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Frank Matcham - Theatre Architect

Edited from an article by Michael Sell from a 1977 programme for the Blackpool Grand Theatre

Frank Matcham's Theatres Index - An Interview with Frank Matchem

Frank MatchamThroughout the nineteenth century the approach to theatre building underwent considerable changes in the total number of premises as well as an increase, not only in the requirement for improved specialist provision for theatrical performance, but also in audience capacity. A major contributor to these changes, and one of the first 'theatre architects', as opposed to an architect who built an occasional theatre, was Matcham, who was responsible for a total of more than two hundred theatre designs throughout these islands.

Frank Matcham is, in many ways, a man of mystery. Little is known of his personal life and, although he is accepted as perhaps the most important of all theatre architects, the destruction by German bombers of the offices of the practice which bore his name has also meant that his professional records are incomplete. Born in 1854 in Newton Abbott, in Devon, as one of eight children, the family soon moved to Torquay. At the age of fourteen, Matcham was apprenticed to George Sondon Bridgman, a local architect and surveyor for whom he worked continuously, save for a short sojourn to London, until 1875. He then returned to the capital to become the assistant to T. Robinson, eminent in his profession, and architect and surveyor to the Lord Chamberlain. Within a short period of time Frank Matcham was attracted by his employer's youngest daughter, Effie, whom he married early in 1878. (See note below.) This was to prove to be a year of great importance to Matcham because, within a few months of his marriage his father-in-law died, leaving him with a practice to run.

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw a considerable increase in safety and sanitary legislation, and theatres were in no way exempt from the attentions of both Parliament and the local authorities. There is no doubt that there was a need to regulate theatre building from a safety aspect, and particular concern was felt at the large number of theatre fires which occurred both in England and overseas. Some 91 major fires were reported in the British Isles in the period 1870-1900, and the concern which this raised, particularly after the disaster at Phipp's Exeter Theatre Royal, when 180 were killed and more than 100 injured, meant that Matcham. was very involved with the evolution of the modern theatre of today with its great emphasis on safety.

A programme for the Elephant & Castle TheatreRobinson had already produced some theatre designs and, on his death, his son-in-law became responsible for the construction of the Elephant and Castle Theatre in London which, with its elephant motifs introduced the oriental styles, both Moorish and Indian, which characterised many theatre buildings of the late Victorian and the Edwardian eras. Yet it was C. J. Phipps (1835-97) who was the pre-eminent theatre architect at this time. His career started when he successfully competed for the design competition for the rebuilding of the Bath Theatre in 1863. This proved so successful that other similar work followed and for the next thirty years Phipps was constantly engaged in designing new theatres. Some of his designs which are still in use include the Garrick and Her Majesty's in London, The Northampton Repertory Theatre, and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.

The success of the Elephant and Castle enhanced Matcham's reputation and, thereafter, he was much in demand to build theatres until by 1888 he was directly involved with the construction of five theatres at one time as well as being involved with the preliminary negotiations and planning of others. His 1888 work load included such geographically diverse projects as the Alhambra, Brighton; the Mile End Empire; a new design for the third Grand Theatre, Islington; a major remodelling of the Grand Theatre, Douglas, Isle of Man, and preparatory work on the first Blackpool Opera House; the Theatre Royal, Bury; the Grand Theatre, Halifax; and the Theatre Royal at St. Helens. In addition, like Phipps, he had also prepared plans for the design competition for the New Theatre Circus and Market at Blackpool.

In the next few years the Matcham approach was introduced to theatres at Ashton-under-Lyne, Great Yarmouth, Southport, Portsmouth and Liverpool. Particularly important to his future at this time was the beginning of his association with Oswald Stoll and Edward Moss, which dates from about 1890.

It is at this point of his career that Frank Matcham, who was obviously known in Blackpool for his Opera House, was approached by Sergenson to build the Grand Theatre. This was not his only work of 1894. Indeed the Belfast Grand Opera House, The Birmingham Empire, the Opera House, Wakefield, the Brixton Theatre and the Bolton Grand Theatre were all completed in that year.

The London HippodromeThis prodigious work load continued throughout the nineties and into the first decade of the century; in fact Matcham worked right up until his death in 1920. Throughout this period Matcham's energies continued to be devoted to producing the most interesting of designs, particularly for the large circuits which had begun to be so important to the theatre business. It is his work with these organisations which marked him out to his contemporaries as a man of extraordinary vision, imagination and class. In 1900 he designed the 4,000 seat London Hippodrome for Sir Edward Moss as a theatre-circus; four years later he produced the London Coliseum for Oswald Stoll, whilst in 1910 he was engaged by the London Theatres of Variety to build the London Palladium, and in 1911 he designed the Victoria Palace. In addition to these larger theatres in London, and in the provinces, Matcham continued to design smaller houses, some unique in concept. For example, the Granville Theatre, Walham Green was decorated entirely in Doulton faience tiles which were easily washed, and was especially built for the comedians Dan Leno, Harry Randall and Herbert Campbell.

In designing over two hundred theatres it was obviously necessary for Matcham to be able to take some short cuts, and have some work pre-planned. In particular Matcham highly developed the use of steelwork. The theatres of Phipps and of the older school of architects were characterised by each tier being supported by pillars which badly interfered with sighting; those of Matcham are characterised by an increasing use of the cantilever principle for supporting balconies, indeed so much use did he make of this form of construction that he took out patents to enable him to remain in the forefront of theatre design. The use of this type of design had great advantages for the audience and it was particularly pleasing to the eye for it was possible to produce an uncluttered effect.

Matcham travelled widely in his attempts to provide theatre promoters with the best possible facilities. From early in his career he paid regular visits to France, Germany and Holland and, before completing the Coliseum he, and Stoll, paid a visit to America.

Major problems of this time were that of ventilation, and of draught. Matcham successfully solved these problems in the building of the Paragon Theatre in 1884 when he placed the air vents six feet above the ground thus eliminating draughts. He also incorporated an improved extract system above the sun burner. However, although he succeeded in removing draughts from the auditorium, many artistes would bear witness to the lack of attention which was paid to eradicating them backstage.

A programme for the Blackpool Grand TheatreSachs in his book 'Modern Opera Houses and Theatres' (1896) makes the point that theatre design is "governed in its requirements by investors", which means that theatre architecture was put into the hands of those who were "good planners, good constructors and businessmen, with the qualification of being able to provide for a maximum audience at a minimum outlay". That Matcham was able to fulfil these requirements is shown by the continual demand for his services. Furthermore he did so to suit the fashion and taste of the time (although Sachs would claim that this was poor taste). One of Matcham's greatest attributes was in being able to design so many theatres without the individual house being stereotyped. Mention has already been made of his use of Oriental embellishments in the auditorium, but he designed buildings in many styles, including Renaissance, Louis XVI, Italianate and Baroque. He was able to do this partially because he had a peculiar interest in the development of fibrous plaster techniques with which so many auditoria are finished. In 1890 Matcham had been let down by a French plaster company who misread the designs he sent them for the plasterwork of the new Theatre Royal, Bury, which, in consequence, was incomplete on the opening night. Thereafter he developed his own special fibrous plaster. Interior decor was also very important to him and on many occasions he worked with de Jong and Company, including the occasion of the building of The Blackpool Grand Theatre.

The breadth and scope of Matcham's work was immense, and he had to take certain steps to ensure that he had access to techniques which would mean that the promoters of theatre schemes would continue to use him. That he was the most prolific and most important of theatre architects of his age may be attributed to the fact that he was essentially a practical man with great flair and ingenuity in his approach to his work allied with an incredible speed of execution.

Matcham's greatest asset however was in being able to create an individual theatre with style and panache, and in being able to make a 3,000 seat theatre feel intimate. At every opportunity he attempted to make the auditorium decor and plasterwork vigorous yet controlled, free yet confident, sometimes garish yet always exciting and invariably with a fusion of styles within a general theme. This essentially English man never rested on his laurels. His capacity for hard work was enormous but in spite of having a powerful physique he often found himself working to capacity, particularly because he was assiduous in following the progress of all the buildings he designed through the construction period and of being present at the opening of the majority of them when he would normally deny his ability to make a speech but would merely ask 'Are you satisfied with your new theatre?'. Yet what little we know of him would indicate he was full of fun and humour. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 1911 he admitted to finding his relaxation in water colour painting and in music. There is no doubt that he also had the ability to encourage others and to make deep and lasting friendships. Two young architects who were apprenticed to him gained fame in their own right. W. G. R. Sprague was responsible for the design of many of London's playhouses including the Ambassadors, the St. Martin's Theatre, The Strand Theatre and Wyndham's, while Bertie Crewe built the Stoll Theatre (as it was later known) and a large number of Hippodromes for the Barrasford circuit, in addition to other projects.

The Grand Theatre, Blackpool, was the product of the vision and the energies of Frank Matcham. Like many theatres its existence has been threatened but because of the basic quality of its design it has survived and is now protected by Act of Parliament. The Public Enquiry which led to this protection heard evidence from many experts, and it is appropriate that their words should be recorded and remembered to ensure the continued life of this theatre:

"I estimate Frank Matcham as the most significant theatre architect of his day" (Dr. Richard Southern). "Matcham is the key figure in the most important age of theatre building in recent British history" (John Myerscough).

Above text edited from an article by Michael Sell in a programme for the Blackpool Grand Theatre 1977

See also Frank Matcham's Theatres Index

See also Robert Alexander Briggs' Invention of the Panic Bolt

You may also like to visit the website of The Frank Matcham Society here.

Note: It is stated in the article above that Frank Matcham married his employer's youngest daughter, Effie, whom he married early in 1878. Further research by Patricia Lovell suggests that his wife's name was actually Hannah Maria and that she was the daughter of Jethro Thomas Robinson and Hannah Beedham, born in the March quarter of 1858. The marriage date is stated above as being in 1878 but it seems to have taken place a year earlier in July 1877, on either the 8th or 9th of that month.

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