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Frank Matcham 1854-1920

Frank Matcham is widely known as the greatest and most prolific theatre architect of his time. Throughout his professional life he worked almost exclusively on theatres, and between 1879 and 1912 he was responsible for the design of over 200, most of them new.

Born in Newton Abbot in Devon, the son of a brewery manager, Matcham was apprenticed at 15 to a local architect and surveyor. In 1875 he moved to London and joined the practice of Jethro T. Robinson, an eminent architect who was theatres consultant to the Lord Chamberlain, and whose advice would be influential in setting up the first regulations governing theatres. Matcham soon became attracted to Robinson’s youngest daughter Effie, whom he married in 1877. Within a few months of the marriage Robinson died, and Matcham took over the business.

At the time of his death Robinson had been working on the rebuilding of the Elephant and Castle theatre in London, which Matcham took over and completed in 1879, carrying out alterations in 1882. This theatre, with its elephant motifs, introduced the ‘oriental’ styles of architecture which were to become popular in late-Victorian and Edwardian theatres. Matcham went on to design over 150 new theatres all over Britain as well as remodelling older ones, and became renowned for the breadth and variety of his work. Although celebrated for his use of Oriental elements, especially in decorations, he designed buildings in many styles including Renaissance, Louis XVI, Italianate and Baroque.

Matcham was never formally trained, and his designs were often criticised by contemporary critics as architecturally ‘illiterate’. But they were also stylish, superbly crafted and always individual: it was said that no two of his buildings were ever the same, yet all bore Matcham’s recognisable stamp. His exuberant ornamentation and skill at dealing with technical challenges such as sight lines and acoustics made his theatres popular with audiences, while his renowned efficiency and sound business sense meant that there was a constant demand for his services from managers. Even a critic who condemned his work as ‘undistinguished’ in appearance, conceded that it was ‘marked by good seating accommodation, economy on space and cost, and rapidity in execution’.

An extremely practical man, Matcham was also responsible for several technical innovations. Together with his resident engineer Robert Alexander he took out patents for inventions such as lifts and a cantilever for theatre balconies. In 1990, after being let down by a company from whom he had ordered plasterwork, he developed his own fibrous plaster for modelling decorations. He was also very involved with meeting the new theatre safety regulations, especially those dealing with fire risks. Between 1870-1900 some 91 major fires were reported in British theatres, one of which, at the Exeter Theatre Royal in 1887, killed 180 people and injured 100. Matcham developed systems to improve ventilation from smoky stage lights, and also to remove draughts from the auditorium.

After the turn of the century, Matcham’s style became more restrained, though still marked by his individual style: many of his best-loved remaining theatres were built after 1900, including the London Coliseum and London Palladium. He also designed pubs, and after 1912 his company, Matcham and Co, designed cinemas. Before his retirement in 1912, Matcham influenced (and may have trained) two young architects who went on to become famous in their own right: W.G.R. Sprague, who designed many of London’s playhouses including the Albery, Wyndham’s and Strand Theatre, and Bertie Crewe who designed the current Shaftesbury Theatre and the interior of the Lyceum, among many others.

Sadly, the majority of Matcham’s theatres have been destroyed, but enough remain across the country to maintain his reputation as what the Theatres Trust Guide calls ‘the supreme example of the unacademic architect who became a master of his craft.’

Matcham’s London theatres include:

1900 London Hippodrome
1901 Hackney Empire
1904 London Coliseum
1905 Terry’s Theatre – alterations (now demolished)
1910 London Palladium
1911 Winter Garden (now demolished)
1911 Victoria Palace
1912 Alhambra – alterations (now demolished)
1912 Wood Green Empire – façade

Matcham’s distinctive signature

Frank Matcham’s plan for the Hackney Empire,  drawn up in 1900
Frank Matcham’s plan for the Hackney Empire, drawn up in 1900
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