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C. J. Phipps 1835-1897

Charles John Phipps can claim to be called the first of the great theatre specialists of Victorian architecture. He was born near Bath and articled to a firm of Bath architects until June 1857. He then set up on his own, achieving his breakthrough when he won a design competition to rebuild the Bath Theatre in 1863. This proved so successful that a stream of similar work followed. Phipps moved to London the same year, beginning a thirty-year career in designing theatres. He became a Fellow of the Society of Architects, a council member of the professional body RIBA and was advising architect to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Phipps’s career suffered a setback in 1887 when his Theatre Royal in Exeter burned down, killing 140 people. He later confessed that though he had taken precautions against fire in his design, he ‘did not allow for smoke’. In spite of this, he was still acknowledged as the most skilled architect of the time, and when W.S. Gilbert commissioned the younger architect Walter Emden to build the Garrick, it was Phipps who took the leading role in the theatre’s design.

Phipps’s early designs were Gothic in style, but for his theatre architecture he soon adopted ‘a more appropriate classic manner’. Most of his work was concentrated in the years before the flowering of music hall in the 1890s, and his buildings were influenced by French theatres of the 18th and mid-19th centuries, being solid and dignified-looking constructions, well-suited to the serious theatre that was then most popular. His proscenium arches tended to be simple in design and his decorations restrained, in contrast to the extravagant ornamentation of later theatres by Matcham and his followers.

London theatres include:

1870 Vaudeville
1880 Theatre Royal, Haymarket – remodelling
1881 Savoy
1884 Lyceum – part reconstructed
1884 Prince of Wales (now destroyed)
1888 Lyric
1889 Garrick (with W. Emden)
1897 Her Majesty’s

C.J. Phipps
C.J. Phipps

Phipps’s mezzanine plan for the Lyric theatre, 1887
Phipps’s mezzanine plan for the Lyric theatre, 1887
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