When, a few years ago, I bought a copy of Ernst Toller’s Brokenbrow (1926) for its brilliant illustrations by George Grosz, I didn’t take much notice of the bookplate. Recently, I took another look and discovered that it was made for Rudolph Messel, Oxford friend of Evelyn Waugh in the early twenties and one of the lesser known members of the 'Hypocrites Club'.
Born in 1905, the son of wealthy stockbroker Harold George Messel, art was part of Rudolph’s heritage. Famous stage designer Oliver Messel was his cousin and his aunt Maud was daughter of the celebrated Punch cartoonist Linley Sambourne. In 1918, when he was 13 he lost his mother. On his father’s death two years later Rudolph may have become a ward of his uncle Leonard, who in 1915 had inherited Nymans, in Sussex, from his father Ludwig (also a stockbroker ).While Leonard was transforming the gardens of Nymans and filling the mansion with costly art works from around Europe, his nephew Rudolph was living an effete life at Oxford as a member of the notorious Hypocrites Club, whose more famous members included Evelyn Waugh, Terence Greenidge and Lord David Cecil. In 1926, aged 21, Rudolph stayed for a few days on Lundy with Greenidge, probably on the recommendation of Waugh, who had visited the island two years earlier with some fellow Hypocrites. Greenidge and Messel had interests in common . Both liked dogs and both were keen on film. The eccentric Greenidge was perhaps a little keener on dogs than was Messel and attracted attention on Lundy by a habit of kissing his pooch on the mouth.
As a student Rudolph boasted that he intended to write a full length study of film-making which he would call This Film Business. The book, duly published in1928, was advertised as the first serious study of the cinema. It was well received and is still highly regarded by cinema historians. Messel is known to have published just one other book, Refuge in the Andes (1939 ).
In Oct 1947, like his Oxford contemporary Betjeman before him, Messel married the daughter of a Field Marshall, in this case the Hon Judith Horatia Birdwood, daughter of Lord Birdwood, and the pair retired to live a life of rural bliss at the Victorian Ford House, Drewsteignton, on the edge of Dartmoor. It was Judith who designed the bookplate for her husband as a 1949 Valentine’s Day gift. The design consists of a cartouche bearing Messel’s initials around which are arranged symbolic images of his life. Going clockwise we see a typewriter followed by books, a bottle of Gordon’s gin, a tankard, a flagon of cider, a sheaf of corn and a harvest fork, a packet of cigarettes, and lastly, a sheet of music.
Messel died in 1958 at the early age of 53, possibly due to an over fondness for gin, cider and cigarettes. Oddly, Rudolph’s cousin Oliver features several times in Humphrey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation (1989), but there is no mention of Rudolph.
Today, you can buy Rudolph and Judith’s former home in Drewsteignton, albeit with several modern alterations that doubtless would not have met with their approval. With its 7 bedrooms, this Victorian mansion stands in extensive grounds, and can be had for a very reasonable £1.3M [RH]