Not currently on display at the V&A

Caesar and Cleopatra

Costume Design
ca. 1945 (designed)
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

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.

Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) played the role of Cleopatra. A good friend of Messel, she threatened to leave the film along with Messel when Pascal clashed with the designer over his wig design for one of Cleopatra’s attendants. Pascal gave in.

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.


Object details

Categories
Object type
TitleCaesar and Cleopatra (generic title)
Materials and techniques
Charcoal, pencil, paint, gouache and watercolour on paper
Brief description
Costume design for Cleopatra designed by Oliver Messel ca.1945 for the film Caesar and Cleopatra, adapted from the play by George Bernard Shaw.
Physical description
Costume design by Oliver Messel for Cleopatra in a film production of Caesar and Cleopatra. A full length view of a woman in a brown dress with gold trim. Silver cloak. Eygptian-style headdress. Gold sandals.
Dimensions
  • Height: 38cm
  • Width: 25.1cm
Production typeDesign
Marks and inscriptions
  • 'Oliver Messel' (Artist's signature in pencil on the bottom right hand corner on the front of the sheet.)
  • 'Fanal. / after Mark Anthony comes back' (Pencil inscription on the top left hand corner on the front of the sheet.)
Credit line
Acquired with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A
Object history
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.
Production
Designed for the film of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, released in England in 1945.

Reason For Production: Commission
Summary
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.

Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) played the role of Cleopatra. A good friend of Messel, she threatened to leave the film along with Messel when Pascal clashed with the designer over his wig design for one of Cleopatra’s attendants. Pascal gave in.

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.
Bibliographic reference
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)
Other number
ROT 5979 - TM Rotation Number
Collection
Accession number
S.367-2006

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Record createdSeptember 14, 2006
Record URL
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