William George Robert Sprague, whose name was usually shortened to W. G. R. Sprague in contemporary reports, was a prolific Theatre Architect working during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of his Theatres, thought to have been about forty in all, have been lost over the years, but thankfully thirteen of them still survive, eight in London's West End. Sprague's birth place and date of birth is often quoted as having been New Zealand in 1863 or 1865, however, recent research by John Earl, the former Director of the Theatres Trust, has cleared this up and it is now known that Sprague was actually born in Ballarat, Australia, in 1863, his mother was the actress Dolores Drummond. The family moved to England whilst William was still a child and he was soon set up as an apprentice to the now renowned Theatre Architect, Frank Matcham at the age of just sixteen. Sprague completed his 'articled years' with another well known Theatre Architect, Walter Emden, and eventually shared an office with Theatre Architect Bertie Crewe before going on to have his own Theatre Design Practice - Many Thanks to John Earl for this information.
In the development of the suburban theatre Mr W. R. Sprague has played an important part. A life-long intimacy with Mr Charles Wilmot doubtless had much to do with the architect's confidence in Greater London as a field for theatrical enterprise. His first opportunity was the Metropole; one of his most recent achievements the Grand Theatre, Fulham - both landmarks in the progress of the suburban stage.
Mr Sprague laughs to scorn the suggestion that the exploitation of the suburbs is in the way of being overdone. The fact is, he says, that each new theatre seems to pay even better than its predecessors; and in these circumstances how can the supply be described as excessive? People who say that it is surely fail to appreciate the vastness of the cities surrounding this city of ours, and the growth of their population - in numbers, and also in the culture which finds its recreation at a theatre.
Left - W. G. R. Sprague's Grand Theatre, Fulham - From an early postcard.
That Mr Sprague should have adopted the profession of architecture is most natural, for his people have been artists through generations. He claims Samuel Drummond for a great grandfather. And being an architect, that he should devote himself to the construction of theatres is also natural, for his mother is the well-known actress Miss Dolores Drummond.
Mr Sprague was born in New Zealand, and spent his boyhood in Australasia. (See Introduction above for Sprague's correct birth details M.L.) There the friendship, already referred to, with Mr Charles Wilmot began. When the choice of a profession for the youngster came to be discussed, Mr Wilmot had an influential voice, and, in fact, placed Mr Sprague in the office of a well-known London architect, whence, in due course, he passed to another, both his principals being experienced designers of theatres. A special training Mr Sprague regards as absolutely essential to theatre design. The architect has to face problems that do not occur in any other class of work. Many of them, to be sure, have become quite a matter of course with the theatre architect of many years' particular experience.
One's query as to a sufficiency of work for the theatrical expert provokes a smile - Mr Sprague's reply is to submit a list of the theatres and music halls on which he is now engaged, fifteen in number. Prominent among them is the "lordly pleasure house" in hand for Mr Charles Wyndham - perhaps the most important commission as yet entrusted to the young architect. It is, as our readers are aware, situated in Charing-cross-road, northwards from the Garrick Theatre. The plans have been finally settled, and indicate a noble structure, with many special features that may not yet be discussed.
Mr Sprague is disposed to lay much stress on theatrical exteriors. Too often, says he, the thought of the architect has been confined to the interior - reached by a mean passage between shops and such like. Mr Sprague would have the temple of histrionic art imposing to the passer-by. He thinks that among the architectural beauties of a city the theatre should be prominent, and should, moreover, have a particular character. It was in this belief that he set to work on Mr Wyndham's theatre - so much is obvious from the plans.
Right - Wyndham's Theatre during the run of 'A Voyage Around My Father' in October 2006. - Photo M.L.
Various influences brought Mr Sprague and Mr Wyndham together, among them the success of the Grand Theatre at Fulham. To be sure, one cannot say this theatre shall be a reproduction of that theatre - the conditions vary so much, but especially the site. Fortunate, indeed, is the adventurer who lights upon a plot of land in a position suitable for a theatre which presents no difficulties to the designer. In the suburbs, of course, this is more frequently to be done than in the West-end, where the value and tenure of land make many a tempting site impossible. To make the very best of his site is the first consideration with the theatrical architect, and often taxes his ingenuity to the utmost. Then there is the question of suiting a house to its style of entertainment, and its general circumstances. Nothing, Mr Sprague thinks, is more foolish than to make a theatre too large; and a careful differentiation is particularly necessary in the suburbs. For a populous district of working folk, where melodrama at cheap prices is to be done, a vast theatre is suitable. In a "genteel" suburb such a house would frequently be half empty, and the fatal atmosphere of depression would be created. For such a locality a small, elegant theatre, always seeming prosperous, is the thing.
As to the principles of theatre construction Mr Sprague commits himself unreservedly to the two tier house. The objection often advanced by proprietors is that three or four tiers accommodate a greater number of persons on the same ground space. Mr Sprague joins issue. Used with a proper ingenuity the two tiers can he made to accommodate the same number of people as three tiers, making them ever so much more comfortable, and dividing the classes of playgoers quite as effectually. Mr Sprague has a hatred of obstructive pillars in the construction of a theatre, and the tendency of his studies has been to reduce and reduce them, till he uses none at all. The "sighting" of a house, sometime left to chance, and sometime the subject of vague experiment, should, to the expert architect, have become a matter of absolute certainty. Build your theatre such a way, and every occupant of a seat will indubitably have a clear view of the entire stage, which, by the way, Mr Sprague would "rake." He sees no virtue in a flat stage; and the particular vice that it robs the picture of perspective.
A favourite theme with Mr Sprague is the fireproofing of theatres. How many theatres, he wonders, that are theoretically fireproof, would burn like tinder, by reason of the "studding " freely used in their internal partition, and such like contrivances. "While we are about it." says he, "let us have our theatres absolutely fireproof. It is really a very simple matter. The cost is a little greater, very little, in fact, and recouped by the enormous saving in the rates of insurance.
Good bars Mr Sprague regards as most essential. He speaks not so much in respect of the convenience of the playgoer, but of the value that accrues to a theatrical property well equipped with bars. To a music hall they are of even greater importance. Mr Sprague, it will be noticed, is as much employed in the construction of music halls as of theatres. The general lines of the two buildings are similar; but there are differences. The music hall must have its promenades, its more liberal bar accommodation, its freer ventilation (for the tobacco smoke), and a more brilliant scheme of decoration. For a variety theatre, Mr Sprague is partial to Eastern styles, of which he is a sympathetic student.
Mr Sprague now regards his situation with some complacence. Work is coming in freely. But he has had his struggles in the past. When he began business on his own account, it was with no less than work involving capital expenditure of £30,000, which seemed promising enough, but the young architect had still his battles to fight. For his old friend, Charles Wilmot, he built the New Olympic - an unfortunate theatre, indeed, but spacious and convenient. An economic style of decoration had to be adopted, but if ever the tide of popular favour should be brought to the doors of the New Olympic it could be made into a very handsome theatre indeed. For Mr Mulholland, disposed toward the district of Camberwell, Mr Sprague found the particular site on which the Metropole was erected - what an impetus the success of that house gave to the suburban theatre.
At the outset Mr Sprague was concerned in the Brixton Theatre, which, however, passed into other hands, and through not a few vicissitudes ere it was completed. The Shakespeare Theatre at Clapham is his work. Most recently the Grand Theatre, Fulham. Our columns have lately recorded the opening of the Lyceum, Newport, and the Lyceum, Sheffield. So many samples of achievement.
Among the many works Mr Sprague has in hand at this moment may be mentioned the Broadway Theatre, Deptford, and the Coronet, Notting-hill-gate. A. handsome theatre at Camden-town is looming in the distance. Empires are in store for Stratford and for Holloway. Morton's Theatre at Greenwich is to be reconstructed and beautified, in fact, Mr Sprague is so busy that he has hardly time to put pencil to paper; and none at all for the pleasant pastime of - going to the theatre.
W. G. R Sprague's Theatres of 1898
The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the many Theatres W. G. R. Sprague was involved with in just one year of his prolific career in their November the 25th 1898 edition entitled:-
New Suburban Theatres
The following theatres are being erected from designs by Mr. W. G. R. Sprague: Coronet Theatre, Nottinghill-gate, which is on the eve of completion, and the Princess of Wales Theatre, in Kennington Park-road, is to be opened in December. This house occupies almost an ideal site, having a frontage of about 80ft. to Kennington Park-road, 150ft. to South-place, 90ft. to De Laune-street. The whole of the main frontage is of white Portland stone. The elevations are of Italian Renaissance character. The more expensive parts of the house are entered from Kennington-road by a few broad steps running the entire length of the 50ft. wide stone colonnade into a vestibule or lobby, and thence to the grand crush-room. This apartment is one of the features of the building, having a length of 42ft. and a width of 22ft.
The Empire Theatre of Varieties, in the Broadway, Stratford, is already roofed in, and will be opened in the coming spring.
At the new Empire, which is being erected in the Holloway-road, the gallery level has almost been reached, and this house is also expected to be ready for opening by the spring.
At the Royal Duchess Theatre at Balham the builders have already reached the dress-circle level, and the theatre will be opened next spring.
At the Terriss Theatre at Rotherhithe the foundations are dug, and the house will be erected and opened as early as possible next year.
The plans of a new theatre at Camden-town for Mr. Saunders have also been prepared by Mr. Sprague.
The above text was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, November the 25th 1898.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
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