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Costume design
  • Costume design
    Messel, Oliver Hilary Sambourne, born 1904 - died 1978
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Costume design

  • Place of origin:

    London (designed)

  • Date:

    1946 (designed)

  • Artist/Maker:

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

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Charcoal, pencil, ink, wash, paint, gouache and watercolour on paper

  • Credit Line:

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

  • Museum number:

    S.368-2006

  • Gallery location:

    Theatre & Performance, Room 105, case 9, shelf 3

In 1944, designer Oliver Messel was released from his war duties in camouflage to work on the film Caesar and Cleopatra, adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play. Messel was responsible for the costumes and the interior design of the sets, bringing all his imagination and ingenuity to creating Roman and Egyptian costumes and interiors in the context of the mid 1940s. The film was the most expensive British film to date, costing over £1m, and brought a welcome sense of extravagance and colour into a drab post-war world. Surprisingly, given his sense of colour, he never worked on another colour film.

Wartime shortages of materials was no problem for Messel, who knew that in theatre and on film, an accurate depiction of reality was not required. He had always been creative in his use of unexpected materials, and to make this wreath needed no 'real' gold metal or chased decoration. The leaves are stiffened paper, with wire stems which are fixed onto a wire circlet bound with brown paper tape, the whole painted to simulate gold or bronzed metal.

Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) played Cleopatra. On the design Messel has indicated the style of make-up for her to use, ensuring the correct overall look for the costume. Although a costume design is created to indicate the character the actor is playing, it is rare for a designer to indicate the make-up. Here, Messel has concentrated on the heavy eye-make-up which immediately suggests 'Egyptian' to the audience.

Oliver Messel (1904-1978) was Britain's leading theatre designer from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s, working in every aspect of entertainment - ballet, drama, film, musical, opera and revue - as well as in interior decoration and textile design. His lavish, painterly and romantic designs informed by period styles, were perfectly in tune with his times and earned him an international reputation. By 1960, however, Messel's style had become unfashionable, having no sympathy with the new 'kitchen sink' school of theatre. He increasingly concentrated on non-theatrical painting and designing and eventually retired to the Caribbean, where he began a new career designing and building highly idiosyncratic luxury villas.

Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) played Cleopatra. Messel made the jewelled head-dress himself. He sketched in the facial features of Cleopatra, including the heavily kohl eye makeup, so that the final effect of the design can be more readily imagined.

Physical description

Costume design by Oliver Messel for Cleopatra's headdress in the Caesar and Cleopatra. A portrait sketch in ink, wash and gold paint with particular attention on the headdress.

Place of Origin

London (designed)

Date

1946 (designed)

Artist/maker

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

Materials and Techniques

Charcoal, pencil, ink, wash, paint, gouache and watercolour on paper

Marks and inscriptions

'CLEOPATRA 7 / Headdress / Achilles Surrender & Proclamation Scenes.'
Ink inscription on a label attached to the cellophane covering the sheet.

'48'
Ink inscription on the reverse of the mounting board.

'VICTORY NO 7.'
Ink inscription on the back of the board.

Dimensions

Height: 37.8 cm, Width: 25.1 cm

Object history note

The film of George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh, was directed by Gabriel Pascal and released in England in 1945. Messel designed the costumes and the set interiors. It was the only colour film which he designed.
Lord Snowdon, Oliver Messel's nephew, inherited Messel's remaining designs and artefacts (many designs were sold or given away during the artist's lifetime). The collection was briefly stored in a disused chapel in Kensington Palace before being placed on indefinite loan to the V&A Theatre Museum from 1981. The Oliver Messel Collection was purchased from Lord Snowdon in 2005 with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A.

Descriptive line

Design for Cleopatra's headdress designed by Oliver Messel ca.1945 for the film Caesar and Cleopatra, adapted from the play by George Bernard Shaw.

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

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)

Labels and date

12
DESIGN FOR A HEADDRESS FOR THE FILM CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA
1945

Oliver Messel was released from his war duties designing camouflage to work on the screen version of George Bernard Shaw’s play. Over 2,000 costumes were designed for the film, including headdresses and props. Messel would create a head and shoulders mount for his designs and then build the headdress directly on to it so that he could modify the design if needed.

Film by Gabriel Pascal, 1945

Charcoal, pencil, ink, wash, paint, gouache and watercolour on paper
Designed by Oliver Messel (1904–78)
Acquired with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund,
The Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A
Museum no. S.368-2006

[October 2013]

Production Note

Designed for the film of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, released in England in 1945.

Reason For Production: Commission

Materials

Paper; Charcoal; Watercolour; Pencil; Paint; Ink; Wash

Techniques

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

Categories

Entertainment & Leisure; Designs

Production Type

Design

Collection

Theatre and Performance Collection

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