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Set model

  • Place of origin:

    London (designed)

  • Date:

    1942 (designed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Messel, Oliver Hilary Sambourne, born 1904 - died 1978 (designer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Wood, cardboard, fabric, and paint.

  • Credit Line:

    Acquired with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Great Britain’s leading theatre designer from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s, Oliver Messel (1904-1978) won international acclaim for his lavish, painterly and poetic designs informed by period styles. His work spans ballet, drama, film, musical, opera and revue. Messel’s traditional style of theatre design became unfashionable from the mid 1950s onwards, and he increasingly concentrated on painting, interior and textile design, including designing luxury homes in the Caribbean.

Robert Helpmann (1909-1986) asked Messel to design costumes and sets for his first ballet as a choreographer, Comus, presented by the Sadler's Wells Ballet at the New Theatre, London, in January 1942. Messel had designed Helpmann’s costume as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1937. Messel’s feel for period style made him a suitable designer for a ballet based on a seventeenth century masque by John Milton (1645).

Critics highlighted the painterly quality of Messel’s costumes and sets; the Dancing Times reported ‘The colours are rich and subdued, like the patina of an old painting’ (Dancing Times, February 1942). This set model shows Scene 2, Comus’ palace, in which Comus, the Greek god of festivities and revelry, attempts to enchant a lady and transform her into one of his half-bestial creatures.

Physical description

Set model by Oliver Messel for Comus's palace, scene ii, in a Sadler's Wells Ballet production of Comus, 1942. A wooden box containing the set, carved and painted in Baroque style. A false proscenium arch, backcloth and four cutcloths. Rows of trees in recession. In the middle distance, yellow curtain. Columns and arches seen in the distance. Trees painted on the backcloth. A miniature banqueting table garlanded in gold, with cake or food stands on it. A figure of Comus in wood, gesso, modelling clay painted in oils, white and gold paint. At the top of the false proscenium is painted drapery and a border of silver fringe; at the sides pink-mauve velvet strips.

Place of Origin

London (designed)


1942 (designed)


Messel, Oliver Hilary Sambourne, born 1904 - died 1978 (designer)

Materials and Techniques

Wood, cardboard, fabric, and paint.

Marks and inscriptions

Paint inscription on the bottom of the wooden frame.

White chalk inscription on the back of the model.

'FROM THE BRITISH COUNCIL' / 8 HANOVER STREET. LONDON. W1 / AIDS AND DISPLAYS DEPARTMENT. / OWNER. / NAME. Oliver Messel. / ADDRESS WORK MODEL NO.8 / TITLE. 'COMUS' / ARTIST. Oliver Messel . / Ballet exhibition for Spain / portugal 1950'
Printed label on the back of the wooden box.

'GERMANY 1951'
Ink inscription written on the label on the back of the wooden box.


Height: 53.7 cm, Depth: 35.5 cm, Width: 62.1 cm

Object history note

Comus, a Masque in one act after a poem by John Milton (1645). Choreography by Robert Helpmann. Music by Purcell, arranged by Constant Lambert. Presented on 14th January, 1942, by the Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet at the New (now Albery) Theatre, London. With Margot Fonteyn as The Lady, Robert Helpmann as Comus.
Lord Snowdon, Oliver Messel's nephew, inherited Messel's theatre designs and other designs and artefacts. The designs were briefly stored in a disused chapel in Kensington Palace before being housed at the V&A from 1981 on indefinite loan. The V&A Theatre Museum purchased the Oliver Messel collection from Lord Snowdon in 2005.

Historical significance: Robert Helpmann's first ballet.

Descriptive line

Set model by Oliver Messel for Comus' palace, scene ii, in Robert Helpmann's ballet Comus, Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet, 1942.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Pinkham, Roger (ed.) Oliver Messel, London, V&A, 1983

Production Note

According to Ralph Dyer (TM Personal File) , Messel's assistant in the early part of his career, Messel made copies of his set models to be exhibited at the British Council. Dyer claims to have made the models himself to Messel's designs.

Reason For Production: Commission


Pencil; Paper; Watercolour; Gouache; Kaolinite; Wood; Card; Wire; Glue; Gauze; Masking tape; Perspex; Paint; Plaster of Paris; Ink; Velvet; Acetate; Gesso


Drawing (image-making); Painting (image making); Glueing


Entertainment & Leisure

Production Type



Theatre and Performance Collection

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