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The architects' plans and drawings now being conserved by London Metropolitan
Archive represent most of the major London theatres of the 19th and 20th centuries,
and in some cases cover the whole lifetime of a theatre. The Archive also houses a
rich collection of theatrical prints, news articles, programmes and portraits dating
back to the 17th century. See some of the most striking Theatreland plans below,
along with a sample of our images of theatrical performances and scenery.

Red Bull Theatre (1672)
Red Bull Theatre (1672)
The Red Bull stood on a plot of ground known as Red Bull Yard in St John’s Street, Clerkenwell. It continued to stage performances during the Civil War, and became celebrated for its Drolls, or clowns. This print, the frontispiece of a 1672 book of comic pieces spoken by the various Drolls, features portraits of all the leading actors who played them, and also gives a rare view of staging and costumes in a pre-Restoration theatre.

The Duke's Theatre (1673)
The Duke’s Theatre (1673)
One of a series of prints of the tragedy, The Empress of Morocco, performed in 1673 at the Duke’s Theatre, Dorset Garden. The theatre’s shape reflects the origin of Restoration playhouses in converted tennis courts: the back of the stage would probably not have been used for acting but would have been used for backdrops and scenery. The amount of space here allowed for a considerable increase in spectacle, including trap-doors, flying machines and wave machines. Stage effects were to become as important to the Restoration audience as the drama itself: also in 1673, the poet Dryden complained:

But when all fail'd, to strike the Stage quite Dumb,
Those wicked Engines call'd Machines are come.
Thunder and lightning now for Wit are Play'd.

Performance at the Royal Coburg, Lambeth (1822)
Performance at the Royal Coburg, Lambeth (1822)
As theatre-going became more popular throughout the 18th century, the theatres expanded, adding the multiple tiers of seats, raked galleries and elaborate ornamental detail that are familiar to us today from surviving Victorian theatres. However, this 1822 performance by the famous Indian conjurer Ramo Samee is not the decorous affair that theatre became later in the 19th century. This audience are shown chatting, fighting and paying more attention to their own reflections in the mirrored backdrop behind the performer than to Samee himself.

Royal box at Drury Lane, 1843
Royal box at Drury Lane Theatre, 1843

Since the awarding of the Letters Patent by Charles II, royal patronage has always been important to the ‘legitimate’ theatres. Here, Drury Lane shows off its special arrangements for royal visits to the Illustrated London News.

Plan of Alhambra Theatre

Plan for the Odeon, Leicester Square.
Alhambra - blueprint
Alhambra - the 'lion fountains'
The Alhambra
The life of a theatre
These two plans show one of the earliest incarnations of the Alhambra Theatre in 1882, just before it burned down (the circular auditorium reflecting its first use as a circus), and the Odeon Leicester Square, built on the site after the Alhambra was finally demolished in 1936.

The Alhambra: Blueprint

Blueprint of the Alhambra Theatre exterior, showing the ‘Moorish’ influences in the arches, dome, and use of crescent symbol.

Alhambra – the ‘lion fountains’
Detail of the proposed frontage of the Alhambra Theatre for a redecoration in 1923. The ‘lion fountains’ would project from the wall of the theatre above the entrances.
A note on the plan describes the design as ‘Replica of the fountain in the Alhambra Palace, Spain’.
Actress Mary Anne Keeley
Actress Mary Anne Keeley in a ‘Breeches Role’

Women appeared on stage for the first time after the Restoration, and quickly came to play an important role in the theatre, both as performers and writers. ‘Breeches roles’, in which actresses played the parts of men, became very popular, and in the second half of the 17 th century it has been estimated that as many as a quarter of all plays produced in London contained one or more roles for actresses in men’s clothes. Many of the most celebrated actresses of the time were known for their skill in male roles, including Anne Bracegirdle, Susanna Mountford and the theatre manager Eliza Vestris.

Masque at Covent Garden
Masque at Covent Garden

A theatre programme in the early 19 th century would often feature more than one production. In addition to the play, the management might offer a ballet, novelty act or burletta (a comic opera or musical farce). To hold on to their huge audiences, managers relied heavily on music, comedy and spectacle.

Elephants at the City of London Theatre, Shoreditch (1846)
Elephants at the City of London Theatre, Shoreditch (1846)

Some eighty years after John Kemble first introduced animals to the London stage in 1788, the lessee of the City of London borrowed two elephants from a Paris circus to create the largest ever animal spectacle. ‘The sagacious animals appear nightly to the great wonder and delight of a crowded audience,’ reported the Illustrated London News. The two animals appeared in a play whose plot had been devised around the tricks they were trained to perform, such as ‘walking over a sleeping slave, or across a single plank’ and ‘dancing with the “Light of the Harem”.’ After the performances, the reporter noted approvingly, the two elephants retire to ‘a commodious stable at the end of the stage, which is exceedingly roomy’.

The ‘Educated Mules’ at the Alhambra
Novelty act at the Alhambra (1858)

In line with their need to produce large-scale spectacle to keep audiences happy, the Alhambra followed their success as a circus with an act that combined novelty, acrobatics and humour in the Educated Mules.

Trapeze artist at the Alhambra,1862
Trapeze artist at the Alhambra,1862

In one of its many reinventions in the face of opposition from the ‘legitimate’ theatres, the Alhambra reopened in the 1860s as a café which also staged musical shows and spectaculars. Audiences could enjoy a meal while Léotard, ‘the daring young man on the flying trapeze,’ performed acrobatics above their heads. The show proved a resounding success, and Leotard and his successors went on to perform in theatres across London.

Performance at Her Majesty's Theatre,1858
Performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre,1858

This performance of the dramatic opera The Huguenots, featured in the Illustrated London News, combined several notable features of the drama at this period: elaborate scenery and backcloths, increasing realism in costume (though often still linked to a broad, declamatory style of performance) and spectacle.

Rehearsal at Her Majesty's Theatre, 1863
Rehearsal at Her Majesty’s Theatre, 1863

The objects being used as hat-racks at the front of the stage are metal footlight shades. The footlights are a row of gas jets mounted on a ‘float’ or moveable platform at the front of the proscenium which can be raised or lowered (a throwback to the time when the lights were lamps of candles which needed to be trimmed). When the jets were lit during a performance, the shades were needed to prevent the light from shining into the audience’s eyes. The ‘floats’ were not popular: in addition to the fire hazard they presented, they often blinded the actors and distorted the audience’s vision by their smoking and flickering and by creating a heat-haze between actors and audience.

The Prince's Theatre

The Prince's Theatre
The Prince’s Theatre

The Prince’s Theatre (now the Prince of Wales) was built by C J Phipps in 1884 for actor-manager Edgar Bruce, and formed part of a complex incorporating a hotel and restaurant. In these plans, the pink area represents the hotel.

Blueprint of Prince of Wales auditorium

Blueprint of the Prince of Wales auditorium, showing the sprinkler system. In the age of gas-lighting in theatres fire was a major hazard: between 1870-1900 some 91 major fires were reported in British theatres, and many performers were killed or injured. By the turn of the century sprinkler installation was a vital part of theatre architecture.

Bracket arrangement for auditorium lamps in the Prince of Wales theatre

Bracket arrangement for auditorium lamps in the Prince of Wales theatre, July 1909. This design has been stamped by the London Fire Brigade, presumably indicating that it meets their stringent safety standards.

Elevation drawing: Her Majesty’s Theatre, 1896
Her Majesty’s Theatre
Her Majesty’s Theatre, completely redesigned by C J Phipps in 1896/7 for Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who had his own suite there and held an ‘acting academy’ in the dome. The academy later became RADA.
Design for entrance of Her Majesty’s Theatre, 1914

Details of the design for the grand entrance of Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1914, showing Tree’s continuing structural changes: here, for a more open-looking frontage.
Elevation drawing of a 'New Theatre'

New Theatre plan: Stalls

New Theatre plan: Dress Circle
The New Theatre
Elevation drawing of a ‘New Theatre’ to be built in the newly-constructed Aldwych in 1905.

This elaborate plan by W.G.R Sprague was drawn up in 1903, before the new development in the Strand area was even completed: the Aldwych and Kingsway roads were still under construction and Aldwych is simply called ‘The Crescent’ on the plans. The theatre itself would be named the Waldorf, after the Waldorf Hotel which was built next door, and finally became the current Strand theatre.

Social levels

These two plans for the New Theatre (later the Strand) in 1903 show the social distinctions which were still very much in evidence among theatre audiences at the turn of the century.

For their interval drinks, patrons in the Dress Circle repair to the Grand Salon. The audience in the more modestly-priced stalls, meanwhile, are offered the Crush Room.

Plans for Frank Matcham’s Hackney Empire

Plans for Frank Matcham’s Hackney Empire
Hackney Empire
These two plans for Frank Matcham’s Hackney Empire, drawn up in in 1900, show Matcham’s rich and intricate use of ornamentation.

Both front and side elevations include cutaway panels showing the decorations planned for the auditorium.
Chandelier designed for the Prince of Wales Theatre, 1960
Decorative detail 20th century style: a glass, metal and perspex chandelier designed in 1960 for the Prince of Wales Theatre.

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