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Theatrical Architecture in 1878

From The ERA, 15th September 1878

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The Bristol Hippodrome - From a Period PostcardThe argument generally held respecting the Theatre is that it does not really matter how ugly its exterior may be because it is only used at night, and is only seen under an artificial light, but the change in manners in modern life materially alters the case, for, to begin with, Theatres are largely used in the day-time, and, as the Metropolis continues to expand, they will be doubtless used for day performances to a greater extent still. As a considerable space of ground is required for a Theatre we can easily understand why they are erected away from the main thoroughfares, but the Proprietors of Theatres find in many cases that it is a great advantage when the Theatre is so situated that it can be easily reached, and in these days of publicity what better advertisement can there be than the sight of the Theatre itself. A recent article in the Builder may be read with profit, especially by those who contemplate the erection of new Theatres.

Right - An example of a Theatre with a very small frontage in relation to its huge auditorium and stage is Frank Matcham's Bristol Hippodrome of 1912.

In the article referred to we find the following passage:- "In a large proportion of cases in London the Theatre, so far as externals go, is simply a large entrance-door, with more or less gew-gew decoration about it, and enlivened at night by various tawdry devices of illumination inferior in taste and design to what a tailor or purveyor 'to the Royal Family' will put up over his shop on a gala night. The reason for the retiring nature of theatrical property in regard to its frontages is, of course, obvious. Being almost always to be used by artificial light, or (in exceptional cases of daylight use) being a class of building which can easily be lighted from the roof, it is a natural result of economical giving and taking that the expense of new frontages should be spared, and that the Theatre should in a large number of instances be entirely regarded as an interior, got in, as may be most conveniently and inexpensively managed, amid existing house property, which can be left untouched, and in most cases undepreciated, or even raised in value, by the proximity of the place of amusement. Where this can be done it would, of course, be out of the question to expect that money should be expended on an effective exterior, unless those who supplied the capital saw very clearly that the expenditure on appearance would eventually tend to repay itself by its attractiveness, and in most cases, perhaps, it would be chimerical to expect this. Even, however, when nothing can be seen of the Theatre but its entrance to the stalls in one street, and the pit entrance up a side street, which the gamin is so eager to point out to every one who can be supposed to be looking for it, there is surely room for some improvement on the merely gin-palace style of lighting up and decorating which distinguishes almost all these entries, and gives on the very threshold the first impression of tawdriness and false glitter which runs through the whole idea of our theatrical decoration."

It must be confessed that there is some truth in this, which many of our more intelligent Managers and Theatrical Proprietors are beginning to see for themselves, and the result of their eyes being opened on this subject will, we doubt not, lead to great improvements in the Theatre of the future.

Quoting again from the same source, we find the following remarks:- "The short-coming of large modern Theatres architecturally seems to consist, first, in the absence of any attempt to utilise the real forms of the plan, and the requirements of the different portions of the building, as the basis of the general grouping of the design, and, secondly, in the employment of a conventionally florid and even tawdry decoration, which seems to be accepted as the right thing for a Theatre, which is, in fact, so decidedly accepted, that when we do meet with the same class of decoration in other positions we stigmatise it as 'theatrical,' and in so speaking convey the most marked condemnation of the taste of the designer. Taking the latter portion of the iniquity first, it is surely time that we should endeavour to impart a better class of design, a purer and more refined architectural treatment, to such a building as a Theatre. Unless we except a church, there is no kind of building in which the aesthetic part of architecture may rightly be so prominent, in comparison with the practical, as a Theatre. It is essentially a building for artistic purposes, often for the combination, one may say, of two or three arts. Yet in general it may certainly be said that there is hardly any class of building in which architectural refinement of style and detail is less considered. When money is expended on architectural embellishment, the great object seems to be to make the Theatre as showy as possible."

The Theatre Royal, Haymarket during the run of 'The Chalk Garden' in 1958 - Courtesy Gerry Atkins

Above - The Theatre Royal, Haymarket during the run of 'The Chalk Garden' in 1958 - Courtesy Gerry Atkins

In many cases of course, the value of the frontage in any prominent position is so great that the Proprietor of a Theatre is only too glad to utilise it for shops, &c. Many of the most important Theatres of London are, as playgoers are aware, completely built in. For example, Her Majesty's Theatre, one of the most beautiful to be seen anywhere so far as the interior is concerned, can scarcely be seen from without, yet the Haymarket makes a much more important appearance outwardly. The writer upholds a similar principle to that long ago advocated by Mr Ruskin. He says:- "The other fault which is to be found in the external treatment of the Theatre generally is the want of a breadth and simplicity of architectural treatment, expressing frankly and characteristically the real constructive ordinance of the building. The auditorium is always, according to present ideas as to seating an audience for seeing and hearings arranged on a curvilinear plan, which is almost invariably ignored in the architectural design, although a curved bounding line, on a large scale, is so universally effective in architecture, that it has not unfrequently been invented for the sake of effect when there was no practical call for it. But the modern Theatre-architect almost invariably conceals this true source of architectural effect behind a facing or facade of square design, which may just as well belong to a concert-room, a ball-room, or any other place for large public gatherings. The stage portion is almost necessarily a square block of buildings, and by absolute requirement it must rise pretty high above the auditorium ceiling, so as to allow space for the vertical hoisting of scenery. There is a real suggestion here for an unusual and powerful architectural contrast, but, instead of working this out into something striking, the Theatre-architect, in almost every case we can call to mind, contents himself with a big, ugly pile of roof, and hoping that no one will notice it much."

We can quite understand the scorn of the writer when he refers to the old-fashioned "pie-crust" style of decoration which used to be seen everywhere, round the front of the boxes, upon the ceiling of the Theatre, and above and around the proscenium, for he has now reached the auditorium, and expresses opinions respecting it which have not a little justice and truth. He says, "The old style of decoration makes an excellent framework for an extravaganza or ballet, with brilliant costumes and accompaniments, but it is much in the way of any entertainment in which acting is of more account than costume. The house is meant to look from, not to look at, and the eye should not be attracted by anything too strong or prominent on the spectator's side of the proscenium. The proscenium arch itself is capable of, and offers a natural opportunity for, a great deal of delicate and suggestive treatment of design."

The auditorium of the first Gaiety Theatre of 1868 - From 'The Lost Theatres Of London' Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson. We have recently referred to the elegance of the decorations at the Gaiety, where, above the proscenium, may be witnessed, in place of the tawdry ornamentation of which the writer complains, the labour of an artist of the first rank, Mr Stacy Marks.

Left - The auditorium of the Gaiety Theatre of 1868 - From 'The Lost Theatres Of London' Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson.

Continuing the subject of interior decorations the writer aims some hard blows at a certain kind of decoration when he says, "that if we hear such and such a Theatre has been newly decorated during the recess, we know that we shall find the proscenium a mass of coarse gilding, with commonplace emblems or monograms here and there, and that the ceiling and other places susceptible of decoration will be in keeping, the gilding being mostly laid on a quantity of raised pie-crust detail executed in papier-mache. The pie-crust is not quite so rampant as it used to be, but there is still a formidable amount of it to be met with. The object seems to be that everything should conduce to a general effect of glare and glitter. This would be considered bad taste in a drawing-room in howsoever rich a mansion, and would be hardly likely to be admitted to the same extent in a concert room, then why in a Theatre? As far as we can see, it merely arises from some vague tradition that Theatres, as places of recreation and relaxation for the evening, are expected to be gorgeous and brilliant in effect. But the fact is that the Theatre is exactly the place where this ought not to be. In the first place, it is emphatically an artistic entertainment, or, at least, should be, and, therefore, of all places, should show artistic refinement and taste in its embellishment, and, secondly, because to over-decorate the auditorium in this manner is really in antagonism with the object of the interior, which should be to concentrate the chief attention on the stage and its scenery and figures."

Here, we believe, the writer has just ground of complaint, for if the auditorium be too brilliant the effect must necessarily be to make the performers upon the stage look "dowdy," and all the stage appliances and scenery coarse and mean. This is obviated by the more liberal Managers placing costly furniture upon the stage, and for "interiors" the effect is very charming, but when we want upon the stage street scenes or landscape art a glittering auditorium destroys the illusion.

The above text was first published in the ERA, 15th September, 1878.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

You may also be interested in the following articles and pages on this site

Theatre Architects - Concert Halls and Assembly Rooms by Ernest Woodrow, 1895 - Modern Theatre Design from the 5th of August 1899 - The Victorian Era Exhibition 1897 - London's Lost Theatres - Article - London's Theatres and Music Halls Past and Present - London's Lost Theatres and Music Halls - London's Current West End Theatres - Britain's Provincial Theatres - London's Pre 1907 West End seating plans - London Theatreland Maps 1860 1882 1900 1951 2002 - Working Dimensions of London Theatre Stages 1960 - Stage Doors and their Keepers - The ERA Theatre Sketches

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