Seventy-five years after a catastrophic fire destroyed the centrepiece of a grand Sussex house, a garden inspired by one of the 20th century’s leading theatre designers has risen from its ashes.
The Garden in the Ruins at Nymans, a country estate now owned by the National Trust, pays homage to Oliver Messel, who was celebrated for his sumptuous sets and costumes on stage and screen.
Messel’s grandfather bought the estate, with 600 acres overlooking the hills and woods of the High Weald, in the 1890s. The family created extensive gardens filled with plants collected from all over the world.
Much of the house, which was remodelled by Messel’s parents as a mock medieval manor, was destroyed in the 1947 fire. The Great Hall, once a grand entertaining space with a minstrels’ gallery, wall tapestries and vaulted oak ceilings – “used for showing off, not everyday living”, said Nick Delves, an assistant head gardener at Nymans – has been left as a shell since the blaze.
But now, within the enclosed ruin, the new garden includes many plants introduced to western horticulture by the Messel family and their gardeners, all grown in giant planters and pots. Some are named after the family and the estate.
The space is divided by six decorated weathered steel screens, echoing the “flats” Messel used in his theatre scenery, creating intimate spaces beneath the open roof, and three water features. There are plans to add sculptures and topiary.
Delves, who designed the garden, said: “Oliver used gardens and landscapes extensively in his sets, such as statuary, topiary and viewpoints. As well as celebrating the unique plant collection found at Nymans, I wanted to reflect the importance of Messel’s theatre design work and creative flair.”
Messel, who died in 1978, became the highest-paid theatrical designer in Britain, and the first to receive a box office percentage. He created sets and costumes for plays, ballet and opera. Often his scenery would trigger applause as soon as the curtains opened.
His most famous production was Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in 1946, starring the legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn. It was recreated by the Royal Ballet in 2006, with sets and costumes based on Messel’s original designs.
He also undertook major interior design projects, including a suite, known as the Messel Suite, at the Dorchester in Park Lane, and painted portraits.
Although almost all his sets, costumes and props were discarded or recycled at the end of each production, the V&A holds about 10,000 items, including model sets, designs and letters from Messel’s personal collections.
In researching the design for the garden in the Nymans’ ruins, Delves met Messel’s nephew and biographer, Thomas Messel. “He relayed lots of personal reminiscences, and gave me an insight into Oliver’s creative thinking,” said Delves.
The garden took two years to design, but was then delayed for a further two years because of the Covid pandemic. Now, Delves is facing the challenge of drought and intense heat.
Alison Crook, the National Trust’s curator of living collections, said: “Nymans contains one of the most significant and eclectic living collections with the National Trust, showcasing a huge range of beautiful and unusual plants from all around the world.”
She said the Garden in the Ruins was a “lovely opportunity to see some of them in a smaller space”.