All the world’s a stage: the life & 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.
In the Caribbean, Messel’s genius was to transform Plantation architecture into something more modern by merging the divisions between outside and in, converting quite ordinary houses into extraordinary settings – stage sets for the performance of social life. He could manipulate perspective to make rooms seem larger than they were, by adding slender Greek columns, flattened arches, elaborate plaster mouldings, and with the elegant use of “gingerbread” latticework and jalousied wooden shutters. Rousseau-inspired jungles were encouraged to grow in and around the houses, while windows and doorways were carefully positioned to ‘frame’ a perfect view. A hallmark was to have the front door looking straight through the house to the view beyond. Capturing the imagination of the influential Cunard, Heinz and Guinness dynasties, a string of high society commissions flooded in, and as these were exactly the kind of buyers Colin Tennant needed to attract, Messel was the clear choice to recreate this fantasy on Mustique.
By 1970 the island’s first hotel, which had been the old Cotton House, was designed and built by Oliver Messel and Arne Hasselqvist. It was their first collaboration, and it was a triumph. With wide verandahs, louvred doors and a steeply pitched roof, it was perfectly proportioned and very lovely. It was the beginning of an extraordinarily successful relationship, because Hasselqvist understood that that Messel’s great talent was design, scale and proportion rather than practical draughtsmanship.
Honor Guinness was one of the first buyers to commission a Messel house in 1971. In fact she ordered two. As her granddaughter Georgia Fanshawe recalls, “I don’t know what made my grandmother, Honor Guinness, buy them and on Mustique. She was the first person who did so it was a gutsy decision. However, she had always had a pioneering spirit. Early on in her adult life she had lived a very formal, very social life in London with her husband Chips Channon, but that had ended in a difficult divorce. She had heard about it from her daughter-in-law, my mother Ingrid Wyndham who was also Colin Tennant’s cousin. My mother had stayed with Colin and Anne on Mustique in the mid-1960s, and told my grandmother all about it.
So Honor looked around the island with Colin Tennant. She chose a strip of land on the northern end of the island that always had a gentle breeze and overlooked a secluded bay. The beach came to be known as Lady Honor’s beach and is now called Honor Bay. Colin told Honor if she wanted the whole piece of land above the bay she would have to build two houses. So she did. She built Phibblestown first in 1971 and then lived in it while Clonsilla was being constructed in 1972. Oliver Messel not only designed the houses, but also many of the tables, chairs, mirrors, lanterns, vases and pictures.
Clonsilla is a perfectly proportioned and very open house. It is always full of light. There are more windows than there are walls. When you are sitting inside you feel as if you are outside in the garden. Wherever you are in the house your eye is constantly drawn to the view of the sea. Clonsilla has white walls, and squared columns. It is a simple and classic design. Within the simplicity of the house Messel then put his little bit of theatre: spectacular mirrors, beautiful portraits of mermaids and large marble tables with mad rococo curved legs. The small garden he designed at the front feels as if it is part of the decoration and interior of the house. She did not build a swimming pool. My father told me that her view was: “why would you when you could swim in the sea?”
Theatre had given Messel an extraordinary sensitivity for the dramatic effects needed to convey action, mood and the suggestion of hidden vistas. But it was his experience of working as camouflage officer in Somerset during World War II-where, as his friend and fellow officer Julian Trevelyan remembers he disguised pillboxes as haystacks, ruins, castles and even a roadside cafe-that gave him expertise in another approach to illusion, using artifice to deceive the eye so that things ‘melted in. . . like a bird’s nest”. Messel enjoyed tricking the eye. His nephew, Lord Snowdon, recalled going to stay with his uncle when he was a young boy, and being sent out to the garden to play. There he had come across a beautiful bird’s nest in one of the hedges, only to discover that his uncle had made it, and that the eggs were made of hand painted china.
In the Caribbean, ‘melting in’ was achieved on Barbados by using a sage green paint for shutters and balustrades, now known as Messel Green. On Mustique he chose instead to work with a vivid yellow, seen opposite, adorning the walls of the classic villa Blue Waters, which is also a perfect example of his Georgian style, using flattened arched windows, delicate wrought iron balustrades and the mesmerizing ‘see-through’ effect from front of house to back. Then Messel would plant around the house like mad, the vision in his mind being the distinctive yellow intermittently visible through a tangle of tropical foliage, adding depth but drawing the eye closer. Today Blue Waters, and other yellow painted houses Pelican Beach and Yellowbird, are almost entirely hidden from the road-the vision is complete and they have ‘melted in.’
Messel could deceive audiences into seeing what he wanted them to. He had a genius for imaginative suggestion. According to the interior designer Nicky Haslam, a favourite trick of Messel’s approach to building was to convey that there might be an even grander house round the corner. As Messel explained, I attempted use every device to make as much magic as possible.”
Another of Georgia Fanshawe’s vignettes vividly conveys this. “The first time I went to Mustique was as a young girl in 1974. I remember we stayed overnight in Barbados at Oliver Messel’s house, Maddox. We had dinner by candlelight in his beautiful garden. There were monkeys running about in the branches above us. After dinner Oliver suddenly emerged through the undergrowth. He kept vanishing and reappearing wearing different masks and theatrical headdresses as he danced amongst the palms. I remember it being terribly exciting, but also slightly sinister.”
There were few owners who gave Messel such full rein on the interiors of their houses, but after Clonsilla and Phibblestown, Joan Irving’s Sea Star is still today one of the finest examples of his work. The dining room forms the ultimate stage set, with Messel’s dramatic use of his hallmark colonnade windows, dome ceiling with clever trompe l’oeil paintwork to make it seem much higher, using white-on-white to create a feeling of expansiveness. As marble wasn’t available, Messel simply painted the concrete floors and walls to simulate the right effect.
Sometimes Messel would seem to forget that he was no longer working with scenery, which could be adjusted with some ease, insisting that walls could be moved at and rebuilt so that his vision should be realised at all costs. If these demands weren’t met there would be dramatic public outbursts of tears, for Messel could cry at will; an extrovert with a dark, moody temperament.
In 1975, Hans Neumann and Maria Cristina Anzola commissioned Point Lookout, on a spit of land on Mustique with the sea on either side. Conceivedas a ruined fort Point Lookout is one of Messel’s more unusual buildings on Mustique, but the characteristic mix of architectural styles is there. There were squalls as the work progressed. “I got on beautifully with Oliver, actually better than Hans who had more of a Bauhaus taste”, Maria Cristina recalls, “I understood and shared the theatricality of Oliver’s ideas. Hans did not. Hans always wanted to simplify – he made Oliver cry. But the house was wonderful in the end.”
On Barbados, which had been an English colony since 1625, Messel had based his designs on Georgian plantation houses. But because there were no surviving colonial buildings on Mustique, Messel was given free rein to imagine a colonial style of his own. By weaving together influences drawn from the French colonial tradition of architecture in Haiti (which he visited for inspiration), with other influences drawn from the American Deep South and the colonial architecture from the West Indies Messel created a new style on Mustique. The “Gingerbread’ style, seen to good effect on Patrick Lichfield’s house, Obsidian (picture right), which involved reviving the decorative fretwork that had been used throughout the Caribbean in the nineteenth century, was another important element. Stylised and elegant, and fundamentally anti-realistic, his was a filtered, selective re-imagining of the past-an invented tradition. As Tennant observed, “Mustique was an invention-like Treasure Island.”