Or are you looking for Search the Archives?

Please complete the form to email this item.

Set design
  • Set design
    Messel, Oliver Hilary Sambourne, born 1904 - died 1978
  • Enlarge image

Set design

  • Place of origin:

    London (designed)

  • Date:

    1959 (designed)

  • Artist/Maker:

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

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Charcoal, pencil, Chinese white, ink and wash 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:


  • 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.

Messel designed costumes and sets for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play Suddenly Last Summer (1959). The disturbing story about the mystery surrounding the death of Sebastian, the poet son of the rich, eccentric Mrs. Venable, gave Messel the opportunity to create a fantastic, exotic garden which contributed to the dark atmosphere of the film. It starred Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, and was nominated for several Oscars, including two Oscars for Messel’s set designs.

Mrs. Venable tends the garden of her late son Sebastian. It forms a backdrop to key scenes, contributing to the unsettling atmosphere of the film. Messel achieved an exotic, strange look to the garden by using a mixture of natural and man-made materials.

Physical description

Set design by Oliver Messel for a seat by the shrine fountain in a film production of Suddenly Last Summer, 1959.

Place of Origin

London (designed)


1959 (designed)


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

Materials and Techniques

Charcoal, pencil, Chinese white, ink and wash on paper

Marks and inscriptions

'Oliver Messel'
Artist's signature in ink on the bottom right hand corner on the front of the sheet.

'The seat / by the shrine fountain.'
Ink inscription on the bottom right hand corner on the front of the sheet.


Height: 25.1 cm, Width: 37.9 cm

Object history note

Suddenly Last Summer, a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz with a screenplay by Gore Vidal from a play (1959) by Tennessee Williams. It featured Montgomery Clift as Dr. Cukrowicz, Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable and Elizabeth Taylor as Catherine Holly. Messel was nominated for two Oscars for his set designs.

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.

Descriptive line

Set design for the seat by the shrine fountain by Oliver Messel in the film of Tennessee Williams's play Suddenly Last Summer, 1959.

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)

Production Note

Reason For Production: Commission


Paper; Pencil; Charcoal; Ink; Wash; Kaolinite (pigment)


Drawing (image-making)


Entertainment & Leisure; Designs

Production Type



Theatre and Performance Collection

Large image request

Please confirm you are using these images within the following terms and conditions, by acknowledging each of the following key points:

Please let us know how you intend to use the images you will be downloading.