Survey of London: Volume 35, the theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1970.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
CHAPTER VI. Covent Garden Theatre and the Royal Opera House: the Buildings
Edward Shepherd's Theatre of 1731–2
The most important item of graphic evidence relating to the first Covent Garden Theatre is Gabriel-Martin Dumont's highly informative plan and section of c. 1774. (fn. 1) This engraving (Plate 40) was probably based on a careful survey of the building after an extensive addition had been made north of the stage, but what is shown of the auditorium is largely confirmed by the documentary evidence, and by some early engravings of performances showing the proscenium and flanking boxes.
On 2 March 1730/1 The Daily Advertiser reported that 'the New Theatre which is to be built in Covent-Garden will be after the Model of the Opera-House in the Hay-Market; and by the Draught that has been approved of for the same, it's said it will exceed the Opera-House in Magnificence of Structure'. On the other hand, the articles of agreement, signed on 3 June 1731 by John Rich and Edward Shepherd, (fn. 5) seem to suggest that the new theatre was to be modelled on the Lincoln's Inn playhouse, rebuilt in c. 1713–14 by Christopher Rich, although this in turn probably derived from Wren's Drury Lane of 1672–4 and Vanbrugh's Haymarket opera house of 1704–5 as altered in 1707–8. Dumont's plan and section show that Covent Garden was basically similar to the earlier theatres except for the greater depth and capacity of its two galleries.
In his bill of complaint against Shepherd, Rich refers to the articles of agreement whereby Shepherd covenanted that he would before Michaelmas 1732 erect and build a theatre with all the appurtenances thereunto appertaining 'with the best of Materialls and Workmanship and according to the Dimensions in the Plan or Sections thereunto annexed (fn. 2) . . . and (among other things) That the Stage the Front and Side Boxes Gallarys and Benches should be finished in as good a manner in all respects as those at the Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields (Except the Lineing of the Boxes and Seat Coverings History Painting Gilding all Glasses which were not to be done by the said Edward Shepherd but by your Orator) [i.e. Rich]. That the Vaults under the intended Great Lobby and the Boxes and Passages leading thereto should be Joyced and boarded. That the outside Passages where no Rooms were intended to be built over should be Roofed and Tyled with Glazed Pantiles or plain Tiles . . . and should be paved with Purbeck Stone from end to end of the East and West sides of the said intended Theatre. That the Lodgements above the Stage for the flyings should be framed with good yellow Joysts to be Seven Inches by Nine Inches and the common Joysts Seven Inches by Three Inches covered with Yellow Deals without Sap on each Side of the Stage fifteen foot wide. That the Boxes over the Stage Door and the Boxes over the two Side Boxes adjoyneing to the Kings and Princes Boxes should be ornamented with Entabliture (as delineated in the said Plan). That there should be in and about the said Theatre as many staircases as designed by the said Plan. . . . The Musick Room Treasurers Box Keepers and other Offices and all other conveniencys necessarily appertaining to a Theatre (and as that at Lincolns Inn Fields) should be done and finished with good and substantiall yellow boarded floors without sap. And that a Carpenters Workshop a Painteing Roome Such Wardrobes and other conveniencys (as should be required by your Orator) should be made in the roofe of the said intended Theatre.' (fn. 5)
Dumont shows the stage, auditorium and great lobby contained in an oblong shell, internally some 112 feet in length north to south, and 56 feet wide, its massive brick side walls rising some 50 feet to support the timber-framed roof, pitched at 45 degrees and extending between the gabled north and south end walls. The west wall of the shell was adjoined by a four-storeyed range of the same length, some 20 feet wide, containing the theatre offices, Green Room, dressing-rooms and, at the south end, the entrances and main staircases to the boxes and galleries. The doors and windows in this range opened to a 10 feet wide passage, entered through the grand entrance in the north-east angle of the Piazza. A similar passage along the east side of the shell was joined at its north end by a branch leading to Bow Street, this serving as the pit entrance.
The north part of the shell was allotted to the stage, about 42 feet deep to the proscenium and 55 feet to the apron front. Dumont shows a raked floor with five sets of wing grooves, a wide trap for scenes at the back, and fly galleries some 20 feet above the floor. The forepart of the fanshaped auditorium contained the apron stage, an orchestra enclosure or 'musicians room' of roughly semi-elliptical shape, and a pit furnished with twelve rows of benches on a raked floor. The pit was approached by corridors under the side boxes, linked by a cross passage beneath the amphitheatre, a tier raised some 4 feet behind the pit and having six stepped rows of benches, divided by low partitions to form four narrow boxes on either side of the wide 'King's front box'. These amphitheatre or front boxes were served by a cross corridor entered directly from the great lobby, 56 feet long and 10 feet wide, which Dumont shows divided into three compartments, the large middle one furnished with two bureaux, presumably pay-boxes. Above the amphitheatre were the two large galleries, all three tiers having their front parapets at the same distance of some 40 feet from the proscenium. There were fourteen stepped rows of benches in the first gallery, which was pitched at an angle of 25 degrees, and sixteen in the second, pitched at 40 degrees. Both galleries were constructed of wood, with raking joists resting in front on four wooden posts, having iron cores, (fn. 6) spaced at nearly equal centres in line with the first row of benches. The rakers of the first gallery were supported at the back by the brick inner wall of the great lobby, and those of the second gallery by a row of wooden columns above the wall. Except for the back four rows, the second-gallery benches had the advantage of freedom from these sightobstructing posts. To avoid the costly curved construction used in Vanbrugh's opera house, the steppings and benches at Covent Garden were formed in straight lengths, five to each row, joined at angles to conform with shallow curves struck concentrically from a wide radius. The back-to-back spacing of the benches appears to have varied from about 2 feet 6 inches in the front boxes to 2 feet in the second gallery.
On either side of the auditorium were three tiers of shallow boxes, their generally straight fronts being canted away from the proscenium at an angle of 97 degrees to allow for the expansion of sound. Each upper tier was divided into seven boxes, three single and two double, but at stage level the first box was replaced by a proscenium door. Next to this was a stage box (the King's and Prince's boxes) forming the centre of a three-bay decorative feature, the box parapet projecting between two giant Corinthian plainshafted columns rising through two tiers of boxes to support a cornice which extended above a festooned frieze-band and across each flanking box, resting at either end on a carved term placed above a small Ionic column. (In Shepherd's answers to Rich's charges of neglect and bad workmanship, reference is made to these 'Thermes', which Rich had ordered to be done by his own carver. (fn. 5) ) The second-tier box parapet in the middle of this feature was decorated with an enriched lunette panel and the flanking boxes had balustrades, but elsewhere the gallery and box parapets were simply treated as panelled dadoes above cornices. To improve the passage of sound, the plain plaster ceiling above the auditorium was formed in three sloping planes, their pitch increasing towards the back of the house. The front slope, which formed a sounding-board above the apron and orchestra, was decorated by Jacopo Amiconi with a history painting in distemper, depicting Apollo and the Muses awarding the Laurel to Shakespeare. (fn. 7) The conjunction of this ceiling with the wall face above the three-bay feature left a triangular face which Dumont shows decorated with drapery festoons between husk pendants, the latter being continued down the pilasters dividing the third-tier boxes. Above the double boxes next to the second gallery were 'slips', affording a very limited view of the stage.
A satirical engraving of c. 1760, by Gerard Vandergucht (Plate 41b), gives a convincing picture of the proscenium and flanking boxes. The proscenium opening, 26 feet wide, was framed with giant pilasters having panelled shafts capped with scrolls, supporting an architrave adorned with a cartouche inscribed 'vivitur ingenio' and flanked with festooned garlands. Against the pilasters stood movable figures of Melpomene and Thalia, raised on bombé pedestals. This proscenium frame, seemingly derived from those created for the Stuart masques by Inigo Jones and John Webb, may well have been, like those, painted in trompe l'œil on a flat face partly cut in profile. The engraving confirms Dumont's section by showing an Ionic column against each proscenium door, while the box above has a balustraded parapet and a carved term supporting the crowning cornice.
The well-known engraving depicting the rioting in February 1763 (Plate 41c) shows some of the features referred to in Rich's bill of complaint, such as the gilded iron scrolls guarding the stage apron between the orchestra and the boxes, and the iron spikes on the parapets of the stage boxes. It confirms the general appearance of the proscenium, described above, and shows that the auditorium was illuminated by candle-branches on the columns and posts supporting the tiers, while the stage was lit by four coronas or hoopcandelabras.
In accordance with Rich's requirements, a carpenter's work-shop, scene-painting room, male actors' wardrobe, etc., were constructed in the lofty roof space above the auditorium. This somewhat cramped and inconveniently situated accommodation was later supplemented by the very spacious back-stage premises shown by Dumont and probably added between 1740 and 1760. Extending some 60 feet north of the main building, and having a frontage of 105 feet to Hart (now Floral) Street, this deep range provided three large rooms at stage level. The middle one, 34 feet wide and 43 feet deep, had a wide opening to the stage to which it formed an extension for deep perspective scenes, and for the spectacular processions for which Rich's productions were famous. At the north end was the stage door, flanked by dressing-rooms. An even larger room on the west side, 50 by 36 feet, was designed for use as a scenery store, and beneath it was a large rehearsal room. On the east side was a scene-painting room, 54 by 15 feet. Additional space for storing scenery was provided by building a long and narrow room extending above the pit passage on the east side of the shell.
The 'great entrance' to the theatre was located in the east end bay of the north side of the Piazza, and closed the vista along the east arcade of the portico buildings (Plate 41a). The panelled double doors to the entrance passage were hung in a large opening, almost square, set in an elaborate 'frontispiece' composed of two concentric arches, the inner recessed within a quadrantcurved reveal framed by the outer. These arches were dressed with moulded archivolts and engaged Ionic columns, their shafts broken with plain blocks, and the entablature-impost was carried across the doorway, below a tympanum decorated with a relief of the Royal Arms. Each side of the curved reveal contained a plain niche, and its soffit was enriched with two rings of coffers. This 'frontispiece' found little favour with contemporary critics, one describing it as 'a very expensive Piece of Work, but highly condemned by good Architects, as full of Absurdities'. (fn. 8) One 'good architect', William Kent, expressed his opinion in a letter to Lord Burlington, dated 16 November 1732, 'as for what you and I do, it may be esteem'd a hundred year hence, but at present does not look like it, by what I see doing in ye Arcad's in convent garding, Inigo thought proper to add a portico of the Tuscan order, but these wise head's have put an Ionick expencive portico in the rustick arches, for an Entrance into the absurd Building they have made'. (fn. 9)
The altered auditorium of 1782
The alterations and additions made to the theatre during its first fifty years of existence seem to have been generally directed towards improving the accommodation behind the scenes. As to the auditorium, The Town and Country Magazine for September 1775 remarked that 'Few alterations have been made . . . except the converting the slips into boxes, new painting it, and other necessary decorations'. (fn. 10) During the theatre's closure in 1782, however, Shepherd's fan-shaped auditorium was gutted to make way for a new one of parallel-sided plan. A long and laudatory notice in The Morning Chronicle begins by declaring that the new interior 'not only forms one of the most elegant, and beautiful coups d'œil that was ever seen within the walls of a playhouse, but is, taken altogether, as worthy of admiration, for its peculiarly nice adaptation to the purposes of a Theatre, as far as the skill and contrivance of Mr. Richards (fn. 3) (the artist who formed the design, and carried it into execution) in making so capital an improvement within the old walls of a House, now proved to have been built on erroneous principles'. Contrasting the advantages of the new auditorium with the defects of the old one, the writer noticed that 'the ground plan of the late Theatre was eight feet three inches wider at the back row of the pit, than at the curtain; in consequence of this error, all the spectators in the sideboxes were turned away from the stage: In the present Theatre, the back of the pit and the front of the stage are nearly parallel. The sound-board and pit cieling were formerly divided into two parts, making an obtuse angle inclining upwards from the front of the stage, where the curtain drops; this is now raised eight feet, and makes one entire level cieling.' (fn. 11)
The new floor below the pit benches was raised to give the occupants of the front rows a better view of the stage than they had previously enjoyed, while the surrounding gangway was sunk one step below the new floor level so that those standing there would not obstruct the view from the front boxes, where the seats were also raised by about 5 inches. Eight 'enclosed boxes', entered directly from the back lobby, were introduced behind the front boxes. (fn. 4) The first (twoshilling) gallery was raised by 2 feet 6 inches to provide more headroom in the boxes below, whereas the upper (one-shilling) gallery was 5 feet lower than its predecessor, the depth being reduced by five rows so that it no longer overhung the five front rows of the lower gallery, which were also free from obstructive columns. The three tiers of side boxes were equally divided into compartments containing the same number of benches, all of the same length and breadth, except that the second-tier boxes next to the lower gallery were 'considerably enlarged and made much more commodious (fn. 5). Above the side boxes were slips, reached by way of the new lower gallery entrances in the Piazza and Bow Street. A new entrance to the upper gallery was provided 'within three yards of the gate in the Piazza'.
The first-tier front and side boxes were arranged in pairs behind a widely spaced colonnade of the Ionic order, the slender-shafted columns supporting a balustrade which formed the lowergallery parapet. Columns of the Corinthian order were similarly used to divide the upper tiers of side boxes, and the slips were 'bounded in front with a ballustrade'. All the columns were painted a light pearl colour, the fluting being 'a degree darker (of a green tint)', with gilding applied to the capitals and fillets. The balustrades and other ornaments were also gilt, as were parts of the mouldings. The ceiling was painted to represent 'a serene sky, in imitation of the Roman theatres'. Crimson festoon curtains ornamented the side and upper front boxes, which were Based on plans in Mr. Robert Eddison's collection, and on George Saunders, A Treatise on Theatres, 1790, Plate x lighted by small lustres suspended by chains in front of each column. The front boxes were illuminated by 'four lustres, and a large girandole ornamentally placed at each end'. An important change in the presentation of plays was made by removing the entrance doors to the stage from their original position below the side boxes, and placing them, below balconies, in the splayed sides of the proscenium frame 'at such an angle, as to be seen by the spectators on the same side'. An interior view (Plate 42a), possibly by Van Assen, conforms in most respects with the above description, although it shows the first colonnade with Corinthian instead of Ionic columns.
In his Treatise on Theatres, published in 1790, George Saunders includes two plans of the reconstructed auditorium, which he wrongly dates as 1784. The first plan shows the pit with the amphitheatre and side boxes, and the second shows the lower gallery (Plate 42c). Encroaching on the former stage space, the new auditorium was 86 feet deep from the proscenium to the back wall of the old shell, 56 feet wide between the shell walls, and 31 feet 6 inches high from the stage floor to the ceiling 'which slopes upwards to make room for the upper gallery'. The front part of the auditorium was no longer fan-shaped but uniformly 38 feet 6 inches wide, the side boxes having been rebuilt so that their straight parapets were parallel with the shell walls. The two upper tiers each contained five pairs of boxes, and the lower tier a royal box and four pairs, all furnished with three stepped rows of benches. The stage apron and orchestra projected some 20 feet in front of the proscenium, leaving space for a pit 36 feet 6 inches deep, with seventeen rows of benches on its raked floor. Behind the pit was the raised amphitheatre, more capacious than before, being 18 feet deep and having eight stepped rows of benches divided by low lateral partitions into nine boxes. The first (two-shilling) gallery, with its parapet in line above that of the amphitheatre, was increased in depth to 30 feet 6 inches, with sixteen stepped rows of benches. The first five rows were free from obstructing columns or overhang by the second (one-shilling) gallery, which was now reduced to a depth of 21 feet 6 inches, with only eleven stepped rows of benches. Saunders' plans show that each gallery, in turn, was supported by two rows of four widely spaced columns. All the new benches were set out to concentric curves but with uniformly cramped spacing, Saunders commenting that 'the public should not submit to be crowded into such narrow seats: 1 foot 9 inches is the whole space here allowed for seat and void'. He gives the capacity as—second gallery, 384; first gallery and slips, 700; front and side boxes, 729; and pit, 357, this making a total of 2,170.
With regard to the decorations, Saunders observed that 'Mr. Richards would have acted judiciously had he introduced more painted ornaments in lieu of projecting ones, which as a scene-painter I am rather surprised he did not. For example, the parapets of the gallery-fronts and upper boxes, which afforded opportunities for plain surfaces, are filled in with solid balusters; the others are divided into panels and tablets, with carved ornaments in the friezes; pilasters are placed at the sides of the gallery without the least apparent necessity, and the like all round the lower range of boxes, with decorative arches over; and all the partitions are lined with paper, and festoons of drapery hang in front; than which nothing can be more injurious to the progress of sound. . . . The frontispiece is such an one as no architect would have applied. Were a painted frame to be proposed for a picture, how would a connoisseur exclaim!' This last would seem to suggest that the old tradition persisted, of having a proscenium frame painted in trompe l'œil. (fn. 12)
Although he shows four instead of five bays of paired side boxes, Rowlandson's very comprehensive view of Covent Garden, published in 1786 (Plate 42b) almost certainly represents the auditorium described by Saunders. As in the plans, the stage box shown by Rowlandson has a segmental parapet and a canopy above, while the columns supporting the box tiers and galleries rise from pedestals breaking each parapet. The balustraded parapets of the two galleries, and the panelled fronts of the boxes with festooned draperies below them, are just as Saunders describes them. The proscenium splay, with its door and balustraded balcony, is much as shown on Saunders' plan.
The auditorium plans published by Saunders correspond in all important respects with two plans of the whole complex building, probably drawn from a survey made at an unspecified date but possibly around 1791, and forming part of a series of five drawings, now in the possession of Mr. Robert Eddison, which are attributed to William Capon, the scene painter and theatre architect (Plate 43). One of these plans, taken at basement level, shows the pit and its seating exactly as in Saunders. The other plan, of the first (two-shilling) gallery level, differs from Saunders in showing five wide boxes on either side instead of ten paired ones, while between the smaller end box and the canted partition wall on each side of the gallery is a space without seating, perhaps a 'slip' for standing spectators. This plan also shows how the new auditorium's encroachment on the former stage area had been amply compensated by demolishing the north end wall of the old shell, and extending the working stage by taking in part of the three large rooms in the Hart Street extension.
Henry Holland's reconstruction of 1792
The survey from which these plans were drawn may well have been made in connexion with Henry Holland's first proposals for another, more extensive reconstruction of Shepherd's building. This scheme is illustrated by the remaining drawings in the Capon set (Plates 44, 45b), one of which is entitled 'Design for a Model to be made on a scale of 4 inches to ten feet for the proposed new Theatre erected in 1792', although the drawing is inscribed November 1791. Holland proposed building within the old shell a deeper and wider auditorium of horseshoe plan, having a greatly increased capacity. The pit was to contain nineteen straight rows and one curved row backing against the wall below the first of the four horseshoe tiers. These were intended to be spaced at vertical intervals of 8 feet, below a flat ceiling covering the auditorium well. The front part of the first tier was to be three rows deep and divided by low partitions into twenty-three boxes, extending between the large King's and Prince's boxes flanking the stage apron. Behind the middle boxes was to be a slightly raised amphitheatre of eight rows, divided into seven large boxes, between standing spaces against the side walls. The second tier of three rows was to be divided into twentyseven boxes, but both the third and fourth tiers were to have ten boxes on either side of a gallery of fourteen rows. The massive side walls of the original building were to be penetrated with openings formed at intervals, providing access to the boxes and galleries from new corridors extending along either side of the shell. The new coffee room, already added to the south end of the shell, was to be flanked by two staircases, the west ovoid and the east circular in plan, and a capacious new box entrance was to be constructed within two existing houses fronting to Bow Street.
Holland's 'model' design represents a fusion of the established English and Continental auditorium forms by combining the deep galleries of the former with the horseshoe-shaped box tiers of the latter. Although no plans of the executed work appear to have survived, it is clear from descriptive accounts, and the well-known interior view in Robert Wilkinson's Theatrum Illustrata (Plate 46b), that the 'model' design was considerably modified in execution, although its most important feature, the horseshoe plan of the tiers, was retained.
The following description of the theatre as reconstructed by Holland has been based on the lengthy but often obscure account given in The Public Advertiser for 18 September 1792, which has been checked with Wilkinson's interior view. The 'model' design provided the general form of the new auditorium, which contained a pit and four straight-sided horseshoe tiers, the first three entirely given up to boxes, and the fourth to the two-shilling gallery. The straight-fronted apron stage was deeper than before, and the orchestra was 'very roomy, and more commodious than the old one, having a place for an organ, and the floor laid on an arch . . . to assist the general sound'. Wilkinson shows the pit furnished with twenty rows of seating as in the 'model' plan, all straight benches except the curved back row. The boxes in the first three tiers, or circles, were divided by console-shaped partitions, low in front but rising in a concave curve to meet the side walls or the slender cast-iron columns that were ranged in a semicircle to support the partly cantilevered upper tiers. The parapets were formed with a cymacurved profile 'very accommodating to those who sit in the front rows'. In the first-circle front boxes the first row was separated from the back rows by a low partition 'and a passage of communication', presumably a cross-aisle, 'yet the back rows look over them, and are as good a place for seeing and hearing as any in the house, though not so good for being seen and heard'. As Wilkinson's view shows, the second and third circles of boxes differed from those below 'only in respect of their height'. The fourth-tier, or gallery, seats were 'considerably elevated so as to give a complete uninterrupted view of the Stage'.
According to The Public Advertiser 'The general effect is that of a small Theatre, and we understand it is not calculated to hold many more than the old one. Every part of it is lined with the thinnest board, painted in water colours, as a means whereby the sound may come improved to the ear. The decorations are considerable, though not overcharged; a Theatre calls for dress as much as a Stage. The cieling [sic] is painted as a sky, the opening to which is surrounded by a ballustrade, supported by rich frames, which have their bearings on the walls, and on the proscenium. The proscenium is composed of pilasters and columns of the Corinthian order, fully enriched, having between them the stage doors, over which are the balcony Boxes. In the entablature to the order is introduced the old motto," Veluti in Speculum", and over the entablature is a cove enriched with antique foliage on each side of the Royal Arms. The soffit of the entablature forms the sounding board to the proscenium, and the cove is calculated to throw the voice forwards.' The 'swelling' fronts of the tiers had decorations 'of white and gold forming compartments, in each of which is a painting of gold colours on a pearl ground'. Throughout the house, the boxes were 'lined and ceiled with wainscot . . . not papered for the advantage of sound' but 'coloured red as suiting best the audience'. As to the gallery 'its decorations have been sufficiently attended to; it is neat, airy and lofty, and has a proper degree of elegance'.
The account in The Public Advertiser con cludes with a description of the circulation and amenities of the now very extensive theatre premises. 'Round every circle of Boxes, and to the Gallery, are very spacious corredors accessible by roomy staircases. In Hart Street a very large building has been erected for the Scene Painters, Scene Rooms, Green Room, Dressing Rooms, etc' Through this building there was a private entrance for the royal family to the state box. The stage door and box office were also in an additional building in Hart Street. 'The whole of the avenues to the Theatre have been altered and improved. The principal and new entrance is in Bow-street, under an antique Doric Portico, leading through a large and spacious staircase Saloon, handsomely fitted up and warmed by stoves, to the lower circle of Boxes, and to a double staircase that leads to the upper circles. In Bow-street the old way to the Pit and Gallery is preserved. From the Piazza in Covent-Garden the old Box entrance is preserved, leading by the Front Boxes round the House, and to the old Coffee Room, which is likewise preserved. . . . A new entrance is made to the Pit, and a new double staircase to the Gallery.' These improvements and additions are clearly delineated on an undated plan (fn. 13) (Plate 45a) showing the whole complex of buildings belonging to the theatre, of which the original shell of 1731–2 now formed a relatively small nucleus. Much of Holland's work involved altering and extending existing houses in Bow Street (Plate 48), but the building on the west side of the stage was entirely new. The Hart Street front (Plate 45b) was a simple and elegant composition, three storeys high and five windows wide, the ground floor dressed with a Doric order and the lofty first floor having roundarched windows.
The absence of a second, one-shilling, gallery in the new house gave rise to riotous scenes on the opening night of 17 September 1792, which were only ended by the management's promise to reinstate that accommodation as soon as possible. Within a fortnight a temporary measure was effected by partitioning off some seats in the twoshilling gallery. (fn. 14) When the theatre re-opened for the season in September 1793, it presented 'a still more beautiful face to the Public than it did before. The mode of introducing an Upper Gallery, the elegance of the Ceiling, and the lightness of the decorations, added to the uncommonly convenient space allowed those of the audience who sit aloft for breathing room, contribute much to the general effect of the coup d'œil, and give a relief and wholeness to the appearance that render it striking, beautiful and grand.' (fn. 15) Further changes, mostly affecting the decorations, were made in time for the re-opening in September 1794, when it was reported that the 'frontispiece', or proscenium, was new 'and a pelastre [sic] next the green curtain, instead of a column as formerly, with different ornaments, it is now of a delicate fawn colour with green gold panels, and a beautiful troylage [i.e. trellis] of gold on the pannels of the pilastres and front of the boxes over the stage doors—green satten wood doors and gold mouldings. The ceiling is entirely new, and the painted gallery which impeded the sight from the one shilling gallery, is removed by a slope.' (fn. 16) In 1796 the centre boxes in the second and third tiers were enlarged, and the entrances and lobbies improved. (fn. 17) After this, apart from the annual redecoration, no changes worth recording were made in the auditorium until 1803, when it was reported in September that 'all the front boxes on both tiers have been enlarged by the addition of one seat capable of accommodating each with ease, six persons more than they held last season. The slips, or rather the side continuation of the two shilling gallery to the stage, are now converted into boxes. The frontispiece has been raised ten feet, and sixteen private boxes have been added. . . . The ceiling is ornamented in the antique manner, without any of its heaviness. . . . All the improvements have been made under the direction of Mr. Creswell [a scene painter] and Mr. Philips.' (fn. 18) The effect of these latest changes is admirably depicted in the aquatint by Pugin and Rowlandson in the first volume of The Microcosm of London (Plate 47b).
The theatre was completely destroyed by fire on 20 September 1808.
Sir Robert Smirke's Theatre Royal of 1809
Built in the remarkably short space of ten months, the Covent Garden Theatre Royal of 1809 was (Sir) Robert Smirke's first important undertaking, and one of the earliest Greek Revival buildings in London. Among the finest and largest theatres in Europe, it was, unlike its predecessor, fully insular, almost completely covering a site measuring some 218 feet north to south, and 166 feet east to west. Whether by intention or coincidence, the basic disposition of elements forming the old accretive theatre was repeated in the arrangement of the well-balanced but asymmetrical plan of the new building (Plates 52, 53). A lofty oblong shell, internally some 152 feet long and 82 feet wide, contained from north to south a three-storeyed range of scene painting and storage rooms, a stage 56 feet deep, and a fivetiered auditorium of horseshoe plan having side and back corridors. On either side of this shell was a lower range, about 35 feet wide, divided into dressing-rooms and scene-recesses flanking the stage, and public entrances, lobbies and staircases contiguous to the auditorium. The main entrance hall and principal staircase were on the east side, entered through the great portico in the middle of the Bow Street front. The royal saloon and staircase, and the secondary staircase to the boxes, were on the west side, reached by a private passage linking Hart Street to the Piazza. Entrance to the pit corridor was through a spacious loggia, forming the ground storey of a range, about 20 feet wide, at the south end of the main shell. Above the loggia were two saloons, a lower and an upper, serving the boxes. Below the pit floor, which was raised above ground level, was an extensive and lofty basement designated for use as stables.
The principal front, facing east to Bow Street, was 209 feet 3 inches long and 50 feet high (Plates 49, 50). Symmetrically composed, it was dominated by the Doric tetrastyle portico which projected between wide flanking wings and narrow end pavilions. According to contemporary accounts 'the Temple of Minerva, in the Acropolis of Athens, suggested the design for the portico . . . which is pure Grecian Doric'. (fn. 19) Raised on a podium of three steps, the fluted stone columns rose some 30 feet to support an entablature, having triglyphs and plain metopes, and a pediment having a plain tympanum. The flanking wings, of stucco-faced brick dressed with stone, were divided by a moulded stringcourse into two storeys. The low ground storey of each wing contained three plain segmental-arched openings, equally spaced at wide intervals, and in the lofty upper face were three corresponding windows, dressed alike with a moulded architrave, narrow frieze, and cornice. In the wall face above these windows extended a long panel containing a basrelief of figures carved by J. C. Rossi from models by John Flaxman, described below (Plate 51b). The end pavilions echoed the theme of the portico with their dressing of two plain-shafted pilasters supporting a triglyphed entablature, framing a wall face containing a large plain niche underlined by a continuation of the first-floor stringcourse. Each niche contained a stone statue carved by Rossi, the tragic muse Melpomene in the south, and the comic muse Thalia in the north (Plate 51a). Only the cornice of the crowning entablature was continued across the wings, and the whole front was uniformly finished with a tall parapet of pedestal form. This was returned all round the building, underlining the seven windows in the north face of the lofty attic stage of the main shell (Plate 51c). The long east and west faces of this attic were screen walls, penetrated at equal intervals by six wide segmentalheaded openings, through which projected sections of the main roof's eaves.
The Flaxman bas-relief panel in the north wing symbolized ancient drama, and that in the south wing modern drama (Plate 51b). A contemporary account states that Greek tragedy is represented by Aeschylus, with Minerva, Melpomene, and Bacchus, while two Furies pursue Orestes who implores the aid of Apollo, seated in his chariot. Aristophanes and Menander represent Greek comedy, and are attended by Thalia, Polyhymnia, Euterpe, Clio and Terpsichore, with Pegasus attended by three nymphs. Modern drama has Shakespeare and Milton. Shakespeare summons characters from The Tempest; beyond them is Hecate's car, with Lady Macbeth, and Macbeth recoiling from the murdered Duncan. Milton contemplates Urania and the chained Samson, and behind them are characters from the masque Comus. (fn. 20) These bas-reliefs are now arranged in one long and two short panels on the front of the present opera house.
Inside the portico were three doorways that opened to the main hall, of oblong plan divided laterally by Doric piers into a nave and aisles of three bays. Against the north wall of the nave stood a Grecian stove, and at the south end was a short flight of steps beginning the grand staircase. The first landing was flanked by wide piers with niches containing pay-boxes, near each of which was a 'Grecian lamp, elevated upon a column of [imitation] porphyry'. The staircase continued its rise southwards in a lofty oblong compartment, with two long flights extending between plain walls surmounted by colonnades of five bays, screening the side galleries extending from the top landing at the principal-floor level. The columns, of the Ionic order, had unfluted shafts 'imitated from porphyry', and in every intercolumniation was suspended a 'superb Grecian lamp' (Plate 56a, 56b). Each colonnade supported a plain architrave, from which rose a segmental barrel vault, its surface divided by guilloche bands into bays, all modelled with five oblong panels framing two square coffers containing flower bosses. At the head of the staircase, in the south wall of the compartment, was a handsome doorway giving access to an ante-room, ornamented with pilasters of imitation porphyry and containing a. focallyplaced statue of Shakespeare, carved by Rossi in yellow marble. On the west side of the ante-room were folding doors into the long corridor on the east side of the auditorium, giving access to the boxes in the first circle. At the south end of this corridor was an entrance to the semi-circular cross-corridor, with two staircases linking the three circles of boxes, and a central entrance to the lower saloon, a narrow oblong room decorated with pilasters of imitated porphyry and 'eight beautiful cast statues from the antique'. Of similar form, and 'originally appropriated to the private boxes', the upper saloon had at either end a stove recess flanked by Doric columns of imitated porphyry (fn. 21) (Plate 56c).
The west side entrance to the boxes, with twin staircases linked by a wide central landing space, was 'handsome, but not so elegant as that from Bow Street'. Adjoining to the north was the large D-shaped King's staircase and the King's saloon, adjacent to the King's box. These entrances, the pit entrance, and the gallery staircases, were approached by way of the old entrance in the north-east angle of the Piazza. (fn. 21)
The auditorium (Plates 54, 59) contained a raked pit with twenty-three straight benches, surrounded by four tiers of true horseshoe plan, the semi-circular sweep facing the stage having a diameter of 51 feet 6 inches, the same dimension as the depth of the auditorium well from the apron front. The first three tiers, or circles, were each divided into twenty-six boxes, the side ones three rows deep, and those in the centre varying from five to six rows. The first- and second-circle boxes were of the loge type, with low partitions, but those in the third tier were originally made more private by their ceiling-height partitions and anterooms, an innovation of Continental origin which provoked a storm of criticism. (fn. 22) The fourth circle was mostly allotted to the two-shilling gallery, with ten rows of benches extending between the two groups of eight boxes at the sides of the horseshoe. The one-shilling gallery, with four rows of benches, partly overhung all but the front three rows of the lower gallery and extended above the side corridors to the boxes, its benches affording a very limited view of the stage through a series of thirteen semi-circular arches groined into the cove surrounding the main ceiling. The apron stage extended between the reveals of a deep proscenium arch, each reveal containing a stage door and two boxes superimposed between giant Doric pilasters, their plain shafts painted to resemble Siena marble. These pilasters supported simple entablatures from which rose an arch of elliptical profile, its soffit painted with three rings of thirteen square coffers. The front face of the arch was decorated with a winged figure painted in pseudo-relief on each spandrel, and the Royal Arms were placed against an attic pedestal above the crowning entablature. This last was continued round the whole auditorium to form the parapet of the upper gallery, and to provide a springing for the groined arches and cove surrounding the ceiling, its slightly concave surface painted to resemble a saucer-dome with radial coffering and an outer ring of arabesque panels. The wall face behind the fourth-circle boxes appears to have been painted to resemble festooned red drapery: the circle parapets, painted with continuous bands of palmettes in gold on a dove-grey ground, were supported by slender fluted columns of gilt cast iron; and the pit wall was painted to resemble Siena marble. Except for the private boxes in the third tier, which were painted dovegrey, the prevailing background colour of the auditorium was pink, accentuated by the box doors of plain mahogany. Illumination was by chandeliers of glass and gilt metal, suspended from scrolled brackets of gilt ironwork projecting from the parapets of the second, third and fourth tiers, and centred above the supporting columns. The stage had a raked floor with six sets of wing grooves, a proscenium of adjustable width, a mezzanine and cellar basement, and fly-galleries at two levels. (fn. 23)
Smirke's lack of experience in theatre design led to serious defects in the auditorium, which had to be remedied during the seasonal closures of the theatre. On 10 September 1810 it was reported in The Times that the staircases linking the circles of boxes had been made 'much more commodious', and that the twelve centre boxes of the third tier had been 'thrown open' to accommodate 120 persons. The two-shilling gallery was given improved headroom, but the upper gallery and the side 'pigeon holes' in the ceiling cove were not altered until 1812, when The Times of 8 September remarked that the 'range of dens, sometimes tenanted by no unfit inhabitants, has now been thrown open, the arches removed, and those over the boxes, which only disfigured the house, judiciously closed altogether'. In 1813, or possibly in 1819, the proscenium was altered by removing the arched soffit and substituting an elliptical semi-dome, thus greatly improving the sighting from the upper parts of the house (compare Plate 54 with Plate 55b). All these changes brought the theatre to the state in which it was recorded around 1825 by Britton and Pugin, in Illustrations of the Public Buildings of London, where the auditorium is described as follows:
'The appearance of the house is very imposing: the colour is a subdued yellow, relieved by white, and superbly enriched with gilding. Around the dress circle are wreaths inclosing the Rose of England, in burnished gold; the first circle displays the Thistle of Scotland, and the second circle the Shamrock of Ireland: and these three emblems are alternately placed, with fancy devices, in rich borderings, &c., in every part of the Auditory; which, from the reflection of the lights, gratifies the prevalent taste for splendour with one blaze of refulgence. The back and sides of the pit are decorated by the representation of dark crimson drapery, as are the interiors of all the boxes; which produces a very effective contrast to the brilliancy of the front. The boxes are supported by small iron columns, fluted, and gilt. The ceiling, over what is called the slip boxes, exhibits pannels of blue, relieved by white, and enriched with gold. The middle part of the ceiling is circular; in the centre of which, from a richly-gilded glory, surrounding a circle of golden lyres, &c, is suspended a chandelier of glass, of the most superb description; illumined by two circles of gas lights: the remainder of the ceiling is a light blue sky, relieved by delicate white clouding. The cove of the proscenium, in the segment of a circle, contains the moiety of a rich gilded glory, and sky to match the ceiling, surrounded by a bordering of gold; in which, as well as round the ceiling, either fancy flowers are introduced, or representations of those national emblems, the Rose, &c. The proscenium is supported by four pilasters, painted to imitate Sienna marble. Stage doors are wholly dispensed with. The top of the proscenium, from whence the curtain descends, is an arch of about thirty-eight feet wide and three feet deep; surmounting a superb drapery border of crimson, white, and gold, elegantly disposed upon a transverse bar of gold, terminated on each side with a lion's head: in the centre of this drapery is the King's Arms. For the green curtain is substituted a drop, representing a luxuriant profusion of drapery; crimson, white, and gold, (to match the borders,) drawn up by cords and tassels; and disclosing part of the interior of a palace, supported by numerous Ionic columns; which has a most imposing appearance. There are also pilasters, imitative of Sienna marble, which slide backward and forward, in order to widen or contract the stage.' (fn. 24)
The public, or open boxes in the theatre contained about 1,200 people, the pit 750, the first gallery 350 and the second gallery 500, making a total of 2,800, exclusive of those in the private boxes. (fn. 25)
Benedict Albano's reconstruction of 1846–7
The ever declining fortunes of the proprietors and lessees prevented any further changes of importance being made to Smirke's theatre between 1819 and December 1846, when the auditorium area was gutted from roof to cellar to make way for a new interior designed on Italian principles. Benedict Albano, a civil engineer, was engaged by the promotors of this undertaking. 'He submitted three plans—one by which it would have been transformed into the largest theatre in the world, surpassing San Carlo and La Scala; a second smaller than those theatres; and a third which, though it gave additional tiers of private boxes, left the theatre of its original size. The second plan was adopted.' (fn. 26)
This skilfully organized operation, completed in four months, was fully described in The Builder in April 1847, in an account here summarized.
On 2 December 1846 the contractor began clearing the building of rubbish preparatory to demolishing the entire auditorium and the inner foundation walls, vaults, etc., to the depth of about 22 feet below the pit-corridor level. Some three weeks later work was begun on the walls carrying the cantilevered stone staircases linking the new box corridors, and the foundation walls bearing the two rings of cast-iron columns supporting the new lyre-shaped tiers, which were set out on a wider radius than before. The columns, 6 to 8 inches in diameter, were equally spaced, the front ring being 10 feet 4 inches and the back ring 11 feet 6 inches apart. The sixth tier of columns had flanges to which were fixed storeyposts, framed into the existing roof structure and supporting the cantilevered wooden framework for the new ceiling. This was constructed of thin battens nailed to ribs, forming a shallow dome of parabolic section and elliptical plan, some 70 feet long and 60 feet wide. The depth of the auditorium well was about 80 feet from the curtain line, its greatest width being 62 feet and its height 54 feet. The tier parapets, moulded to a serpentine profile, were successively recessed so that the topmost tier was 2 feet 3 inches behind the lowest. The proscenium opening, 46 feet wide, was framed by a deep splayed reveal, with three superimposed boxes on either side, flanked by Corinthian columns some 26 feet high, supporting entablatures and an arched soffit of elliptical form. The curved front of the apron stage projected 9 feet in front of the curtain line, and the orchestra pit, 12 feet 6 inches deep, accommodated eightyfive musicians.
There were 188 boxes in all, thirty in the first tier, thirty-four in the second and third, twentyeight in the fourth, fifth and sixth, and six in the proscenium. With six scats in each, the boxes held 1,128, the stalls stated 256 and the pit 263, the seven-row amphitheatres in the fourth and fifth tiers each seated 148, and the gallery held 300, bringing the total seating capacity to 2,243. With extra seats in the boxes, and standing patrons, the capacity could be increased to some 4,000, as it was on the opening night of 6 April 1847.
The auditorium (Plate 57) was opulently decorated in a florid Italian Renaissance style by Albano, who made considerably greater use of modelled ornament than had been the custom hitherto, thereby disregarding the observations and advice given by writers on theatre construction such as Patte and George Saunders. In spite of this it was generally agreed that the acoustics were well-nigh perfect. For the ornamental work he used a new material having a hemp basis and called Canabic, for which he held the patent. Female terms were used to encase the cast-iron columns supporting the tier parapets, each of which was enriched in a different way. The second tier exhibited a rich and continuous band of tall acanthus leaves; the third, fourth and fifth tiers had basically similar motifs composed of scrollwork and foliage flanking a central medallion, a lion's head, or a satyr's mask; while the sixth tier had a festooned floral garland with pendants below the columns.
The Corinthian columns flanking the proscenium boxes had fluted and cabled shafts, and the arched soffit, edged with enriched mouldings introducing naturalistic ornaments such as flowers and squirrels, was decorated with two large shaped panels containing painted medallions and arabesques, with a relief of the Royal Arms in the centre. Linking the arch with the main ceiling were two large spandrels adorned with figures on a gold ground, Britannia on the left side and Italia on the right. Except for the colourful main ceiling, the painted panels of the proscenium arch, and the turquoise ground of the medallions on the tier parapets, the auditorium was decorated in white and gold and dressed with red draperies set against a background of red walls, box partitions and seats.
The ceiling had at its centre a large circular ventilation grille of ornamental scrollwork in a richly moulded frame, surrounded by festooned garlands and linked to the outer frame by cabled mouldings. These divided the intervening space into four large quadrant-shaped panels, painted with cloudy skies and grouped figures symbolizing Music, Lyric Tragedy, Comedy and the Visual Arts. The rich architectural frame to the ceiling was broken at equal intervals by eight motifs, six large and two smaller, all composed of ornamented pedestals flanked and surmounted by standing or seated figures symbolizing the Arts and Sciences, and the Seasons. These painted decorations, executed on paper and then affixed to the ceiling, were by Italian artists named Ferri, Verardi and Zarra. It remains to add that the auditorium was brilliantly illuminated by an immense crystal chandelier lit by gas and suspended centrally from the ceiling. Supplementary light was given by candle branches projecting from the second-and third-tier parapets.
The public approaches were improved by making a new box-office and entrance, and by closing the loggias behind the Bow Street front to increase the width of the rooms within. The grand entrance hall was materially altered by raising the ceiling, which was now divided into compartments and supported by Doric columns instead of the original piers. The short flight of steps beginning the grand staircase was moved back, reducing the first landing but greatly improving the headroom, and the barrel vault over the staircase was replaced by a flat ceiling. The arcaded loggia at the south end of the building was enclosed to form a crush-room for the pit, entered from a vestibule replacing the south-east staircase to the gallery. The upper part of this staircase was floored over to form an extension of the grand-tier saloon, which was further improved by removal of the double staircase and by redecoration. A green watered paper on the walls provided a ground for the Siena-marbled columns and pilasters, and for the white and gold surrounds of the doors, which were grained to simulate satinwood. Behind the scenes, a new stage entrance was formed, and a large retiring room for the musicians was provided below the apron stage.
On 5 March 1856 the theatre was again destroyed by fire, for the second time within less than fifty years (Plate 58).
E. M. Barry's Royal Italian Opera House of 1857–8
The present opera house (Plates 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, figs. 13–15), built in 1857–8, is a smaller building than its predecessor, although the stage is larger and the auditorium more spacious. These improvements could only be effected at the expense of circulation space, which is barely adequate and seems cramped when compared with Continental examples. Nevertheless, Barry's theatre has the advantage of a compact and well-arranged plan (Plate 62), asymmetrical in its layout though balanced about an east-west axis. Excluding the portico, projecting about 18 feet from the Bow Street front which is canted in a north-west direction, the building is 210 feet long on the north side, fronting Floral Street, and 219 feet long on the south side, adjoining the Floral Hall, while the uniform width is 123 feet 6 inches. The 89 feet deep stage and its dependencies occupy the west part of the site, and the entrance foyers form a 25 feet wide range extending along the east front to Bow Street.
As in the previous theatres, stage and auditorium are enclosed by a massive brick-walled shell, 90 feet wide inside. This leaves space on either side for a narrow range containing a basement and seven storeys, divided to form the staircases, ante-rooms, lavatories, etc., required for the audience, and the staircases, dressing-rooms, offices, and workshops appertaining to the stage. A buttressed wall of semi-circular plan links the side walls of the shell, rising to the underside of the fourth tier and defining the basic horseshoe form of the auditorium. The fourth tier, originally divided into amphitheatre stalls and gallery, extends in depth to the Bow Street front, above the 25 feet wide range containing the entrance hall with the grand staircase to the south and the crush bar or saloon above.
The three tiers of boxes and the amphitheatre stalls were originally served by two staircases, one in the north side range and one in the south-east spandrel space, both being approached at ground level by way of the stalls corridor. The amphitheatre-gallery staircase in the north range is entered from Floral Street, as are the royal and the Duke of Bedford's boxes, the ante-room to the last being reached by a passage slewed across the north-east angle of the stage. On either side of the stage is a staircase serving the dressing-rooms, offices, workshops and flies. Alterations have been made from time to time, bringing the building into conformity with safety regulations, the most notable change being the provision of ample exit staircases on the south side of the auditorium, discharging into Bow Street.
The building was strongly constructed and as fireproof as contemporary practice could render it (Plate 63). The load-bearing walls of the inner shell are about 85 feet high, and their thickness decreases from 3 feet 4 inches in the basement to 3 feet in the first tier, and 2 feet 8 inches above. The external walls, 95 feet high from the foundations and 2 feet 4 inches thick, are linked to the shell walls by cross walls of 2 feet thickness, strengthened at 12 feet intervals by horizontal tierods of iron. These cross walls form fireproof divisions between the various rooms in the side ranges, and enclose the public and private staircases which are constructed with steps and landings of York stone. The main roof structure consists of a series of eight wrought-iron trellis girders, 9 feet high, spanning the 90 feet wide void of the shell and spaced approximately at 20 feet centres, leaving a bay some 30 feet wide at either end. Each bay, except that at the west end, has a light iron roof, slated and furnished with skylights, which rests on low-pitched triangular trusses spanning between the trellis girders. The four bays above the auditorium ceiling were provided with floors and used as carpenters' workshops, the auditorium ceiling of saucer dome, pendentives and arches being suspended from the trellis girders, as are the two tiers of flies on either side of the stage. The large and lofty scenepainting room over the rear part of the stage has a lean-to roof with ample skylights, resting on trussed rafters.
The exterior of the theatre is a competent but uninspired essay in the Roman Renaissance manner of the mid nineteenth century (Plates 59, 60, 61). The Bow Street front is dominated by the grandiose Corinthian portico, hexastyle with plain-shafted columns, which rises loftily above the low and simply rusticated ground storey, and projects for one intercolumniation from the main wall face of seven bays. The exposed bay on either side of the portico is flanked by pilasters, which are paired at each end of the front. Barry's original design shows the ground-storey piers with a face of seven jointed courses, between a low plinth and a simple cornice, and there are openings in all five bays of the carriage-way. As built, there are only five courses to the piers, between a high plinth and a narrow entablature, and each front bay of the carriage-way contained a deeply recessed window, the middle three now altered to form doorways into the extended entrance hall. The Portland stone columns of the portico are 36 feet high and 3 feet 8 inches in diameter at the foot of the shaft. They rise from pedestals, linked by open balustrades, to support a pedimented entablature having a moulded architrave, plain frieze and a dentilled cornice framing a plain tympanum. (Barry's design shows the Royal Arms within the pediment, a group with Britannia above its apex, and a couchant lion at each end.) Respondent pilasters were omitted from the wall face within the portico in order to accommodate Flaxman's twin bas-reliefs salvaged from Smirke's theatre. These have been combined in a long panel extending above the five large roundarched windows originally lighting the staircase and crush bar, but now largely hidden by the mansard-roofed conservatory filling the lower part of the portico. The window openings form an arcade having plain piers, moulded imposts, and moulded archivolts broken by keystones carved with masks, said to have been derived from Greek originals in the Townley Marbles. In the spandrels between the arches are four roundels containing busts of Shakespeare, Jonson, Aeschylus and Aristophanes, carved in high relief by James Tolmie. (fn. 27) The Flaxman basrelief panel has a plain margin, underlined by a moulded stringcourse which is continued in the outer bays of the front, below smaller panels containing isolated groups from the Flaxman frieze. Above the panels, linking the pilaster capitals and the trusses supporting the transverse beams of the portico ceiling, extends a series of panels. Each end panel is filled with a scrolled trophy of musical instruments, whereas those within the portico are plain and contain small circular windows. Instead of a large arch-headed window, each end bay of the front has a niche set in a plain rectangular frame. These niches contain the statues, by Rossi, salvaged from Smirke's theatre, Melpomene in the south niche, and Thalia in the north. The front is finished, above the crowning entablature, with a high pedestal parapet, the forward breaks above the pilasters being surmounted by tall-necked urns. Now painted cream with white relief, the front was originally finished in Portland cement to match the stonework of the portico, and the effect of the Flaxman bas-reliefs was enhanced by a ground of pale blue-grey.
The pronounced horizontal members of the Bow Street front are continued round the side and back elevations of the building, where the general treatment is bold and simple. The Floral Street elevation, also finished in Portland cement and now painted, has a well ordered scheme with the first-, second- and third-storey windows arranged in pairs and grouped, with panelled aprons, into tall rectangular panels. These are recessed in a series of nine equal bays divided by plain piers that die into a horizontal plain band, equalling in width the Corinthian entablature's architrave which appears above the paired pilasters at each end of the elevation. The south side is generally similar to the north, except that its greater length is divided into ten bays, and the lower part is concealed by the adjoining Floral Hall. The west elevation, finished in stock brick with cement dressings, forms the back wall of the stage and painting-room. Here also the windows are grouped into pairs and recessed in four bays, between boldly projecting buttresses round which the cement-faced stringcourses and crowning entablature are returned. Each buttress is finished above the entablature with a tall inverted scroll-console, supporting the lofty attic stage. Unfortunately, the powerful Baroque effect of this elevation has been impaired by the addition, in 1933–4, of a commonplace and small-scaled range of six low storeys containing dressingrooms, etc. This is faced with red brick above a cement-finished ground storey, and is finished with a steep slated mansard.
The Entrance Hall, Grand Staircase and Crush Bar
The building is now entered from Bow Street by the three doorways formed in the front face of the carriage-way, which has been altered to provide an extension of the original entrance hall. As designed by Barry, this last was an oblong apartment, 60 feet wide and 25 feet deep, simply decorated with a Doric order of plain pilasters and antae dividing each long wall into four bays, and each end wall into two. The four bays of the east wall contained doorways into the carriageway, and a doorway at each end of the west wall led, through a lobby, to the lower (pit) corridor. The east bay of the north wall contained a door to the impresario's office, and the two bays at the south end were open, the east giving access to a space before the box-office, and the west opening to the grand staircase. The width of the entrance hall has now been reduced by one bay at the north end, to make way for a kiosk and an ante to the men's cloakroom; the doors in the east (entrance) wall have been removed; and there are three doorways in the west wall, serving the stalls and stalls circle. The decorative scheme is simple; the pilasters have bronzed bases and caps, and the Siena-marbled shafts carry branch-lights; the plain ceiling, divided by cross beams into corniced compartments, is ivory-white; and the woodwork, generally, is of polished mahogany.
The grand staircase is 12 feet wide, the first flight of twenty-two risers ascending south to a spacious half-landing, where the second flight of eleven risers returns north to stop at the firstfloor landing gallery (Plate 67a). Here a wide and tall glazed double door opens to the crush bar, a French window opens east to the conservatory in the portico, and a small doorway in the west wall gives access to the grand tier and to the staircase linking the various tiers. The first flight of the staircase rises between walls, but the second is furnished with a handsome railing of gilt ironwork resembling an openwork Vitruvian scroll enriched with acanthus leaves. Rising from a plinth of veined white marble, the railing begins with a newel composed of twisted baluster-bars surrounding a scale-patterned column; it is returned with a quadrant curve and continued across the landing gallery, and it is capped with a broad mahogany handrail. The walls of the oblong compartment are simply decorated with panels formed by plain raised mouldings. In the large rectangular panels on the south, east and west walls are festooned garlands, placed over giltframed still-life paintings in rich golden tones. On the north wall, flanking the glazed doorway to the crush bar, are two Baroque figure paintings, placed below horizontal panels containing floral festoons. A moulded architrave finishes the walls, and a high segmental panelled cove rises to the flat ceiling. This is quartered by mouldings to form four panels surrounding a central boss from which hangs a fine crystal chandelier. The general colour scheme is restrained, in two tones of French blue relieved with white.
The handsome crush bar (Plate 67c) is 25 feet wide and 26 feet 6 inches high, but its original length of 81 feet 6 inches has been reduced to 69 feet by the construction of an exit staircase at the north end of the front range. Ionic plain-shafted pilasters divide the long walls into four wide bays and a narrow one at the north end, and each end wall into three, wide between narrow. Formerly there was a recess for a buffet at the north end, screened by two columns. The four wide east side bays contain large round-arched windows, originally opening to the portico but now leading to the conservatory-bar. An unbroken architrave serves to finish the walls, and the flat ceiling is divided by cross beams into oblong compartments, each quartered by mouldings forming four panels round a central boss. The original appearance of this room has been substantially changed by the addition of a staircase which rises in twin flights against the west wall, to meet at a landing in front of a door leading to the balcony-stalls tier. This staircase is simply detailed, with cut strings and a mahogany handrail supported by straight and wavy bar-balusters. The spandrel spaces below the flights are open, but the landing is supported by two small Ionic columns on tall pedestals, flanking the entrance to the grand tier. On the west wall, the bays flanking the staircase landing are decorated with raised mouldings, forming large panels enriched with festooned garlands above giltframed paintings of Baroque figure compositions by a Dutch artist, Augustyn Terwesten (1645– 1711).24 The room is illuminated by a crystal chandelier, hanging from the ceiling in front of the staircase landing, and by bronzed metal branches on the pilaster-shafts. The former colour-scheme of white and gold, with Sienamarbled pilasters, was changed in 1967. Now the pilasters have white shafts, and the walls are coloured blackberry relieved with pale blue.
The royal suite, entered from Floral Street, comprises a lobby and a spacious staircase, a foyer or smoking-room in the basement, and a handsome ante-room on the first floor, adjoining the royal box in the grand tier. The foyer appears to have been redecorated in the Edwardian-Adam taste, with plenty of Lincrusta ornament, but the ante-room reflects the style of the auditorium, with arabesque-panelled pilasters supporting an enriched architrave, below a trellis-patterned cove and a guilloche-bordered flat ceiling (Plate 67b). In a shallow recess are double doors opening to the box, where one wall is furnished with a large mirror affording a reflected view of the stage for any attendants sitting at the back of the box.
Although the prime function of the building was to provide the appropriate setting for seasonal presentations of grand opera to an audience largely composed of box-subscribers, the auditorium (Plates 64, 65, 66) was to be adaptable for use as a winter playhouse, as a ballroom, and as a hall for exhibitions and public functions. Fulfilling these requirements, Barry's auditorium seems to present a successful fusion of two theatre forms, the Italianate opera house and the deep-tiered playhouse. If contemporary buildings influenced the design, it might seem that the three horseshoe tiers of boxes derived from Novosielski's Haymarket Opera House of 1790, while Nash's Haymarket Theatre Royal of 1821 could have suggested the general form of the spacious and lofty upper part which, rising above the front part of the deep amphitheatre tier, is square in plan and ceiled with a shallow saucer-dome and pendentives, resting on shallow elliptical arches, 60 feet wide, springing from square piers which appear to be structural, but are in fact decorative features.
The west arch frames a decorated tympanum of parabolic section, designed to serve as a sounding-board above the stage apron which originally projected with a shallow elliptical curve into the orchestra pit. The north and south side arches have wide soffits extending above the amphitheatre slips, and are open to the upper slips, while the east arch spans the front part of the amphitheatre, the rear part of which has a high flat ceiling.
The well of the auditorium is 80 feet deep from the proscenium, and the horseshoe plan of the tiers is based on a semi-circle of 63 feet diameter, its curvature continuing for 3 feet at either end to merge with the straight sides which are canted towards the proscenium, reducing the width to 50 feet. Each tier has an average depth of 13 feet 6 inches which increases on either side towards the proscenium wall, and it was originally furnished with removable partitions of mahogany, forming a series of boxes, generally 8 feet deep and about 5 feet 6 inches wide, entered directly from a corridor some 5 feet 6 inches wide. The first (stalls) tier, with 8 feet 6 inches clear headroom, contained thirty-four boxes and two entrances into the stalls; the second (grand) tier, with 10 feet headroom, contained thirty-three boxes in addition to the wide royal box and the Bedford box, on the north side next to the proscenium; the third (upper box) tier, with 9 feet headroom, contained thirty-six boxes. The generous headroom provided in these three tiers permitted the conversion from level-floored boxes to stepped rows of seating. Originally an additional eight boxes were provided on either side of the amphitheatre tier. Now, the only boxes remaining are those at the sides of the grand and balcony tiers.
Each box tier was finished with a boarded floor within the auditorium and York stone paving in the corridor, the former laid on wood joists and the latter on iron joists, all framed into a series of wrought-iron girders projecting horizontally and at right-angles to the straight or curved walls where they are seated. The girders in the canted sides of the horseshoe vary in length, but those in the semi-circular sweep have a projection of 13 feet 6 inches, of which 6 feet is cantilevered in front of the supporting cast-iron columns. These columns are spaced mostly at 12 feet centres and linked by cross girders to form a horseshoe sequence of nineteen bays, concentric with the tier fronts. Including those in the present stalls corridor, there are four tiers of columns, respectively 9, 8, 7 and 6 inches in diameter, each column being strongly tenoned into the one above it, thus ensuring a rigid framework for all the tiers. The tier fronts of Desachy's patent canvas-reinforced plaster were made in sections moulded to a serpentine profile, except those for the first (stalls) tier which were made vertically straight for easy removal.
The stalls floor was framed on a series of transverse wooden trusses, 2 feet 3 inches deep, each truss being slotted into the deeply bifurcated heads of a series of cast-iron columns. By using wedges it was possible to alter the rake of the floor, or bring it level with the first tier and forestage. As the floor was not dished, the seats were necessarily arranged in straight rows. Originally there were ten widely-spaced and unbroken rows of stalls, with side gangways reached by steps descending, between the boxes, from the stalls tier corridor. Behind the stalls was a shallow pit with eight rows of decreasing length, flanked by gangways reached by a branching stair at the back, ascending from the lower corridor. The pit has long been abolished, and there are now twentytwo rows of stalls seats, arranged in three blocks with two gangways which are reached from the lower corridor by open stairs ascending on either side, in front of the orchestra pit, and centrally at the back of the horseshoe.
Until it was reconstructed in 1964, the fourth tier contained an amphitheatre with seven rows of seats (Plate 66b), separated by a raised barrier from a gallery with nine rows of benches. Both parts were served separately by staircases entered from Floral Street, although the amphitheatre stair was originally approached through a lobby from the lower (pit) corridor. Redesigned by Peter Moro and Partners, the amphitheatre is a comfortable and well-arranged tier with twentyone generously-spaced rows of seats in three blocks, served by two gangways and entered by two vomitories with steps rising from a spacious new crush bar (Plate 66c).
E. M. Barry claimed that when used for opera the theatre could accommodate 2,300 spectators, and when used for other purposes there was space for 3,000 or more. But according to figures published in The Builder in May 1858, the seating capacity during the opera season totalled 1,897, made up of 487 in the stalls and pit, 490 in 121 boxes generally seating four persons, 320 in the amphitheatre stalls, and 600 in the gallery and slips. By removing the box divisions and substituting seats, it was possible to increase the capacity by 600. (fn. 28) (fn. 29) The present capacity of the opera house is 2,158, made up as follows: stalls 565 seats, stalls circle 305 seats, grand tier 149 seats, balcony 181 seats, amphitheatre 616 seats, lower slips 56 seats, upper slips 143 seats, 15 grand tier boxes with 60 seats, 10 balcony tier boxes with 40 seats, standing passes 43.
Few would dissent from the generally-held view that the Royal Opera House has the most beautiful auditorium in Great Britain. Nevertheless, this distinction is due to the suavity of its general form, its elegant proportions, and the warm yet brilliant colouring set off by the attractive lighting, rather than to the applied ornamentation which is generally uninspired and often coarse in detail. Although the basic form and general proportions are due to Barry, his ideas for the decorations were considerably modified by the impresario, Frederick Gye.
The focal point of the scheme is the proscenium opening, 50 feet wide and 43 feet high (Plate 66a). As there are no proscenium boxes, the opening is dressed with a rich frame of gilt plasterwork, its straight head of coved section ending in quadrant curves to stop on brackets at the top of each jamb. The cove of the head is decorated with large acanthus leaves set in flutes, and there are small stars on the outer fillet. The jambs have two faces, forming a re-entrant angle, and are decorated with three tall and slender colonnets having twisted shafts. An outer moulding enriched with ball ornament finishes the frame. The spandrel spaces flanking the head of the proscenium are simply decorated, above the ceiling line of the former amphitheatre boxes, with plaster panels of diagonal trellis. Similar panels decorate the side walls and piers that rise above the amphitheatre and are finished, like the proscenium wall, with an enriched moulded architrave. This provides a springing for the four great elliptical arches framing the pendentives and saucer-dome of the ceiling, and for the tympanum of parabolic section extending above the proscenium wall. This tympanum, constructed of Desachy's patent plaster, was modelled in bas-relief by Raffaelle Monti with life-size figure subjects in white on a gold ground, the left-hand group representing Music, with Orpheus, and the right-hand group Poetry, with Ossian. Although these groups were generally approved, the central medallion with a profile portrait of Queen Victoria, with figures on either side supporting a corona, was generally condemned as an unsuitable interpolation. (fn. 26)
The soffits of the four elliptical arches are decorated alike with a band of double guilloche ornament, gilt and framed in a long panel. Each pendentive is modelled with raised mouldings to form a circular panel and three spandrels, the latter containing gilt trellis, and the former richly moulded and filled with flutes radiating round a wreathed lyre. Within a heavily enriched moulded frame, the saucer-dome begins with a wide border interspaced with large paterae, these impinging on the outer frame and an inner ring of twelve panels filled with scale-patterned trellis. The mouldings dividing these panels are prolonged to divide the main area of the ceiling into twelve sectors, surrounding the enriched frame of the central oculus. Each sector is lightly divided into five triangular shapes by cablemouldings, resembling the ropework supporting a velarium but here serving to cover the joints in the fibrous plaster slabs. Except for the outer border which is white, the entire ceiling is coloured a greenish-blue, all the mouldings and ornaments being heavily gilt.
The elliptical arches on the north and south sides open to the gallery or upper slips, where the ceiling follows the same curvature as the arch and is simply decorated with large quadrangular panels. In each slip the two rows of benches are placed behind an open railing of gilt ironwork formed in a pattern of interlacing circles. The railing extends between the angle piers, above a projecting cove decorated with gilt trellis.
The tier fronts make a very considerable contribution to the general decorative effect, although the straight vertical front of the first tier is simply treated with fluting ranged between small panels of ornament. The pulvinated or serpentine fronts of the three upper tiers are much more elaborate and basically similar, although differing in minor details. Above a narrow fascia, vertically reeded, the lower part of the swelling pulvino is covered with a band of trellis, over which leaf and flower ornament is heavily modelled to create a scalloped line against the plain upper face. Each front is divided into eighteen bays, being the width of two boxes, by trusses surmounted by terminal figures of female genii with outspread wings, those of the top tier blowing gilt trumpets. Originally, the tier fronts were linked vertically by gilt colonnets with slender twisted shafts, rising above the terminal figures and providing a decorative finish to the box partitions. The royal box on the north side of the grand tier still retains these colonnets, the other remaining boxes now being divided by partitions shaped to give better sighting, some of them finished with a gilt cable moulding.
Except for the greenish-blue ground of the saucer-domed ceiling, the architectural plasterwork is generally finished in white to provide a ground for the heavily gilt mouldings and ornaments. Otherwise red prevails, in the different tones of the seating, the draperies, the carpets and the vertically-striped paper lining the box interiors and the walls behind the tiers. The various reds are united in the stage draperies, the proscenium pelmet being composed of dark drapery festooned against a pale ground embroidered in full colours with the royal arms, while the rich red tableau curtains are bordered and appliqued with the Queen's cipher in gold.
When the opera house was first opened, it was illuminated by a large and splendid gas-lit lustre, composed of strings of crystals in three tiers with a tall tent-shaped top (Plate 64a). This was suspended from a winch and lowered through the oculus of the domed ceiling, which then formed the principal source of ventilation. Supplementary lighting was provided by candle-branches projecting from the front of the upper-box tier. Now the chandelier has gone, but all three tier fronts carry a splendid array of three- or five-light branches fitted with red-shaded electric candles.
The stage is 85 feet wide and 85 feet deep. For a depth of 55 feet from the curtain line the original height was about 70 feet, but the back part below the painting room is only 30 feet high. Below the floor is a basement, with a mezzanine. Much of the original equipment was designed by Barry in close collaboration with the resident scenic artist, William Beverley, and the stage carpenter, H. Sloman. The inner column and return face of each proscenium jamb was made to slide aside to widen the opening. On the stage, the customary grooves were omitted, the back scenes being lowered from the flies, while the side wings were fixed to laterally movable wing ladders, behind which were fixed the gas-lighting battens. Scene recesses, 18 feet wide and 12 feet deep, were provided on each side of the stage, two on the north side and two on the south where they flanked a similar recess containing a large organ. Other sound effects were fixed to the ceiling below the painting room. There were fly-galleries, 8 feet wide, at two levels on each side. (fn. 30)
The scene-storage space in the main building evidently proved to be inadequate, for shortly after 1860 a wing containing two large scene docks was built on the site of Nos. 3, 4 and 5 Hart (now Floral) Street, adjoining the north-west angle of the opera house.
Although improvements were made to the building from time to time, they were insignificant when compared with the extensive alterations carried out during 1899, 1900 and 1901, for the Grand Opera Syndicate. Under the direction of Edwin O. Sachs, a specialist in theatre design, the stage was almost completely gutted, its cellar deepened and its roof raised some 20 feet. A new gridiron and grid galleries were erected, and a Brandt counterweight system for flying scenery was installed. The original raked floor was replaced by a flat one, 80 feet wide and 40 feet deep. This was divided into six sections arranged parallel with the curtain line, all equipped with 40 feet wide movable bridges except the front section, which was fitted with a series of traps. Electrically controlled, these bridges can be raised or lowered from the normal stage level, the front two 6 feet above or 8 feet below, and the back three 9 feet above or 8 feet below. Between the bridges are drop flaps for ground rows and rising scenes, and at the sides are wing ladders. New stage lighting was installed, the proscenium was fitted with a fireproof curtain, and by removing the elliptically-curved apron the orchestra pit was considerably enlarged. The scene docks flanking the stage were remodelled, and a large new property store was built above the Floral Street wing, where the front scene dock was converted to provide three storeys of rehearsal rooms.
Improvements to the public parts of the building included the provision of two new doorways in the front face of the carriage-way, and new doors from the entrance hall into the lower corridor, now serving the stalls. From here new entrances to the auditorium were formed by providing short staircases ascending at the back of the stalls and on either side of the orchestra pit. (fn. 31) In 1892 electricity had replaced gas for lighting the branches on the tier fronts, and it was now installed throughout the house. The great gas chandelier was removed and replaced by two rings of electrical pendants, greatly improving the view of the stage from the gallery. The saloon, or crush bar, was redecorated at this time, and improved by the addition of some large pictures, presumably the paintings by Terwesten. (fn. 32)
In preparation for the Coronation season of 1911, further changes were made to the stage, including laying a new floor of oak to meet the requirements of the Russian ballet. A steam curtain was installed behind the footlights, and new tableau curtains bearing the royal monogram were provided. In 1933 plans were prepared for further alterations and additions to the building, largely to meet the requirements of the London County Council and the Lord Chamberlain's Department. A new range of dressing-rooms, etc., was built against the west wall of the stage, replacing the old north-west wing demolished to form Mart Street. New stage-lighting equipment and a cyclorama were installed on the stage. (fn. 33) The elaborate stage-lighting installation completed in 1964 by the Strand Electric and Engineering Company, was designed by William Bundy, stage director to the Royal Opera House, assisted by M. Carr and W. McGee.
The Floral Hall
Enthusiastically greeted at its opening in 1860 as a successful attempt to overcome the architectural disadvantages which seemed to contemporary critics to mar construction in glass and iron, the Floral Hall (Plate 68) has about it still an air of lightness and elegance that the loss by fire in 1956 of the lofty glass vaults and dome with which it was originally crowned has not altogether destroyed. The building is L-shaped, with entrances from Bow Street at the end of the longer arm, and from the Piazza at the end of the shorter arm. The two fronts are constructed wholly of iron castings and glass, and are treated in a similar though not identical manner: panelled pilasters, linked by arches and capped by a decorative frieze and cornice, divide both into bays, five in the Bow Street front and three in the Piazza front, the centre bay in each being a double one. Decorative interest was imparted to the design by a plentiful use of perforated ornament and panelling. In both fronts, the wide central bay was treated as an arch-headed recess, its radial fanlight being concentric with the semi-circular gable ending the roof. Both the recess and the gable were framed by an enriched band of the same width as the flanking pilasters, and forming a continuation of them. Without the barrel vaults of the roof, the two fronts have lost much of their meaning, and the weak parapet with which they are now surmounted has done little to repair the loss. The front facing on to Covent Garden Market incorporates an open arcade in the ground storey, designed to provide a continuation of the public footway round the Piazza.
The interior of the long arm of the L comprises a broad nave, the width of the three centre bays of the Bow Street front, flanked by narrow aisles and divided from them by arcades of circular cast-iron columns. The short arm is un-aisled, and is the same width as the centre nave of the long arm. The aisles, originally open, are now divided horizontally by galleries, with solid walls separating them from the nave and filling the upper half of the arcades. The arcade columns, which have elaborate bases and perforated Corinthian capitals, are hollow, and were intended to communicate with the basement storey, to provide it with ventilation. The castings forming the lateral arches of the arcade, the arches supporting the aisle roofs, and the cantilever brackets which originally supported the roof vaults, meet above each column, and are bolted to the tops of the capitals. Both arms of the L were originally covered with semi-circular vaulted roofs, spanning the width of the nave, the aisles having lean-to roofs. Above the intersection of the two arms rose a hemi-spherical dome, capped by a lantern. The construction of vaults and dome was of thin curved iron ribs and glass, supported on light semicircular latticed arches. At the intersection, the triangular spaces between the ends of the vaults and the base of the dome were treated as pendentives of glass and iron. Vaults, dome and pendentives were replaced after the fire of 1956 by simple flat roofs and a large triangular-shaped lantern light.