-3,000 (+ fees)
Possibly the collection of Oliver Messel at Pelham Place
Supplied by Messel to Flaxley Abbey
Lot 48: A set of four brown painted and parcel gilt side chairs, late 19th/20th century | Est. £400-600 (+ fees)
Supplied by Oliver Messel
"The English Regency was a period of ephemeral tastes, where clothing and furnishing would be subject to frequent changes of style and colour as fashion might dictate. Painted furniture was in its day considered more an object of decoration rather than of fine cabinetwork. The restrained lines of these pieces have acted as palates for the painters' art, and it was this concept that started me designing and making furniture in the late 1970s. The lovely grisaille cartouches on the backs of Lot 36 are good examples, and the sabre leg design of Lot 48 is one with which I am very familiar. This was the design that I copied from an original in 1979 and one of these chairs I made myself and gave to Baden Watkins as a token of my gratitude to him for his kindness in lending me an Altieri Chair to copy and for allowing me to use his Morning Room for a photo-shoot."
Lot 133: λ Oliver Messel (British 1904-1978), Design for backdrop, Bath, Pencil, watercolour, gouache and collage | Est. £1,000-1,500 (+ fees)
Supplied by Oliver Messel
"I believe that these paintings (Lots 133-143) must have been precious to Oliver as they date from his 1945 production of Sheridan's The Rivals at The Criterion Theatre in London. Bath and this play were both close to his heart, as not only was Sheridan's wife, the beautiful Elizabeth Linley an ancestor of his but also, in 1961-3, he was to restore the bomb-damaged Bath Assembly Rooms. Oliver was always very particular as to how his paintings and designs should be framed, paying particular attention to their colour, texture and tone, and the delicate nature of these frames are as much an integral part of the picture as the paintings within."
Lot 33: A Dutch ebonised, marquetry and bone inlaid centre table, first half 19th century | Est. £2,000-3,000 (+ fees)
Probably the Messel family collection at Nymans
In the Drawing Room at Holmstead Manor and thence by descent to Oliver Messel
Purchased from Oliver Messel by Frederick and Phyllis Watkins for Flaxley Abbey
"This table demonstrates the skills of marquetry which the Dutch cabinet makers honed, through Holland's preeminence in the late 17th century East India trade, which gave them access to some of the most exotic and rarest woods available. Over the years the natural and stained colours of these inlays have faded in the daylight and harmonised into a mellow maturity, enriched with the shimmer of polish, gilt and ivory-like bone. I love the charismatic quality of this piece."
Lot 264: Y A Charles II painted oak, mother of pearl and bone inlaid enclosed chest of drawers, circa 1660 | Est. £10,000-15,000 (+ fees)
Sidney Edward Letts (1868-1940)
Sold to Leonard and Maud Messel for the Sitting Room at 104 Lancaster Gate
Thence by descent to Oliver Messel
Supplied by Oliver Messel to Frederick and Phyllis Watkins for Flaxley Abbey
"This famously important cabinet used to live in the Cluny Room in the Stuart wing of Flaxley Abbey. The room derived its name from Oliver Messel's "Cluny" silver, grey and maroon printed linen, that dressed its state bed, richly edged with silver fringes and gimp panels. Before then I recall it in the grandeur of my grandmother's bedroom at Holmstead, where nothing could be touched. It was only when at Flaxley that Baden Watkins would open its doors and reveal to us the surprisingly lively colours that lie hidden behind the rich mouldings of its exterior."
Lot 75: A pair of giltwood and painted console tables in George III style, designed by Oliver Messel | Est. £1,200-1,800 (+ fees)
Supplied by Oliver Messel
"The dining room at Flaxley is the room that is perhaps closest to Oliver Messel's schemes for Rayne's Shoe shop on Bond Street, which originally attracted Mrs Watkins to Oliver Messel.
"It possesses the lightness of touch of the high Regency with pale salmon walls and the freshness of off-white. As at Raynes, much of the furnishings are designed by Oliver, such as the gilt chandelier (Lot 71) and the set of painted dining chairs (Lot 70). Of the pieces especially designed and made for the room by Oliver, I particularly like this pair of cool marble-topped, painted and gilded consoles, which with their fluted friezes and tapering husked legs, closely refer to the elegant designs of Robert Adam, which have been an enduring inspiration to my own designs."
Lot 108: A giltwood and marble topped console table in Regency style, mid 19th century | Est. £3,000-5,000 (+ fees)
Supplied by Oliver Messel, possibly from Holmstead Manor
"Jim Lees-Milne was much attracted to 18th century Italian marble specimen tables and he told me that he particularly admired this piece. The sight and exotic names of the colourful marbles would be quite enough to transport one to the idea of Italy and the Grand Tour, and I find that the carved Baroque giltwood base gives this table a real sense of importance. As a furniture designer, I very much enjoy using inlaid stone, pietra dura and scagliola, a skill mastered by Tom Kennedy in Shropshire, with whom I frequently have worked."
Lot 267: A French carved walnut dole cupboard, 19th century | Est. £150-200 (+ fees)
Supplied by Oliver Messel
"The last and least assuming of my selection is this modest though unusual piece of furniture. It has all the charm of the lathe and the chisel of a French provincial craftsman and is a rare survivor of a safe, used for the doling out of bread as alms for the needy of the parish. It is a delight to see that such a piece has survived in good condition and is lovingly polished."
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The auction will take place at Dreweatts Donnington Priory on Monday 3 October 2022.
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.
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