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1868 – Gaiety Theatre, The Strand, London

Architect: C.J. Phipps

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Deesigned by the theatre architect C.J. Phipps, who also designed the 1871 Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, this was a sumptuous rebuild of an existing theatre. Intended as a complete evening’s entertainment, it had a restaurant and patrons could eat before seeing the show and then go directly to their seats without stepping outside.

By 1939 the Gaiety Theatre was in need of refurbishment, and not considered to be financially viable and it was closed. The interior fittings were stripped from the building, and sold at auction. Standing empty during World War II, the building suffered further damage as a result of bombing during air raids. It was finally demolished in 1956 and replaced by the English Electric Company building, which itself has since been demolished.

From The Building News: “IN our last two numbers we have offered some observations on the construction and decoration of thia theatre, and this week we give an illustrated view of its interior and plan. The plan of the auditorium consists of a balcony, the front forming a semicircle opening out by arms of a contrary flexure to the proscenium column ; behind this is a tier of private boxes, with the rest of which the front of the upper boxes radiates, and a gallery above, the front of which forms a complete circle. The columns supporting the various tiers are carried up to a sufficient height above the gallery, and from the cap spring a series of arches supporting an elaborate cornice and coved ceiling. The proscenium pillars are all of solid stone, enriched with carved capitals. There are live rows of arm-chairs in stalls, a commodious pit, three rows of arm-chair stalls in balcony, four rows of upper-box seats, with considerable standing room, 2S private boxes, and a spacious gallery. In all, the capacity of the house is above the average of the London theatre, and it will hold upwards of 2,000 per- .sons. Every department or division of the audience has its own approach separate from the others ; and all the tiers have closed corridors at back; one special feature of the arrangements being that there are staircases on both sides of the dress circle, upper boxes, and gallery, with external doors at bottom of each, and all fire- proof. In fact, the whole skeleton of the building is as nearly as possible fireproof ; for not only are all staircases, passages, and corridors of stone or cement, and separated in every case by brick walls, but the several tiers — balcony, upper boxes, and gallery — have no wood in their construction, except the flooring boards ; they are entirely built of an iron framework, embedded in and filled between with a solid mass of cement concrete, much on the principle adopted at the Grand Opera and the New Vaudeville theatres at Paris. It must, however, be mentioned that much of the interior is boarded over, instead of being plastered to receive the decorations. The lighting of the auditory is by a powerful sun- burner, which will act as an efficient ventilator ; the float-lights are of peculiar as well as novel construction. They consist of a series of argand burners reversed, and burning downwards, the products of the combustion being taken away in a large iron cylinder running parallel with the front of the stage, and carried up inside the brickwork behind the proscenium columns. One t’re it advantage gained by this invention is that the unpleasant vapour screen, which in the old manner was constantly rising between the audience and the scene, is entirely removed, and the performers can now approach the foot-lights without the risk of getting burnt, as a piece of gauze may be placed over the burner without ignition. By an ingenious contrivance, should any of the glasses break, that particular burner falls down and shuts off the gas. The coloured glasses, called mediums, are worked on levers in front of the lights, on the same principle as the switch-lights on railways.

IT has been with considerable curiosity that we have glanced, since writing our previous remarks on the Gaiety Theatre, at the comments contained in some of the daily and weekly journals. In nearly every case that has come under our notice, when anything beyond the stereotyped newspaper puff has been attempted, a certain something in the appearance of the auditorium has been recognised as unsatisfactory, and has been ac- counted for by excessive brightness of colour. Now it so happens that the colours employed are, with very few exceptions, unusually dull, and it is consequently of the more importance that we should point out, as we last week intimated, what it is that” has marred the completeness of an interior that has in it many elements of success.

Before passing to detail, we must pause more fully to do justice than we could last week to the excellence of Mr. Marks’ work. It is probably not too much to say that the three figure subjects, with which he has enriched the decorations of the theatre, are among the very finest works of their class in this country. They command the greatest admiration simply as specimens of high art. Of this the artist’s well-won reputation would at once be a guarantee, and we are consequently spared the necessity of expatiating on the ability which these productions evince. But Mr. Marks has done what too few of our painters will or can do. He has become a decorator in the highest sense of the word. He has painted pictures which are essentially part and parcel of the general scheme of ornamentation, which at once lend a character to the whole interior, and are at the same time perfect models of pictorial decorative treatment.

It is worth considering for a moment the contrast between the treatment of somewhat similar subjects employed by Mr. Marks at the Gaiety and by Mr. Albert Moore at the Queen’s Theatre. Charming, dignified, and graceful as the latter is in itself, it fails as a piece of decoration. The colouring is such that no ordinary method of decoration could possibly have been made to harmonise with it ; while the scheme which the artist, in some unintelligible conjunction with the architect, suggested and exhibited at the last Architectural Exhibition could only be looked upon as something like a practical joke. The most serious fault, however, is in the method of drawing, which is confused, especially in the draperies, with a mass of fine lines which make the various parts undistinguishable except through an opera-glass, and, when so seen, weak and ineffective. All this originated not from Mr. Moore’s want of skill as an artist, but from his ignorance or inexperience of the requirements of decorative treatment. We happened to see his work before it was put in position, and instantly felt what its effect must be. Now, Mr. Marks has not only realised the necessity for definite colour in a theatre, but he has thoroughly grasped the technical mode of treatment which the position requires, and we shall do our readers more service in urging them to visit the theatre and examine the paintings (and especially the outline drawing) carefully with a good glass than in attempting to describe the minutae of the work. Our readers will, however, do well to place themselves for this purpose in the gallery, as the subjects are not well seen from the dress circle, and are almost invisible from the stalls — a defect in the design of the house, which familiarity with the form of the old ” Her Majesty’s Theatre,” where everything was visible from every part, might have prevented.

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In proceeding to discuss the want of repose, of which we have already complained, we must draw attention to the embarrassment to the eye which is caused by the ever-varying curves of the boxes. Those of the gallery, upper circle, private box tier, and balcony are in themselves, as well as in their mutual relationship, rather happy ; but directly the eye passes from the latter to the stage boxes a sense of confusion is experienced, which is greatly increased as the whole arrangement of the boxes within the proscenium comes into view. Here the worst features of the Adelphi Theatre have been reproduced, and we need hardly remind our readers that the curves of Mr. Wyatt’s stage boxes are fully worthy of the ” rococo ” period. But this is of far less importance than the errors to which we last week briefly drew attention. The admixture of raised and painted decoration is in several respects unsuccessful. Firstly, the raised ornament is in stronger relief near the eye (taking the sight point of course from the stalls or balcony) than at a distance. Thus the balcony tier is the highest in relief of the three, the balcony itself consisting of perforated ironwork, which naturally increases the appearance of relief. The con- sequence is that the light, striking down in a line more nearly perpendicular as it descends, casts a deeper shadow beneath each projecting portion of the ornament, and greatly confuses it. This might in a measure have been avoided by the employment of stronger colours in theseportions, but, with a strange perversity, these very parts have received only the most delicate tinting. The design of the two upper tiers is exceedingly chaste and elegant, but that of the gallery (which does Messrs. Jackson and Son especial credit) is entirely overpowered by the coarse and unmeaning crockets which surmount it, and which cast as many conical shadows of the most distracting character. The same objection holds good to a much less extent with the raised work beneath the box tiers. The colouring and the painted work of the house generally are very unequal. The flat of the ceiling is simply powdered with gold stars on a light blue ground— a treatment unobjectionable, but hackneyed. The blue, too, in its leaden heaviness, bears strong evidence of that curse of modern colour — French ultramarine. The ornamentation of the cove around it is the least satisfactory part of the house ; it is coarse in design and inharmonious in colouring. In marked distinction to this we may select for especial praise the dragons and fioriated ornaments of the spandrels between the arches, which combine a power of drawing and breadth of treatment which are very refreshing. The cornice above them would also be satisfactory had one-third of the enriched members been left perfectly plain. Below this there is unfortunately little to praise in the decorations. The box columns are covered with a meandering something of a most nondescript character, and the edges are picked in with pink — an arrangement which utterly destroys anything like breadth, while the front of the private boxes (which is also the back of the balcony) is of a colour apparently intended to be in discord with every- thing. The eminently oft’ending portion of the whole house, however, are the proscenium columns, in which ornaments culled apparently haphazard from a perfect galaxy of styles, and emphasized by the very gaudiest of treatment, utterly eclipse the most brilliant achievements of the scene-painter and costumier.

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It is no slight relief to turn from these to the small divisional columns of the private box tier (gilt solid), which, standing out against the crimson curtains with a dull green background, afford a most agreeable rest to the eye. As regards the use of the gold generally, it is difficult to criticise it intelligibly. Its proper application is one of the most difficult parts of practical decoration; and nothing but experience can teach it. We may briefly say, however, that the great object to be avoided in its employment is spottiness, and that this is, as a rule, best effected by using it either as a background or in continuity, and always in such positions as shall ensure it from the blackness of absolute shadow, and from the dazzling effect of directly reflected light. The want of repose in the interior of the Gaiety Theatre is due to the ignorance or disregard of this one principle far more than to anything else. Had the gold been properly applied, what is otherwise discordant would have been wonderfully harmonized, and have appeared perfect to all but the most critical eyes. And when so much has really been done it seems a pity that the necessary skill should not have been obtained. We must not forget to mention the excellent innovation of the niarone curtain in place of the traditional green baize ; but we can hardly award much praise to the act drop, which, though decidedly pretty, is of the most sketchy description, and many degrees too weak in colour for the house. The use of the scene-painter’s art, too, should be con- fined to the stage, and not obtruded into the auditorium. The sham painted valances of the balcony tier still more increase the want of repose in the house, while the shabby- looking curtains and valances of the stage boxes contrast strangely with the general air of luxury that pervades the theatre.

We have gone thus minutely into detail because it appears desirable that public works of this nature should be carefully examined and criticised; and also because in his last theatre Mr. Phipps has fallen into errors of treatment from which several of his previous ones have been nearly free. How far the shortcomings of the present building may have arisen from haste we are not in a position to say, but, given the shell of the interior, it was, unquestionably, a far easier one to treat effectively than that of the Queen’s Theatre.”