This is the first of our feature posts on the talks we will be offering at our LGBT History Month events at M Shed in February. For more details on the event, click here.
Wake Up and Dream is an introduction to the life of Oliver Messel, through the Oliver Messel Archive at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, presented by Gemma Brace
Designer, artist, maker, magician… Oliver Messel’s (1904-1978) career embraced a multitude of guises and, like his papier-mâché masks, allowed him to inhabit numerous social worlds and stages, moving between backstage and high society with ease. Often regarded as one of the twentieth century’s brightest theatrical stars, his imaginative and illusory design skills were in high demand. He appeared to implicitly understand the all-encompassing attention to detail required to transport audiences from modern life back to Ancient Egypt or Renaissance Italy, considering each element, from costume to staging.
However, his Personal Archive has many more stories to tell beyond the world of theatre, documenting his life as a gay man, a social campaigner and a member of the society set. These aspects of Messel’s life are illustrated through intimate photographs of family and friends capturing the cast of London’s ‘Bright Young Things’ alongside handwritten letters from Hollywood stars and touching notes between Messel and his longstanding partner Vagn-Riis-Hansen. These sit side-by-side with ethereal costumes and designs from fêted stage and screen productions, architectural drawings of Caribbean villas, advertising props, fabric swatches and illustrations, each object shining a light on Messel’s ability to turn his hand to all manner of artistic practice.
These objects weave together theatre, art and society, providing a glimpse into numerous worlds – both real and imagined. By revisiting these memories and searching out stories, the magic and mastery of an artist whose creative vision can be seen throughout all aspects of his making is revealed. Whether creating fleeting fantasies in papier-mâché and tulle or making them concrete in paint and stone, the Archive encourages us to both look back and reflect and to ‘wake up and dream’.