‘Will you and I be led back into a world of furnishing fantasy such as … the Prince Regent revelled in? [The Daily Telegraph, 14 July, 1953].
These were the words of a rather bewildered critic in June 1953, after viewing a pair of fantastical new suites opened earlier that month at The Dorchester Hotel in London, designed by the celebrated set, costume, and party confectioner, Oliver Messel. Whether intentionally or not, the review astutely hit upon a valuable point so often overlooked when considering the output of many British furniture makers and designers; the assessment of the life’s work of renowned furniture makers and designers should not be limited to their own output and direct copies, but to the designs and objects that inspired them and to those who followed. Historic pieces are often merely regarded as relics of a bygone age that delight only the most devout of furniture fanciers, but designers like Messel remind us of how mistaken these views are and this is self-evident in the Regency style interiors of the Dorchester Hotel.
Born in London on the 13th of January 1904, Oliver Messel attended Eton College (1917–21), leaving early to study painting at the Slade School of Fine Art. By the early 1930s he was one of Britain’s principal stage designers, having had great success with productions such as the Cochran Revues; his baroque style raised standards and attracted its own public. Operatic, ballet and film productions and royal command performances followed. He enjoyed an illustrious career, working with the Russian ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, and English theatrical manager and impresario, C. B. Cochran, as well stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh.
While the majority of his oeuvre was sadly ephemeral, the Dorchester was an example of his short but prolific contribution to twentieth-century British interiors and furniture designs. Despite having taken his first steps into this medium in the 1930s, these rooms were pivotal in the development of Messel’s work, being the first large scale project he executed, and remaining to this day one of the most comprehensive displays of his skill as a furniture designer. In keeping with his sets and costumes, the furniture he created illustrates a fantastical mixture of styles, from the baroque and rococo to the neoclassical and regency, dashed together with lashings of ingenuity and wit. However, it was arguably the latter he employed for his commission in the Dorchester Hotel.
Messel’s style is playful, but sits in a much broader context of Regency Revivalism popular in the first half of the twentieth century, with terms like ‘Vogue Regency’ denoting glamour and luxury. English designers like John Fowler used it to develop idiosyncratically English interiors. Indeed, in 1931, the renowned architectural historian, Christopher Hussey wrote in Country Life that it was the ‘Kinship between Regency and modern tastes’ that allowed the style to redevelop [J. Cornforth, The Inspiration of the Past (London, 1985) p. 60]. In this spirit Messel designed various pieces of furniture at the Dorchester which owed much to the designs of the period.
During the Regency period, periodicals such as Rudolph Ackermann's Repository of Arts (1809-1829) influenced English taste in fashion, architecture, and literature. The equivalent in the early twentieth-century was seen in magazines such as Vogue, The Architectural Review and Country Life, which published interiors by decorators such as Syrie Maugham , who created re-worked fantasies incorporating regency furniture designed by Thomas Hope, these images undoubtedly influencing Oliver Messel.
The Penthouse Room with Trafalgar chairs designed by Messel, 1953.
One of his most prominent creations in this style were various suites of black and gold japanned Trafalgar chairs (so called due to their peak in popularity around 1805), which as Rudolph Ackermann noted in 1809, were in ‘universal use’ having been reproduced by all manner of makers, from the most humble workshop to more important figures, such as the early nineteenth-century London chair maker, John Gee [S. Parissien, Regency Style (London, 1992), p. 200]. Indeed, by 1800 over sixty japanners were listed as working in London alone to meet this demand [S. Parissien, Regency Style (London, 1992), p. 200].
The Dressing Room of the Oliver Messel Suite with Trafalgar chairs designed by Messel, 1953.
Thanks to the burgeoning antiques trade in the early twentieth century, with veritable treasure troves like the Caledonian Road markets providing rich hunting ground for Messel (amongst other young designers, decorators, and collectors) these chairs were in plentiful supply and relatively affordable. Thus they became an interiors staple, being reproduced in influential publications like Basil Ionidies Colour and Interior Decoration (1926), or the Satirical Homes Sweet Homes, by Osbert Lancaster (1939). Consequently, by 1953 it was of little surprise that Messel chose to reinterpret them by employing craftsmen to execute his designs to a grand effect, during a time of post-war economic recovery. Messel complimented these chairs with small black and gilt japanned tables, that maintained regency and early Victorian aesthetics while embracing the typical surface finish and klismos type legs which were at the height of popularity.
The bedroom of the Oliver Messel Suite was perhaps the most striking example of regency inspired design. Beyond its vibrant yellow grosgrain covered walls, it featured a white X-framed stool, clearly inspired by Hope, Smith and Ackermann, but which like the Trafalgar chairs had become popular again in the 1920s and 30s.
The Bedroom of the Oliver Messel Suite (1953).
A pair of rosewood cabinets either side of the door to the Dressing Room were inspired by a combination of styles; the regency style cupboard doors are fitted with brass mesh reminiscent of bookcases supplied by Gillows.
Tatton Park library furnished with a suite of library furniture, including bookcases, by Gillows, 1811.
Interestingly, the overlapping pointed oval mesh in the doors of such cabinets - as well as larger bookcases used on many occasions by the latter - seems to have been the inspiration for other decorative elements in the suites such as the doors in the Penthouse Room. Possibly the most amusing and striking use of the style, when considering the links between past makers and Messel’s creations, is an impressive breakfront cabinet or chiffonier, designed by Messel for the Drawing Room of the Messel Suite.
The doorway of the Penthouse Room with the breakfront cabinet or chiffonier designed by Messel of similar overlapping motifs, 1953.
The concept of the chiffonier (despite its French name) was a distinctly British evolution of the continental commode, cultivated by late eighteenth and nineteenth century British makers such as Gillows, George Oakey, and John Mclean. As the British furniture designer, cabinet maker and publisher, George Smith noted in 1808, such a piece was ‘used chiefly for such books as are in constant use’ and thus represented an integral part of life for those who could afford one [R. Edwards, ‘Regency 1810-1830’, The Connoisseur, 1958, p. 51].
A breakfront cabinet designed by Oliver Messel for the Drawing Room of the Oliver Messel Suite, 1953.
The concave shelved sections either side of a enclosed central section is typical of original regency examples deriving from the French commode en encoignure, favoured by continental craftsmen such as Adam Weisweiler whose work would have been known to those British makers serving prestigious clients like the Prince of Wales at Carlton House. However, the decoration strayed from these prototypes demonstrating how the past can lead to fantasy. The term headed pilasters, with their imbricated pattern, hark back to the work of Palladian craftsmen, such as John Boson and Benjamin Goodison. Goodison used exactly such detailing for torchères likely designed by William Kent, with which Messel was acquainted having borrowed a pair at least twice for temporary spaces he designed.
Oliver Messel's dining room at 17 Pelham Place, featuring one of a pair of giltwood torchères, possibly by Benjamin Goodison or John Boson. Photograph by Henry Clarke, 1963.
The heads and feet of the term figures typically cast in bronze (as hinted by the painted patina), demonstrate the influence of Messel’s career in costume design with their striking similarity to the headdresses he designed in 1946 for Vivien Leigh in Anthony and Cleopatra, while playing to the regency interest in all things Egyptian. The faux marbled painted finish was a treatment which was often applied to regency architectural and decorative detailing such as skirting boards, but was not used on pieces of furniture, and so here it is a total fantasy of its designer [S. Parissien, Regency Style (London, 1992), p. 144]. Likewise, the application of mirrors to the doors instead of the typical mesh of Messel's breakfront cabinet or chiffonier (illustrated above) adds a sense of lightness to its composition in opposition to the weighty presence of regency originals.
Messel’s power of invention is indisputable but he clearly gained a great deal of inspiration from eighteenth-and-nineteenth century British furniture makers. Seduced by the Regency period with its opulence and fantasy, he mediated their designs through the lens of twentieth-century innovation. Nevertheless, the end result benefitted from the proportions and motifs of the furniture that preceded. Goodison, Gillows and Smith’s legacies are more evident in Messel’s furniture at the Dorchester Hotel than the work of designers and makers of any other period, and indeed could even be seen as the very heart of the schemes. The Daily Express summed it up ‘The total effect is wonderfully pretty. And the surprising thing is that the patron is not Covent Garden - but the proprietor of a staid London Hotel’ [Daily Express, 29 June 1953].