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100 years on, why Frank Matcham remains theatre’s master builder

Theatre Royal, Wakefield. Photo: Paul White
Theatre Royal, Wakefield. Photo: Paul White

A century since Frank Matcham’s death, the legacy of the great theatre architect is only now being fully appreciated, long after many of his gems have been lost. Tim Bano looks at the work of a man whose flamboyant creations all over the country house entertainment for everyone

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When, a century ago, The Stage reported that Frank Matcham “died suddenly at his home from blood poisoning set up by cutting his fingernails”, it was a bathetic end for a man who – perhaps more than any other – shaped our experience of going to the theatre.

Think of a traditional theatre – a grand old West End house penned in by office blocks, or a regal regional chocolate box, with ornate plasterwork and an adorned proscenium – and chances are you’re thinking of a Matcham building. Or, if not one of his, then a building designed by one of his protégés or admirers.

From Wakefield’s Theatre Royal to Dublin’s Gaiety, the King’s in Glasgow to Belfast Grand Opera House, the London Palladium to his magnum opus the Coliseum, no town in the UK was untouched by the man who was the first dedicated theatre architect. Today, his theatres are highly regarded for their beauty, their opulence, their excellent sight lines and their intimacy.

After bombings, conversions, demolitions, decay, and the advent of a very large number of 1960s office blocks, not much remains of Matcham’s colossal output. His offices were destroyed during a Second World War bombing raid, wiping out many of his records and making the most prolific theatre designer the country has known something of an enigma.

Rediscovering Matcham’s legacy

The story of Matcham might begin at his birth in Newton Abbot in 1854. But there’s another starting point, much later, when in the early 1980s, Ian Mackintosh and Michael Sell compiled the gazetteer Curtains!!! Or a New Life for Old Theatres. The book threw into sharp focus the fact that a large number of theatre buildings in the country had simply disappeared.

David Wilmore, a historic theatre consultant and author of the biography Frank Matcham and Co, says Curtains!!! “was the first stocktake of the nation’s theatres”. Two things became clear: first, that we had to protect the buildings that still stood, rather than allowing more of the fabric of the country’s past to be destroyed; second, that one name occurred again and again in the story of theatre-building. “It wasn’t until the 1980s that Matcham’s name started to return to public consciousness,” Wilmore says.

The very active Frank Matcham Society has been doing huge amounts of work to increase awareness of the man who was born in Devon, the son of a brewer. The society’s current chair Mark Fox – also archivist for LW Theatres – says: “It’s about joining dots. Being a brewer based on the high street in Torquay, he was just behind the local concert hall, so he would have been involved with the gin palaces and the entertainment for the local area. There would have been a link to entertainment businesses from a very early age.

‘Jethro T Robinson was the Lord Chamberlain’s chief adviser for entertainment spaces... Matcham was learning from the best’ – Mark Fox, Frank Matcham Society

“He also happened to live next door to the pre-eminent architect in the area, George Soudon Bridgeman, to whom he became a clerk.” Aged 14, Matcham became Bridgeman’s apprentice, and under Bridgeman he worked on the redesign of the Lyceum Theatre in Torquay.

A few years later Matcham moved to London and got a job working for Jethro T Robinson. “Robinson was the Lord Chamberlain’s chief adviser for entertainment spaces, so an important architect,” says Fox. “He was learning from the best.”

Then Matcham got lucky. He fell in love with Robinson’s daughter, whom he married in 1877, meaning his boss was also his father-in-law. Robinson died a year later and left the business to Matcham. He was 24, with no architectural qualifications and few designs under his belt.

Within several years, Matcham became known as the best theatre architect in the country. The exact number of Matcham buildings extant or demolished is the subject of debate, but according to Fox, by Matcham’s death, he had worked on between 150 and 160 buildings, from theatres that he designed and built from scratch, to others that he renovated or adapted. Only 24 survive.

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London Coliseum. Photo: Shutterstock
London Coliseum. Photo: Shutterstock

London Coliseum: a home for variety

Impresario Oswald Stoll wanted to build the biggest and best entertainment palace in London. He wanted to attract new middle-class audiences to the theatre, and for them to enjoy themselves in opulent surroundings. The aim was to provide ‘variety’ entertainment – not the raciness and raucousness of music hall, but not too highbrow either. He and Matcham took a trip to America for inspiration and settled on lavish Roman motifs: lions and chariots, fasces, laurel wreaths, cherubs and mosaics, Latin inscriptions. There are sweeping marble staircases and spacious foyers. Unusually for the time, there was no pit and no gallery (which were usually cheaper and more rowdy) as Stoll did not want to attract working-class crowds. Matcham’s cantilevered design means there are no pillars, and good sight lines. The cherry on top of the extraordinary confection is the revolving globe, now an icon of London’s skyline.


Becoming the go-to theatre architect

Matcham’s swift ascendancy was partly to do with a huge boom in theatre building in the second half of the 19th century: more theatres, was the mantra, and more people in them.

Fires had become a huge problem – timber structures and gas lighting were not happy bedfellows – and there were almost 100 theatre fires recorded in the last quarter of the 19th century. In 1887, a fire broke out in the Exeter Theatre during a performance. Lack of exits and poor construction meant that 186 people died. It was one of the worst fire disasters of the 19th century, and prominent architect CJ Phipps’ reputation was damaged as a result.

Matcham took advantage, and quickly became the leading light of theatre architecture, working out how to make theatres safer and stronger. “He built out of concrete and stone, not timber,” says Wilmore. “He thought about fire protection and comfort.” He invented fiendishly clever ventilation systems to allow gas fumes to escape, and to make audience members more comfortable in overheated, densely crowded auditoriums.

But what really made Matcham’s name wasn’t his adherence to health and safety legislation. It was his thorough understanding of the commercial needs of a building and a restless desire to innovate.

Phipps’ buildings relied on pillars in the stalls to hold up the balconies above, which meant fewer seats and a lot of bad sight lines. Matcham patented a system that used steel cantilevers to hold the balconies in place, and got rid of the need for pillars entirely – the London Palladium, with its original capacity of 3,000, is a prime example.

He built hippodromes to house circuses and water pools and gave London its first ever revolving stage. His innovations weren’t always successful, including, notably, when he tried to put King Edward VII in a mobile lounge to transport the monarch and his party from the entrance of the London Coliseum to the royal box. It broke on opening night.

Even if a few of these innovations sound far-fetched these days, the idea behind all of them was to increase comfort, to improve safety and to ensure the building boomed as a commercial enterprise.

As Fox says: “The reason these producers went to him time and time again was because he understood the commercial needs of those buildings. He understood that he had to provide space for storing things to sell. If you could provide three shop fronts on the exterior of a building, he knew that was rent that would be coming in when the building wasn’t operating. It was all those things that make a building work commercially.”

‘When you look at the number of projects he had on his drawing board at any one time, it’s astonishing to think that he always delivered on time and on budget’ – Claire Appleby, architecture adviser to the Theatres Trust

He was especially good at taking tight, awkwardly shaped plots of land and designing magnificent, complex functional buildings on top of and in spite of them. “Very few people are aware that the Coliseum is actually on a bizarre triangular site at the bottom of St Martin’s Lane,” Fox points out. “When you walk into the auditorium, you’re being directed off at an angle, but you never get that impression.”

Claire Appleby is an architecture adviser to the Theatres Trust. She says that what made Matcham even more attractive to producers was that he always delivered on time and on budget, “and when you look at the number of projects he had on his drawing board at any one time – five, six, seven, sometimes more – it’s astonishing to think of that feat.”

Wilmore says: “From the day he got a telegram from someone saying: ‘I want to build a theatre’, he was putting these things up in nine months. That kind of timeframe is unthinkable these days.”

As demand for buildings surged, so their capacities increased too. Soon Matcham was building theatres that seated 3,000, 4,000 – even pushing towards 5,000 with the likes of the Mile End Empire where Genesis Cinema now stands. Venues grew in size and audience capacities increased – all while safety standards improved.

By the end of the 19th century, Matcham began to work closely with Oswald Stoll and Edward Moss, the two biggest theatre impresarios of the time, on major edifices such as the London Coliseum, while still involved in buildings across the country. “He was the go-to architect to make adaptations to existing buildings,” says Fox, “whether that was to fit more people in safely, to improve safety standards, change the acoustics or just, in some cases, to make them a bit prettier.”

Matcham’s mark, at that time, was on every corner of the country. Aberdeen, Aldershot, Ashton-under-Lyne, Belfast, Birmingham, Blackpool, Bolton, Brighton, Bristol, Bury, Buxton, Cardiff, Castleford... the list, down to Wakefield and Weymouth, is almost an A to Z of the entire nation. He admitted, too, in an interview with the Era in 1897 that “my first knowledge even of the existence of a town has been imparted by an invitation to build a theatre”.

Catering to the tastes of the people

Matcham and Co was not a theatre factory. These weren’t flat-pack theatres, repeated in endless iterations across the country. Matcham would use the same close-knit team of artisans and contractors – fibrous plasterers, seating manufacturers, carpet manufacturers, plumbers, electricians – but, as Matcham Society president emeritus John Earl notes, one of the most extraordinary things was that “every Matcham design was individual, almost as though every theatre was his first”.

Matcham himself said: “I am most careful to inform myself of the tastes of the people – here one needs more stalls, there a spacious pit and gallery. To build a theatre without particular regard for all these conditions is foolish in an extreme degree.”

This means that there isn’t really such thing as a Matcham style. From the French Rococo-inspired interiors of the Palladium and the Italian Renaissance style of Buxton Opera House, to Baroque influences of Blackpool Grand, what unites Matcham’s theatres is their differences. He would take sketchbooks on holiday and fill them with drawings of things he’d seen, which he would feed into his theatre designs. The buildings were a mix of styles and motifs, stuffed with decoration and ornamentation. Appleby says: “It’s about that sense of theatricality when you walk in: the opulence, the joy of them. They’re eclectic in style and taste, but absolutely astonishing.”

‘Theatres were seen as ephemeral and unimportant… they were seen as confections, something that anybody could do’ – Mark Fox

And only a few years into his career as an architect, theatre circles already recognised Matcham’s extraordinary output and skill. The Stage said in 1890 – when Matcham was 36 – that “some of the finest modern theatres in the country have been put up from his designs”. A decade later, it described Matcham as “one who stood out in bold relief, whose work was always accounted perfect until he had struck out and excelled himself”.

So what happened? With more than 150 theatres bearing his imprint in some way, and a reputation as the pre-eminent architect in his field, why was he forgotten for so many years, his buildings torn down or left to rot?

“Theatre was seen as ephemeral and unimportant,” says Fox. “It wasn’t like designing the Houses of Parliament or a big museum building. They were seen as confections, something that anybody could do, little better than the gin palaces popping up on every street corner built by jobbing architects. By the theatre profession and the public he was seen as important, but by the architecture profession, he wasn’t really regarded highly at all.”

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Hull Palace opening brochure. Photo: Theatresearch archives
Hull Palace opening brochure. Photo: Theatresearch archives
Frank Matcham. Photo: Matcham family
Frank Matcham. Photo: Matcham family

Matcham’s work around the country

“FM’s recent peregrinations on architectural business have been numerous and varied. On Wednesday he arrived at Morecambe from Preston[...] He left Morecambe on Thursday for Liverpool, to see about starting the new Empire Palace in that city. From Liverpool he was to go to Bolton about the Victoria Music Hall alterations and thence to Manchester, to start the alterations at the Princes’ Theatre. He will proceed from Manchester today to Nottingham, inspecting the new Empire Palace. Mr Matcham is preparing plans for alterations at the Oxford Music Hall.” – The Era, June 6, 1896


Falling foul of the architecture establishment

As Matcham’s career took off, the sniffs of the architectural elite grew louder. It wasn’t just the disdain of a clique for a talented arriviste, it was a wholesale disapproval of Matcham’s approach to architecture – an approach that largely ignored contemporary architectural fashions. The fact his theatres mixed several styles led to him being dismissed by architects of the time. For them, purity was everything. “He was seen as illiterate, as mixing up all sorts of different styles of architecture to create a confection,” says Wilmore.

Nor were these arbiters of taste content to keep their opinions to themselves: in 1896, in his hugely influential multi-volume work Modern Opera House and Theatre, renowned architectural critic Edwin Sachs described Matcham’s designs: “There is no doubt that his plans have a certain individuality and his schemes generally serve the utilitarian purpose of the occupiers in a satisfactory manner. However, to fully illustrate such theatres in a volume dealing with theatre architecture in its best sense would be anomalous as to include the ordinary jerry-builder’s cottages in a volume on domestic architecture.” Later, he says: “In the work of Frank Matcham, I need hardly say that there has never been any pretence of architectural rendering…”

Wilmore adds: “In the front of the volume, by the way, whose name is among the list of subscribers? Frank Matcham. Can you imagine the morning that the volume fell through the letterbox?”

By 1914, not only did the First World War change the country’s finances, priorities and mood, but cinema was starting to become more popular

This goes some way to explaining why Matcham’s reputation died so soon after he did. Architectural tastes changed to prize function over form, which didn’t bode well for Matcham’s exuberant ornamentations. What’s more, by 1914, not only did the First World War change the country’s finances, priorities and mood, but the mass medium of cinema was starting to become more popular. The country didn’t need more theatres.

The consensus had been that Matcham’s last years saw him scaling down his work, and leading a quiet life with his sickly wife in Westcliff-on-Sea. But recent research, Wilmore says, actually shows the opposite. When he died, he was working on four projects of a scale he had never attempted. Then the war intervened, and soon came the day when Matcham decided his nails needed trimming.

“The story goes that he over-trimmed his fingernails,” says Wilmore, “and got blood poisoning, possibly from gardening with a little open wound on his finger. Then he got septicaemia and died.”

Matcham and Co continued, but the firm no longer had the theatrical flair of its namesake. The company was sold, and eventually it was wound up in the 1970s.

Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire. Photo: Shutterstock
Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire. Photo: Shutterstock
Auditorium of Richmond Theatre, London. Photo: Theatresearch archives
Auditorium of Richmond Theatre, London. Photo: Theatresearch archives

Reappraisal and new-found appreciation

As for Matcham the man, he remains enigmatic. He loved drama, but rather than experiencing it in the splendour of the buildings he’d made, he preferred to put on little shows at home. When he was invited to give a speech on opening nights of his theatres, he was a man of few words. “He would just say something like: ‘I trust that this pleases you,’ ”
says Fox.

He enjoyed watercolour paintings, golf and music – it’s even claimed that he owned a Stradivarius. And, with such a colossal workload, he was a pretty absent father. He would spend a week in London and a week outside, in one of the towns where he was building a theatre. Even when at home he spent his evenings drawing up designs. And for 60 years, he was pretty much forgotten about.

But we now realise that the eclecticism of Matcham’s styles is what makes his theatres work: they’re theatres, and they are meant to be theatrical. We understand the extent of his innovations. We have realised just how cleverly his buildings were designed to create a relationship between the actor and the audience, achieving a sense of intimacy even in vast buildings. “Even today, you put an actor on a Matcham stage and they respond to it,” says Wilmore.

New research is bringing Matcham back to life, 100 years since his death. To mark the centenary, the Frank Matcham Society has created a comprehensive directory of all the buildings Matcham either constructed or adapted. In the past few years, the number of theatres Matcham is known to have worked on has grown, as historians like Fox and Wilmore continue their investigations.

‘Even today, you put an actor on a Matcham stage and they respond to it’ – David Wilmore, author of Frank Matcham and Co

And during some recent research, Wilmore stumbled across something extraordinary. Matcham had designed an extension to Brinsworth House, the retirement home run by the Royal Variety Charity. Princess Louise opened the extension in 1919, and Matcham was there to say a few words.

“We found a piece of silent film where she cuts the ribbon, and there, shambling along at the back of the line, is Frank Matcham, alive on film. It’s something we never thought we’d see. And I’m delighted to say that his body language and his demeanour is exactly what we all hoped it would be.

“He looks like a good chap. You can see he’s not interested in lording it with Princess Louise. All the others are bowing and scraping, and he’s just come down for the day because they asked him. And I think that’s the closest we will ever come to the character of the man.”

Today, the ongoing, unfolding story of Frank Matcham isn’t just about the man himself. It’s also tied up with the future of theatre fabric in this country. A century on from his death, scores of his designs still dominate the landscape of theatre buildings.

Some remain the cultural epicentre of the towns they’re in, some have had facelifts, some, such as the Victoria Palace, multimillion-pound guttings and renovations, while others, like Brighton Hippodrome, are crumbling ruins. But it’s all the work of a man who’s never yet been matched.


For the centenary of Frank Matcham’s death on May 17, theatres will be sharing photos of Matcham buildings under the hashtag #Matcham100. The Matcham Directory is available from the Frank Matcham Society


Still standing...

Still standing...

London Hippodrome

The Hippodrome was built to house music hall, circus and aquatic spectaculars. There was an 8ft-deep steel tank for aquatic displays that was capable of holding 100,000 gallons of water, as well as a steel cage that could be raised up around the arena to hold animals. Later it became the famous Talk of the Town nightclub, which removed most of its interior, and now it is a casino. (Photo: Shutterstock)


Lyric Hammersmith

Lyric Hammersmith

In 1968 the family that owned the original Lyric had to sell up. When they proposed demolishing the theatre, there was a public inquiry that led to a ministerial decision that the original interior should be carefully deconstructed and kept in case the opportunity arose for it to be reused. The building was demolished in 1972, and in 1979 the entire original auditorium was reconstructed on top of a concrete shopping centre. What exists now is almost identical to Matcham’s design. (Photo: David Tett)


Belfast Grand Opera House

Belfast Grand Opera House

After many years as a cinema, and then suffering from bomb damage, between 1976 and 1980 the theatre was painstakingly restored. To celebrate the restoration and mark the reopening, Brian Walker edited a collection of essays on Matcham, called Frank Matcham Theatre Architect. This made Matcham the first theatre architect to have a book written about him. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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