The History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark, and Parts Adjacent, vol. 4

Allen, Thomas

1827

King's Theatre, or Opera House.

It was not until the commencement of the last century that Italian music had obtained so high an estimation in England as to receive decided encouragement and support. The experiment was made at the suggestion and by the influence of sir John Vanbrugh, the architect, who zealously employed his interest and fortune towards the advancement of the Opera, but it did not succeed so well as was expected; and in the course of a few years it was found necessary to support the already embarrassed project by a large subscription, which received the royal patronage and that of the chief nobility.

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Sir John Vanbrugh was the founder and architect of the original Opera House. He procured subscriptions from persons of quality at each, for building a stately theatre iii the . On the stone that was laid were inscribed the words

little whig,

as a compliment to a celebrated beauty (Anne, countess of Sunderland), the toast and pride of that party. The house being finished in , it was put by Mr. Betterton and his associates under the management of sir John Vanbrugh and Mr. Congreve, in hopes of retrieving their desperate fortunes: but their expectations were too sanguine. The new house, called the

queen's theatre,

was opened with a translated opera, set to Italian music, called

the Triumph of Love,

which met with a cold reception.

The Confederacy

was almost immediately after produced by sir John, and acted with more success, though less than it was entitled to, if considered merely with respect to its dramatic merit. The prospects of the theatre being unpromising, Mr. Congreve gave up his share and interest wholly to Vanbrugh; who, being now become sole manager, was under a necessity of exerting himself. Accordingly, in the same season he gave the public other imitations from the French; viz.

The Cuckold in Conceit,

Squire Treeloby,

and

The Mistake.

The spaciousness of the dome in the new theatre, by preventing the actors from being distinctly heard, was an inconvenience not to be surmounted.

An union of the companies was projected; and sir John, being tired of the business, disposed of his theatrical concern to Mr. Owen Swinney, who governed the stage till another great revolution occurred. Our author's last comedy,

The Journey to London,

which was left imperfect, was finished to great advantage by Mr. Cibber, who takes notice in the prologue of sir John's virtuous intention in composing this piece, to make amends for scenes written in the fire of youth. He seemed sensible of this, when, in , he altered an exceptionable scene in

The Provoked Wife,

by putting into the mouth of a woman of quality what before had been spoken by a clergyman; a change which removed from him the imputation of profaneness. He died of a quinsey, at his house at , .

On the , a few minutes before o'clock at night, a firebroke out at the king's theatre in the , at the time when many of the performers were practising a repetition of the dances which were to be performed the next evening. The fire burst out instantaneously at the top of the theatre, and the whole roof was in a moment in a flame. It burned with so much rapidity, that while the people were running from the stage, a beam fell from the ceiling. The fire soon communicated to all parts of the house. and, from the nature of the articles with which it was filled, the blaze soon became tremendous. The whole of the structure in a very short time was rendered an entire shell; and its progress was so rapid, that it was impossible to save any material part of its

295

contents. A column of fire burst from the roof of the building to an immense height, and with such fierceness, that the Temple, Lincoln's-inn-fields, and every other part of the city equidistant from the spot, was as light as noon-day. The effect of the heat was also such as to be felt in Leicester-fields and .

From the manner of the flames appearing, there is strong reason to believe the building was set on fire maliciously, as no person had been employed with any light where it broke out.

Madame Ravelli had nearly perished: the firemen saved her at the risk of their own lives. A very small part of the wardrobe, and some other few effects, were saved.

This house had such ill success in its dawn, that when Nicolini and Valentina were sent for, it gave rise to the following epigram :

To emulate Amphion's praise Two Latian heroes come, A sinking theatre to raise, And prop Van's tottering dome. But how this last should come to pass Must still remain unknown, Since these poor gentlemen, alas! Bring neither brick nor stone!

The principal sufferer was Mr. Vanbrugh, a descendant of sir John, who had a year from the property. In regard to this gentleman, his majesty, years before this event happened, interfered, to prevent a new Opera House being built on any other spot.

On the , the earl of Buckingham, attended by a large party of persons of distinction, laid the stone of the new Opera House, the architect being Mr. Novosielski. On the top of the stone were engraved these words:

The

first

stone of this new theatre was laid on the

3rd of April, 1790

, in the

30th

year of the reign of king George III. by the right hon. John Hobart, earl of Buckingham.

At the bottom was his lordship's motto,

auctor pretiosa facit.

Upon of the squares of the stone was

the king's theatre in the

Haymarket

first

built in the year

1703

;

on another,

but unfortunately burned down on the

17th of June, 1789

;

and on another,

Praevalebit justicia.

In making the vast improvements in , under the control of the new street commissioners, and according to designs and arrangements made by J. Nash, esq. the external of the Opera House underwent a very important change. The ground landlord of the theatre, at the time of making the improvements, was the late Thomas Holloway, esq. of ; and upon his renewing the lease with the commissioners of the crown property, they granted him the additional proprietory of the ground towards Pall-mall, , and Market-lane, then a dirty avenue, but now the Royal Arcade. This was granted on the express condition that the building should be finished so as to form an imposing feature in the

296

metropolis, and that the public should be accommodated to the utmost extent in the new arrangements, and should be convenienced by a covered way round the whole building. To effect these improvements, Mr. Holloway employed the united talents of Mt. Nash and Mr. G. Repton, the architects. The order of architecture adopted by the above gentlemen was the Roman Doric, and the columns are executed in cast iron, each being the result of a single casting. The entablature is of Bath stone, and the body of the building of brick covered with cement.

The basso-relievo of the centre, executed by Mr. Bubb, is of artificial stone, and represents the progress of music from the earliest attention to sound. Into the groups dancing is introduced, as associated with its advancement from the rudest ages to the extraordinary accomplishments of the modern Apollo and the Muses occupy the centre of the subject.

Mr. Holloway died soon after the improvements were begun, but they were continued by his executors at the expence of about

The interior is extremely grand and imposing.

The present form of the boxes, together with the effect of its ornamental beauties, create the most lively images of grandeur in the mind of the auditor: the fronts of the boxes are painted in compartments, a blue ground with broad gold frames: the several tiers are distinguished from each other by a difference in the ornaments in the centre of the compartments. In the tier are the ornaments of Neptunes, Neriads, Tritons, Mermaids, Dolphins, Sea Horses, &c. &c. On the tier the ornaments exhibit festoons, and wreaths of flowers, sustained by cherubs. Leopards, Lions, Griffins, &c. are the supporters of the . The fronts of the and tiers nearly correspond with those of the , The dome presents a sky, in which the flame colour predominates, The of the whole is rich, magnificent, and considerably surpassing its former appearance.

The following are the respective proportions of the theatres Milan (the Italian), Paris, and King's theatre, London:--

 MILAN.PARIS.LONDON
 Feet.Feet.Feet.
Length, from the curtail to the back of the boxes9478102
Width, from the back of the boxes785275
Projection of the stage from the curtain171624
proscenium99none
Width of the curtain424040
Height of the theatre from floor to ceiling at the highest part over the pit705156

In order that the reader may form an accurate idea of the size of this elegant theatre, we subjoin the dimensions of the most prominent parts of it: the stage is feet in length from the wall to

297

the orchestra, and feet in breadth from wall to wall, and feet across from box to box.

From the orchestra to the centre of the front boxes, the pit is feet in length, and in breadth, and contains benches, besides a passage-room of about feet wide, which goes round the seats and down the centre of the pit to the orchestra. The pit will hold persons.

In altitude the internal part of the house is feet from the floor of the pit to the dome.

Each of the tiers of boxes is about feet in depth, and feet in breadth, and is so constructed, as to hold persons with ease, all of whom command a full view of the stage; each box has its curtains to enclose it according to the fashion of the Neapolitan theatre, and is furnished with chairs. The boxes hold nearly persons.

The gallery is feet in depth, in breadth, and contains benches; and holds persons. The lobbies are about feet square, where women attend to accommodate the company with coffee, tea, and fruit.

The great concert room is feet long, feet broad, and feet high, and is fitted up in the style of elegance.

The subjects from which the operas of this house are generally composed being classical, and founded on the heroic actions of the Greeks and Romans, admit of the most beautiful architectural scenery, as well as those romantic views and clear atmosphere peculiar to the Greek isles and to Italy. Where genius and erudition are united in a scene-painter, he has every opportunity from such subjects to give the public the most brilliant specimens of the pictorial art. The artist employed to embellish this theatre with his pencil being a native of Italy, and well educated in all the customs of foreign theatres, together with a classical mind, has displayed some of the finest specimens of scene-painting known to the public; indeed he has made the best use of grand subjects for the exhibition of the most splendid scenery that can adorn a theatre.

The opera usually opens for the season in January, and continues its representations on the Tuesday and Saturday of every week until June or July. The doors open a quarter before and the performance begins at .

On the north side of Titchbourn-street, at the top of the , is Week's Museum, which has never been completed. The grand room is feet long and feet in height; it is entirely covered with blue satin, and contains a variety of most curious articles of ingenious mechanism. The architect was Wyatt; the painting of the ceiling by Rebecca and Singleton. The most curious articles are the Tarantula Spider, and the Bird of Paradise, in a minute compass, the work of the proprietor.

298

 

is a short distance north of , along Airstreet, , and . It was once called Gelding-square, from the sign of a neighbouring inn; but the inhabitants, disgusted with so vulgar an appellation, changed it to its present name. The access to it is dirty; and it has altogether no very high claims to distinction for its beauty or magnificence. It was built soon after the revolution of , in what were then called the Pest-house fields, which remained a dirty waste till within these comparatively few years, when Carnaby-market occupied much of. the western portion of this tract.

In Pest-house-fields the lord Craven built a lazaretto, which, during the dreadful plague of , was used as a pest-house, and hence arose the name. His lordship boldly facing the danger, remained in London during that great calamity; and, as it has been observed of him,

braved the fury of the pestilence with the same coolness as he fought the battles of his beloved mistress, Elizabeth, titular queen of Bohemia; or mounted the tremendous breach of Creutzuach. He was the intrepid soldier, the gallant lover, and the genuine patriot.

Leaving and on the left, we enter , concerning which, in the General Evening Post of , we find the following account:--

Two

rows of fine houses are building from the end of

Great Marlborough-street

through the waste ground and his grace the duke of Argyle's gardens into Oxford-road, from the middle of which new building a fine street is to be made through his grace's house,

King-street

, and

Swallow-street

, to the end of

Hanover-street

,

Brook-street

, and the north part of

Grosvenor-square

, the middle of his grace's house being pulled down for that purpose; and the

two

wings lately added to the house are to be the corners of the street which is now building.

This plan was carried into effect, and we have now a very handsome and fashionable street.

On the east side of , are the Argyle concert rooms, The exterior is handsome, end terminating in a circular front; the basement is rusticated, and the upper story has attached columns of the Corinthian order sustaining an entablature and ballustrade. Above this is an attic crowned with a spherical dome. The remaining portion presents a plain wall only relieved by several windows with angular pediments. The ground floor is occupied by Messrs. Welsh, music publishers, and a part on the floor is occasionally fitted up as a French theatre.

Between and , on the north side of , is

 
 
Footnotes:

[] Nightingale's Beauties of England, x. part iv. p. 657.

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 Title Page
 Dedication
CHAPTER I: Site, local divisions, and government of the City of Westminster; history of the Abbey; Coronation Ceremonies; and lists of the Abbots and Deans
CHAPTER II: Westminster Abbey, and Description of the Tombs and Monuments
CHAPTER III: History and Topography of St. Margaret's Parish
CHAPTER IV: History and Topography of St. John's Parish, Westminster
CHAPTER V: History and Topography of the parish of St. Martin's in the Fields, Westminster
CHAPTER VI: History and Topogrpahy of the parish of St. James, Westminster
CHAPTER VII: History and Topography of the Parish of St. Anne, Westminster
CHAPTER VIII: History and Topography of the parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden
CHAPTER IX: History and Topography of the Parish of St. Mary-le-strand
CHAPTER X: History and Topogrpahy of the parish of St. Clement Danes
CHAPTER XI: History and Topography of the parish of st. George, Hanover Square
CHAPTER XII: History and Topography of the Precinct of the Savoy
CHAPTER XIII: History and Topography of the Inns of Court
CHAPTER XIV: History and Topography of the Precincts of the Charter-house and Ely Place, and the Liberty of the Rolls
 CHAPTER XV: Historical Notices of the Borough of Southwark
CHAPTER XVI: History and Topography of the Parish of St. Olave, Southwark
CHAPTER XVII: History and Topography of the parish of St. John, Southwark
CHAPTER XVIII: History and Topography of the parish of St. Thomas, Southwark
CHAPTER XIX: History and Topogrpahy of the parish of St. George's, Southwark
CHAPTER XX: History and Topography of St. Saviour's Parish
CHAPTER XXI: History and Topography of the parist of Christ-church in the County of Surrey
 CHAPTER XXII: A List of the Principal Books, &c that have been published in Illustration of the Antiquities, History, Topography, and other subjects treated of in this Work
 Addenda et Corrigienda
 Postscript