The Queen of Spades: the set model from a gothic British classic

Ahead of the restoration premiere of the gothic masterpiece The Queen of Spades at the BFI London Film Festival, curator Claire Smith explores the ornate contributions of theatre designer Oliver Messel.

The Queen of Spades (1949)BFI National Archive

Despite being overlooked for many years, The Queen of Spades (1949) is now recognised as a gothic masterpiece of 1940s cinema. A restoration from the original negative in the BFI National Archive, screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival, reminds us what a bold and powerful piece of filmmaking this is. Director Thorold Dickinson propels Pushkin’s supernatural tale of an ancient countess’s greed in old St Petersburg through all of the dark arts that film can offer: cinematography, performance and design all stand out as breathtakingly inventive. 

It wasn’t an easy journey to the screen. Filmed in Welwyn Garden City, the production was made on a very small postwar budget, on confined stages just behind the main railway line and adjacent to the art deco silos of the Shredded Wheat factory. With the factory’s industrial machinery and noise kicking in at 8.30am every morning, Dickinson found it a challenge to imagine himself in St Petersburg as he arrived each day. Shooting was constantly interrupted by the sound of passing trains. The film’s compromised budget quickly ran out, meaning that the 150 strong cast and crew had to adapt to new filming conditions as budget was secured and they raced to fabricate the ornate sets. 

The Queen of Spades (1949)BFI National Archive

The sets were designed by Oliver Messel. Messel, by this point, was the pre-eminent theatre designer of his generation. Cutting his professional teeth (at a startlingly young age) among the bright young things of the 1920s, his English romantic aesthetic chimed perfectly with a generation looking to escape the horrors of the Great War. 

It made Messel the ideal fit for a tale built around magic and the mind. The Queen of Spades is a world of interiors and interiority, and Messel furnished every corner with mystery. Rococo flourishes, faded grandeur, flickering candles, mercurial mirrors and architectural pieces capable of throwing the most ominous of shadows. The whole set is poetic, beguiling and bewitching. 

By the time that he worked on The Queen of Spades, Messel had five major film productions under his belt including The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). Having Messel attached to a production was capable of garnering more than a few headlines. He was a star designer, sitting alongside leading actors Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans. His style was unapologetic. As a 1948 article on The Queen of Spades put it:

Messel is anti-naturalistic, anti-austerity. ‘I am the enemy,’ he says, ‘of everything utilitarian’. He will not discuss modern clothes, and would refuse to dress a present-day film or play. All his work is an escape into the fairy-lands of fancy. Choosing as models the most elegant and artificial masters – Inigo Jones, Fragonard, Boucher, Carpaccio, Botticelli – he executes original arabesques, as it were, in their memory. It is all done with a grace as natural as a flower unfolding. And, provided one’s palate is inclined to the romantic, one can lean back and enjoy it all unrestrainedly.John Barber, ‘Oliver Messel – a Genius’, Leader Magazine, 15 May 1948

Growing up in a creative and playful household (Nymans, now in the care of the National Trust), fairytale worlds were a key part of Messel’s childhood. From his early youth, he made model houses, furniture and costumes from papier mâché, paints, wires and pipe cleaners that were not only decorative, but well-engineered. As he stepped into the spotlight, he was framed as a young prodigy; a man barely in his twenties who enjoyed almost overnight success. Messel always acknowledged the privilege that he enjoyed (“I bobbed in and out of Eton”) but made this part of his public persona, taking great delight in his connections. At the Slade School, he made paper and wax masks with artist Rex Whistler. By the age of 17, he was exhibiting these at Claridges Hotel. 

John Barber, ’Oliver Messel – a Genius’, Leader Magazine, 15 May 1948BFI National Archive

Yet, in interviews, he might shun the opportunity to share anecdotes for a visit to his studio, where he displayed a quieter, hands on approach. The designs he left behind in paper, fabric, plastic and wood are as beautiful as the realised sets. 

Oliver Messel’s set model for The Queen of Spades (1949)BFI National Archive

The BFI National Archive is home to an extraordinary set model, created by Messel during pre-production for The Queen of Spades. Messel approached set models just as he did his toy models at Nymans: whimsical, practical and attentive to contemporary materials. They are full of possibility. There is a strong sense of architectural proportions – working in half inch to the foot scale – easily interpreted by set builders and set dressers. But the playfulness remains. In one such detail, the bed’s pelmet is fringed with pipe cleaners, which simultaneously provide charm, structure and support. It is the essence of Messel. 

John Barber gives a sense of the studio from which such items emerged:

Within these white walls up in the roof, Messel frequently works all night. Someone comes in with a coffee, but nothing is said. The paint brush rattles against a tumbler, a design is help up to the mirror, and soon every level surface is covered with paintings laid out to dry. Hours are spent fiddling with new materials until helmets appear fashioned from pipe cleaners [a trick that Messel had perfected as a teenager], satin robes from rubber sheeting, silver and gold from painted leather, Queen Mab’s chariot itself from mousseline and plastered string. Messel is a pioneer of new materials: he was the first to use cellophane on the stage. Here he explores new possibilities with transparent and diaphanous materials. ‘Technicolor?’ He sighs. ‘The white isn’t white and every print is different. It’s so hit and miss. A strong red somewhere gets into all the other colours …John Barber, ‘Oliver Messel – a Genius’, Leader Magazine, 15 May 1948

The set model visualises the palatial apartment of the Countess Ranevskaya, which had to look like it had remained unchanged for 50 years. This provided a key question for the conservation of the 70-year-old model. How much age is just enough age – how much is intentional to the piece? We know from reports of the time that Messel designed Ravenskaya’s apartments to appear faded under dust and patina. Predating Charles Dickens’s Satis House (Great Expectations) by 30 years, Pushkin’s tale imbues the architecture with a symbolic quality, designed to represent the countess’s decaying and vulnerable soul. So a light clean was all that was in order; reattaching panels and ensuring that Messel’s original varnishing and ageing of the piece remained intact. 

Despite this attention to detail, Messel’s designs were challenging once realised. There was simply not enough room or budget to create a full-scale vision of St Petersburg. But Messel’s sets and Otto Heller’s camerawork came together in a beautiful partnership. As Keith Lodwick has illuminated elsewhere, the designer understood the power of the cinematographer to overcome the limitations of the studio floor. Point of view shots to imply space where there was none; wide-angle lenses to enlarge the little space there was (see the ballroom, in particular, for this trickery). Mirrors recur not only as a classic gothic metaphor for revealing more than face value, but also as a spatial device; leading and deceiving the eye. In one defining scene, as the countess visits the diabolic St Germain, a dizzying high-angle shot builds terror and manipulates scale in a way that confidently handles the supernatural dimensions of the film, using light to take us by the hand and through Messel’s sets into a physical and spiritual darkness. 

Oliver Messel’s costume concept for the Contessa Ravenskaya (Edith Evans) in The Queen of Spades (1949)BFI National Archive

Thorold Dickinson’s archive is held by the University of the Arts, London.

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