|Homage to the Queen|
Design for the Coronation Ballet
Oliver Messel, 1953
The Victoria & Albert Museum
“Homage to the Queen” was choreographed by Frederick Ashton as the Sadler's Wells Ballet tribute for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June, 1953. The production was performed at the Royal Opera House. We can tell from production notes which were made at the time that it appears that the production designer, Oliver Hilary Sambourne Messel, (1904 - 1978 ) conceived the ballet opening with an extravagant procession, incorporating both English folk and mythological figures which would close with an Apotheosis showing Elizabeth I as Queen of the Past, handing the Imperial orb to Elizabeth II as Queen of the Present. At the end of the opening, the image of the Queen would be left, as Messel put it, “surrounded with all the virtues and gifts.”
Messel, one of Britain’s leading theatrical designers of the 1930s through 1950s, envisioned this spectacle to be something like a 17th century Jacobean court masque in the manner of Inigo Jones and produced “lavish, fantastical designs” which managers of the ballet noted, “would have cost more than his sets and costumes for the main ballet.” Because of the potential expense, the stage procession of the homage was reduced to a simple entry for the queens of the four elements - Earth, Water, Fire and Air - and their attendant. Messel still got his way—partially. After the ballet, an apotheosis is performed wherein the spirit of the first Elizabeth passes the orb to the second. Here we see one of the storyboard images which Messel produced for his original concept of the homage ballet. This image shows the lion and the unicorn of the Royal arms. The sketch shows the two figures, dancing, facing each other, and carrying flowers which were to be presented to the Queen.
Lord Snowdon, onetime husband of Princess Margaret, and Oliver Messel's nephew, inherited Messel's theatrical designs and other artifacts. According to the V&A, “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.”