OUR THEATRICAL ARCHITECTS
(SPECIALLY WRITTEN FOR THE ERA)
Stage-struck youngsters are a not uncommon product of modern society; but Mr 0. C. Wylson, of the firm of Wylson and Long, King William-street, Strand, is surely alone in the respect of having been possessed, from his youth upwards, with the desire not to act in, but to build theatres. It comes from no source that he can indicate. The elder Wylson, to be sure, was a very well-known architect in his day, though not of theatres - one of the founders of the Architects' Association, in fact; but died while his son was too young to succeed to, or acquire any interest in, the paternal practice. "But an architect I must be," says Mr Wylson, "and, after halting awhile before the pictorial art, an architect I became. A painter of pictures is in so unhappy a plight unless he attains to a very high rank. I was duly articled to Mr Arthur Cates, and also studied in the art course of University College, where I had the rare good fortune to carry off two silver medals - for fine art and for construction - in one year. There was nothing in the earlier surroundings of my professional career to associate me with theatrical life. As soon as I could practice on my own account, I did so, and I must show you a book of which I am very proud - my register of drawings, which begins with No. 1, and has now passed seven thousand. This cherished volume is the charge of a confidential clerk, whose jealous care will not permit another pen than his own to make an entry. It has been twice rebound, and is, I think, a record of personal work that many an architect of pretension could not show.
"My earliest observations of theatrical work chiefly resulted in filling me with a great wonder. How on earth, I thought, could an architect design so complicated a thing as a theatre? What do I think a fairly competent man of a general experience would make of a theatre? A most ungodly hash. If ever work demanded a special knowledge a theatre does. To be sure there are in various parts of the country theatres that have been designed by general practitioners, and have stood the test of many years' work. I account for it in this way - they were without such limitations of time and site as we have often, or, indeed, always, to encounter. They found out their mistakes during the leisurely process of erection, and deliberately rectified them until they got at something like the desired effect. Nowadays one has to send in a design, it may be in competition; and then, when it is approved, set to work and finish in a brief, arbitrarily appointed space of time. No time to experiment, even if one's client were agreeable.
"This practice, I may explain to you, is so divided that I do the theatrical business, my partner, Mr Long, devoting himself to the general work. Do I think there is enough theatrical work to justify it as an exclusive specialism? Lord bless you, yes! It is not only a question of London - leave out London for the moment; you can hardly have any idea of the vigour and extent of theatre and music hall building enterprise in the provinces. At the present moment I have in hand work that will involve a capital outlay of at least a quarter of million of money. Some of it lies around London; but the greater moiety in the provinces.
Let me show you Blackpool as a field for entertainment enterprise. Blackpool on its own account is nothing - at least, by comparison with Blackpool in its capacity of a holiday resort. Why, last Bank Holiday, upwards of three hundred thousand excursionists swarmed into that place. Think of it! When the railways could carry no more, the people sought Southport and crossed to Blackpool by water. Vehicular traffic in the streets on such an occasion is stopped by the crowds, and all these people have to be entertained. Already there are many spacious, palatial resorts - quite inadequate. The Winter Gardens have their theatre, the finest ballroom in the world, a magnificent pavilion which I have been transforming into a variety theatre, a palm house in process of erection to my designs - I am architect to the Winter Gardens Company.
Right - The Winter Gardens Theatre, formerly the Pavilion Theatre, at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool - From a 1938 programme for the Winter Gardens Complex - Caption reads: -'THE GRAND PAVILION as painted by FORTUNINO MATANIA, R.I. The spacious Winter Gardens Theatre, once famous for its annual spectacular ballet revues, but which is now renowned for its premier presentation; of film classics. However, the artist in this picture is thinking of the future and the return of the glory of the living stage.'
"There is the Tower, not to enumerate various other resorts. And there is the Alhambra estate, in the development of which I am now at workroom for all of them! (See image below). The Alhambra is a tremendous undertaking, and was set about in a curious way. The directors, anxious to make the most of their estate, commissioned three architects to submit plans, paying in each case a proper fee. Mine were selected. Thereafter, the late Mr Phipps, a man for whom I had the highest possible esteem, suggested that the three competitors should meet and compare plans for our mutual instruction. It seemed to me a very pleasant thing to do, and I accepted Mr Phipps's invitation - the third competitor did not. The most interesting part of the business is that my plans included a circus of novel construction - a ring contained in an ellipse, and that the same idea had occurred to Mr Phipps.
"Another great provincial scheme in which I am concerned at the moment is for the exploitation of Plymouth. I am also rebuilding the Colosseum at Dalston, and I am in the thick of consultation with Mr George Payne as to his new theatre nearly opposite St. Pancras Station. My first work of real importance in the theatrical way was the Oxford. There, of course, I was limited by the site of the old house. I am particularly proud of the front of the Oxford, and content to let it stand as an example of my work. The Oxford brought me into contact with a number of gentlemen - Mr Payne and Mr Newson-Smith for instance, with whom I subsequently developed an honoured friendship. The reconstruction of the South London, the Bath and Bristol houses were consequent commissions. The use of two tiers, and even of one tier, is the noteworthy feature of modern designs for theatres - there need, in my opinion, by the way, be no radical difference between a dramatic house and a variety house; the one building might be used almost indiscriminately. But the exigencies of a site might still dictate the old-fashioned use of tiers - it is not obsolete. And in fact, in one instance I am adopting a scheme of one tier just now."
One caught Mr Wylson on the eve of departure to the Continent for a short holiday, which he meant to combine with business to the extent of reviewing a number of famous theatres. "Do you think, then, Mr Wylson, that we have so much to learn from them in the respect of theatre structure?" one asks. "We have," says he, " but for a particular reason, which I will quickly explain. There are on the Continent State theatres, Court theatres, subscription theatres, and theatres conducted by private enterprise. To three of these classes we have nothing in England that corresponds. A subsidised theatre starts with every possible advantage. There is no limitation as to site, there is no limitation as to expenditure. The architect in these circumstances can work his own constructive and decorative will, and it would be a disgrace to him indeed if he could not distinguish himself.
"Suppose that such a thing happen in England - that one have a free hand as to site and cost, what is the sequel? The enterprise must eventually appeal to the public, in the way of a commercial speculation. It is built; but it has no subsidy, and is dependent on the income that comes through its pay boxes. In the meantime, what with an enormous ground rent; what with the cost of construction, your ideal theatre is so heavily capitalised that it has to encounter a truly enormous difficulty in paying its way. To return, however, to your question about the famous theatres of the Continent, there is undoubtedly much to be learned from them. One does not desire to reproduce them, maybe; but one can get many an idea to manipulate as best he may with his limitations. I am afraid many so-styled or self-styled architects have too little enthusiasm for their art, or too little patience to acquire proficiency. Addressing themselves rather to financial operations, they are dependent on their draughtsmen. Enclose a selection of such men in separate compartments, equip them with paper and instruments, and see what they can show in an hour - theatre designs, or for that matter, other designs; and then you shall learn something, I think!"
From The Building News and Engineering Journal, December 6th 1889
Above - Hilldene House, Hampstead - From The Building News and Engineering Journal, December 6th 1889
This house, the residence of Mr. Long, has been arranged to provide four sitting rooms, an entrance hall, lavatory, and service department on the ground floor on an ordinary plot of ground 50ft. frontage.
The accommodation consists of dining-room, drawing-room, morning-room, and study, with lavatory and kitchen and offices on the ground floor. Four bedrooms, dressing-room, and bath-room, &c, on the first floor, and two bed rooms and full-size billiard-room above, all contained within the roof, this necessitating a special construction of the roof, the principal framing of which has been made a feature inside the rooms.
The principal staircase is of oak, with close moulded strings, bold, turned newels and balusters, the upper part of hall behind the stair case being formed as an alcove overlooking the entrance hall.
Above - Plans of Hilldene House - From The Building News and Engineering Journal, December 6th 1889
The house is faced all round with red pressed bricks from the Heather brickfields, Leicestershire, with arches and string courses of Lawrence's rubbed and gauged bricks, and the roof is covered with red tiles.
The above article and its accompanying images was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, December 6th 1889.
About James Wylson (Architect)
Obituary from the Building News and Engineering Journal, January 14th 1870
The decease of Mr. James Wylson, architect, which took place on the 6th inst., at his residence in Islington, will occasion among his large circle of personal friends, and others, a feeling of deep regret at the loss of one who was alike distinguished for the variety of his acquirements and general knowledge, as well as for his estimable social qualities in private life. In the former capacity, his leaning was decidedly to the practical and useful in science and art, his delight being in the study of mathematical or mechanical problems, no matter how abstruse, which his naturally ingenious turn of thought led him to consider could be devoted to good account; while, in the latter capacity, those who knew him best could best appreciate that frank geniality of disposition, and that ready flow of lively and instructive conversation which issued spontaneously, as it were, from the resources of his well stored mind. When, on such occasions, a new idea happened to be propounded, or some question appeared to be capable of further elucidation, he was invariably loth to let the matter drop until it had been sifted to the utmost; and he would frequently consult for the purpose one volume after another from the range of shelves at hand, till he was satisfied; nor was it an uncommon thing to find that many of the volumes had been already enriched by careful references or marginal notes in his own handwriting. From this remark it may be inferred that Mr. Wylson was emphatically a man of persevering research, and of method; such were, in truth, prominent traits in his character. His industry was most remarkable, nor less so his constant habit of "system" in even the minutest concerns. He had "a place for everything, and everything in its place." Indeed, but for this, it would have been impossible for him to have accomplished one-half of what he did in an incredibly short space of time; and this without in the least degree passing over things superficially.
Mr. Wylson was at all times, and on many subjects, a ready and accurate writer. Besides his frequent contributions to the current literature of the day, which were always more than merely acceptable, his versatility was displayed in his aptitude for writing poetry, especially of a humorous kind; this being coupled with a refined taste for music, in which he occasionally essayed his powers of composition; and his friends possess, in either the single or combined form, many clever effusions which had been struck off in the whim of the moment. This use of the pen in different ways would appear to have been resorted to by him as a real source of recreation, until the pressure of other duties imposed on it a comparative restriction, for, besides what appeared from time to time in print, the amount of "manuscript" he has left behind him would fill volumes, irrespective of certain important works which he was preparing for distinct publication.
He was one of the earliest contributors to the Builder, and an article by him which appeared in the' volume for 1844, upon "Cements," attracted, among others, considerable notice. He afterwards edited the "Engineer's Pocket-book," a very useful little publication; and in 1859 he published his "Mechanical Inventor's Guide,"a work which contains a mass of condensed information, designed to form a practical introduction to the principles and components of machinery, being further illustrated by copious diagrams, and a collection of nearly three hundred mechanical movements.
A few additional particulars respecting Mr. Wylson's general career will not be uninteresting. He was born in Glasgow in 1811, and served an articleship of five years in that city to an architect of the name of Weir, with whom he remained for four years afterwards. In 1836 he removed to Norwich, and was for a short time with Mr. John Brown, a well-known architect there. Upon reaching London he became the senior clerk in the office of Mr. Sydney Smirke, where he remained till the year 1843. About this period the writer of the present notice became acquainted with Mr. Wylson; being, in 1842, one of a few "Architectural Draughtsmen " who formed themselves into an "Association," with that gentleman at their head, Mr. Wylson being both the originator of the Society, and its first secretary. When circumstances led him to relinquish the latter office, he was presented by the Association, as a kind of testimonial, with a handsome pair of massive silver compasses, expressly designed for the purpose. The meetings of this association were first held in Castle-street, Holborn; they next met in Southampton-street, Strand, then at Lyon's Inn Hall, (also in the Strand, and since pulled down); and now, in a more developed form, they constitute the "Architectural Association," meeting in Conduit-street, Regent-street.
Mr. Wylson first established himself in practice in his native city, where he designed and carried out many important public and private works; among which may be mentioned, - an extensive range of "model" dwellings for the labouring classes ;" the Prince's Theatre, since taken down, the site being otherwise required; and S. Luke's Free Church. To the pulpit in the latter building he applied with success, in 1855, the theory of the parabolic form as a sound reflector. He also assisted in establishing the Glasgow Athenaum, and for his professional services rendered to that Institution, the Board presented him with a ticket of life-membership, besides electing him a director. In 1848 he received, out of 100 designs, the first premium for a plan for laying out the lands of Gilmore Hill for building purposes.
Upon his quitting Glasgow, in 1850, to return to London, he was honoured with a public dinner by invitation from the resident architects ; and we next find him occupying a responsible post in the office of the late Sir C. Barry. His future course became somewhat changed when he received the appointment (out of 55 candidates) of Surveyor to the "National Freehold Land Society," which he retained until his "department" was annulled by the trade in land being so seriously affected by the Crimean war. He was subsequently chosen (about ten years ago) Surveyor to the "Conservative Land Society," which office he continued to hold until his death, as also a similar office in the "United Land Company, Limited," which has been only comparatively recently established.
In the discharge of his multifarious duties, as in everything that he undertook, Mr. Wylson was truly indefatigable; a man of the strictest integrity, and so utterly unselfish that there is reason to think that this very conscientiousness tended to hasten his removal; inasmuch as, although subject of late years to severe attacks of a distressing complaint, it was with great illicitly that he could be paused, under any circumstances, even partially to relax his efforts; and he may be said to have died literally in harness. His remains are to be interred to-day in the Brompton Cemetery. J. D. W.
The above Obituary for James Wylson was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, January 14th 1870.
You may also be interested in visiting this page of the Dictionary of Scottish Architects Website where there is an image of James Wylson and Biographical details. The page also refers to Gilmorehill House, details of which can be found here.
Some of the archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: