Not currently on display at the V&A

Masks (Costume)

1920-1929 (designed)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

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.

Messel’s career as a theatre designer began with a prestigious commission to make ‘masks and symbols’ for a Diaghilev Ballet production, Zéphyre et Flore, in 1925. The masks were exhibited at the Claridge Gallery and attracted the interest of C. B. Cochran (1872-1951), the theatre impressario. He commissioned Messel to make masks for his revues from 1926 onward, and subsequently asked him to design costumes and sets. Messel also designed masks for private commissions and as interior decoration.

This mask may have been commissioned by a private individual or could have been designed for a theatre production. Messel sewed fur fabric around an open weave cloth which has been painted with ape features. The eyes are made from painted shells.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Brief Description
Gorilla mask by Oliver Messel, possibly made for a C.B. Cochran revue 1920s.
Physical Description
A gorilla mask by Oliver Messel. Composed of fur fabric, cloth and fake hair, with eyes made from shells. There is no opening at the back, only at the bottom.
Dimensions
  • Height: 36cm
  • Width: 23cm
  • Depth: 19cm
Production typeUnique
Credit line
Acquired with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A
Object history
In 1922, after an education at Eton, Messel studied to be a painter at the Slade School of Fine Art under Henry Tonks; Rex Whistler was a fellow student. Messel’s formal studies concentrated on life drawing and painting, but Messel, along with Whistler, made masks from papier maché and wax for student events. An exhibition of Messel’s masks at the Claridge Galleries in London in 1925 led to Messel’s first theatre design commission to design masks for the prestigious Diaghilev ballet production of Zéphyre et Flore, directed by George Braque and performed at the London Coliseum in 1925. Messel also made masks for other purposes including for friends to wear to dances, as lamp shades and for wall decoration.

Charles B. Cochran engaged Messel to design costumes, masks and sets for his annual revues at the London Pavilion from 1926 onwards; these revues, consisting of songs, sketches and chorus numbers, provided Messel with ample opportunities to develop and exercise his talent for minute attention to detail, inventive use of materials, including the use of rubber, dish cloths and fabrics painted to suggest embroidery, and imaginative borrowings from historical periods and styles. Messel’s reputation grew slowly; most notably, critics praised Messel’s disturbing masks for ‘Dance, Dance, Little Lady’, a song by Nöel Coward from the 1928 Cochran revue entitled This Year of Grace; the scene was described by James Laver as “a modern Dance of Death.” (Laver, 1933).

Lord Snowdon, Oliver Messel's nephew, inherited Messel's theatre designs and other designs. 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.
Production
Reason For Production: Private

Reason For Production: Commission
Summary
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.



Messel’s career as a theatre designer began with a prestigious commission to make ‘masks and symbols’ for a Diaghilev Ballet production, Zéphyre et Flore, in 1925. The masks were exhibited at the Claridge Gallery and attracted the interest of C. B. Cochran (1872-1951), the theatre impressario. He commissioned Messel to make masks for his revues from 1926 onward, and subsequently asked him to design costumes and sets. Messel also designed masks for private commissions and as interior decoration.



This mask may have been commissioned by a private individual or could have been designed for a theatre production. Messel sewed fur fabric around an open weave cloth which has been painted with ape features. The eyes are made from painted shells.
Bibliographic References
  • Pinkham, Roger (ed.) Oliver Messel: an exhibition held at the Theatre Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, 22 June - 30 September 1983. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983. 200p., ill ISBN 0905209508)
  • Gaunt, William. Masks by Oliver Messel. The Studio. 1928, vol. 96, pp.249-255.
  • Laver, James. Stage designs and costumes by Oliver Messel. London: The Bodley Head, 1933.
Other Number
ROT 8844 - TM Rotation Number
Collection
Accession Number
S.234-2006

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record createdAugust 3, 2006
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