Picks and Pans Review: Oliver Messel

updated 10/13/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 01:00AM

by Charles Castle

The subject of this suitably lavish biography is Oliver Messel, born in 1904 in London and best known as a theatrical designer. The Messel family was wealthy, made up of amateur artists and craftsmen, of a generation to whom art and beauty were reasons for living. Oliver's father and John Gielgud's father were business partners; actor Gielgud has supplied the foreword to this volume. The rest of the text is made up of long quotes from Oliver's letters, and from his sister Anne, household servants, friends, actors, Princess Margaret (Lord Snowdon, her ex-husband, is Messel's nephew). All are articulate, thoughtful and perceptive, and some are witty. They portray Messel as a sickly but brilliant child, a man whose career was marked by originality and ingenuity. No great painter, he had a taste for the stylish. He did plays, operas, films and ballets to great acclaim. During his last years, he moved to Barbados, where he died in 1978. This is the real stuff about a place and time in history that has inspired many wonderful novels: by the Waughs, by Iris Murdoch and others. Fans of the theater especially will find this book a treasure. (Thames and Hudson, $35)

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