Imagine a theatre, and you’ll conjure up a Frank Matcham design. The salmagundi of intimacy combined with grandeur, the dark spaces contrasted with focused light, the fine sight lines, the deep crimson offset by gold relief, the ornate painted plaster ceilings. This maverick Edwardian architect brought these distinguishing characteristics to more than 80 theatres.
But while his output was outstanding, his reputation wasn’t. One hundred years since his death, few remember him. No major centenary celebrations are planned. But without Matcham, we wouldn’t have some of the finest performance spaces in Britain. His contemporaries in the late Victorian and early Edwardian era, the Arts and Crafts movement, are widely celebrated and documented, the subject of numerous exhibitions.
While many of their homes have been preserved, most of Matcham’s theatres have been demolished. Unfashionable with arbiters of artistic taste, little attention was paid to them after his death. In 1960s regeneration schemes, local authorities replaced them with cinemas, nightclubs and bingo halls.
Matcham’s exclusion from these art histories reveals attitudes still prevalent today. His style was extravagant and his interiors were far from understated: a potpourri of Tudor strap-work, Louis XIV flourishes, Anglo-Indian motifs, military insignia and classical statuary, as if created from flicking through the etchings in Encyclopedia Britannica rather than the annals of the Royal Institute of British Architects (which never admitted him to membership).
His designs may have been fanciful, but they were wonderful social levellers. Comfort and inclusion – as we’d call it now – were at the heart. Historian Vanessa Toulmin, who has written extensively on the subject, says when Matcham designed the Tower Ballroom it “became the greatest social mix in Blackpool”. More than a century later, I sat at a table in the little-changed interior, under Matcham’s marvellous ornate ceiling, sipping tea while watching the dancers. Blue-rinsed old ladies in swirling skirts partnered to the foxtrot; a gay couple clutched each other’s shoulders as they tangoed across the polished floor; a couple of kids looked on and copied them. It was Matcham who designed the stages on which such social revolutions could begin to happen.
Though he designed London’s Palladium and Hippodrome, much of Matcham’s work was outside the capital and at popular seaside resorts
Ironically, Matcham’s commercial success also counted against him. He lined up commissions because he had an eye for exploiting a confined space, squeezing in as many seats as possible without compromising on comfort. He was as concerned about acoustics and sight lines as the gold paint on the rococo panels. He was also renowned for bringing a project in on time and budget – a lesson many architects could learn from today.
Even his solid business sense didn’t bring in accolades. Though he designed London’s Palladium and Hippodrome, much of Matcham’s work was outside the capital and at popular seaside resorts. More than 50 small towns boasted Matcham theatres, impressive but largely invisible to London-based critics. Matcham “was not designing for the elite of the architectural press or the academy: he was designing for a commercial industrialised leisure industry that wanted opulence, grandeur and excess”, says Toulmin. Much of this metropolitan prejudice lives on.
Matcham didn’t just create a new style of venue, he also built new theatre audiences. Even today, those buying tickets for Aladdin at the London Palladium or Hackney Empire’s panto may baulk at splashing out to see Shakespeare in Stratford or Pinter at the Donmar. So let’s celebrate Matcham the unlikely revolutionary: his popular designs questioned whom theatres are for.
Dea Birkett is ringmaster at Circus250