|(Photo: Cloud Nine Photography)
Theatre in Richmond, North Yorkshire has been authoritatively
described as the most important theatre in the development of
the English playhouse. It is listed Grade I and built of rubblestone
sandstone with a graded stone slate roof, originally pegged with
sheep bones. The building's physical massing and impact on the
streetscape is relatively low key, and its external appearance
is non-specific, providing no true indication of its function. Simply styled in the local vernacular, it blends with
the many late 18th century buildings in the centre of town.
|The theatre as it appears now (top) and as it appeared at the start of the project (above), with its intrusive stage lighting, ventilation fittings, and rather garish decorative scheme. Wherever practical the new decorative scheme
was based on evidence uncovered in the investigation of the surviving original fabric. Some elements, including the front cloth and light fittings, were based on contemporary 18th century designs.
has only four pre-1830 theatres which retain the form and style
of their original auditorium and stage and, of these, Richmond
is by far the least altered, leaving it as the most complete and
earliest example of a small provincial Georgian playhouse. (Only
the much altered Theatre Royal Bristol, 1766, is older).
built in 1788 by Samuel Butler on land leased from Richmond Corporation
as one of his circuit of theatres, and his company staged regular
productions here until 1830 when the corporation refused to renew
the lease. Nevertheless, the playhouse continued to be used for
occasional theatrical performances until 1848 when the pit was
floored over and wine vaults constructed. Above stage level the
playhouse became an auction room, but fortunately the boxes and
gallery were not disturbed and, when re-discovered in the late
1930s, the rest of the interior was found to have survived virtually
In 1963, over a century after the last performance was
held here, the old theatre was reopened following a restoration
led by the theatre consultant Richard Southern. However, the restoration
was limited by lack of money and by the fact that Southern's research
with Richard Leacroft into the Georgian playhouse had only just
begun. Since then, significant additional scholarly research has
been undertaken, discoveries have come to light and knowledge
has been assimilated, providing vital information for further
The most recent programme of work commenced in 2003.
Throughout the process emphasis was placed on the need to sustain
this building in its primary function as a working theatre. This
required a fine balance between parts of the building (particularly
the later additions) which required a re-evaluation for modern
use, and other areas where there was a need for them to be returned
to a former state.
Loss of detail and fabric has occurred over
the years and recent research and discoveries informed the new
programme, proving invaluable in areas where knowledge was lacking
at the time of Southern's restoration. Physically small but nevertheless
significant losses within the theatre include the original proscenium
doors, original stage machinery, methods of lighting and ventilation,
as well as most of the original paint layers within the auditorium.
The project included the design of a new three-storey 'front of
house' containing a stairwell and lift, toilets and two bars.
This was designed as a contemporary interpretation of the basic
form and mass of the original, and one that allowed the legibility
of the 1788 theatre to shine through. Relatively little was done
to the original external structural fabric, which was basically
sound, other than to underpin part of the south wall, found to
be lacking a foundation during the demolition of various 20th
century additions. From a conservation perspective, the most interesting
element of the project is the approach to the interior refurbishment
of the 1788 auditorium and stagehouse.
|The ceiling of the auditorium is now painted with white clouds in the manner of the 18th century, and has new ventilation
grilles. (Photo: Cloud Nine Photography)
no primary evidence to indicate how the theatre was decorated or lit in
1788 beyond the lower levels of painted decoration indicated in
the microscopic paint analysis carried out in the early stages
of the recent works. However, this very comprehensive and thorough
examination, carried out by historic paint analyst Lisa Oestreicher,
proved vital in providing the basic evidence used in developing
an authentic decorative scheme, and while it provided information
on the sequence of colour schemes, in this instance the paint
constituents used did not enable accurate dating.
there are no accounts of the decoration of the Richmond Theatre
in newspapers or diaries, and secondary evidence for the decoration
of 18th century playhouses in general is also minimal. A decision
had to be made on a date for a decorative scheme that could be
supported by the primary and secondary evidence, and 1816 as a
date had many attractions, not least because there is a wealth
of secondary evidence for the decoration and lighting of late
Georgian playhouses between 1800 and 1830 including:
- The watercolours
of Robert B Schnebbelie (1780-1849) which reveal in great detail
the architecture and audience of minor theatres in use between
1819 and 1825.
- The 'Eyre manuscript', an unpublished account
of the development of the Theatre Royal Ipswich from 1803 to 1888
illustrated with watercolours and scraps of original wallpaper.
- Studies of the remaining fragments of other Butler theatres,
especially Harrogate, for which accounts survive.
and secondary evidence was brought together by scenic artist Pauline
Knox-Crichton in discussions with expert theatre and other consultants
to create a decorative scheme that is both historically authentic
and attractive to modern audiences. The scheme builds on a background
of stone/beige to the walls and perimeter of the ceiling, with
the joinery work (doors, columns, box dividers, and box fronts)
painted a blue/green. The floors have all been left as natural wood.
|A photograph of the interior taken in 1944 by Richard
Leacroft shows the theatre when still being used as an
auction house, with the pit floor covered over.
In 1963 the rubblestone
forming the rear walls to the side boxes was covered in canvas
and painted. Although inspection revealed that the stone had been
painted in the 18th century, little paint now remains, and evidence
indicated that canvas on battens had been installed early in the
theatre's life. It was therefore decided to continue this tradition,
and painted canvas linings have now been reinstated.
with many playhouses of the period, the ceiling has been painted
with a sky of white clouds on a blue background, within a border
that mirrors the line of the box fronts. While this was commonplace
at the time, it required the remodelling of the theatre ceiling
at the point where it sloped upwards towards the rear of the auditorium.
However, firm evidence that this was the original ceiling form
was found in the ghosted plaster line of the original on the flanking
walls, and confirmed by the position of a now partially exposed
roof truss coinciding with what we believed to be the original
Miraculously, several of the 1788 timber painted
panels (the stage left box front, and two above the proscenium
doors) have survived, and were expertly restored in the mid 1990s.
The stage left box front shows the shield of the Borough of Richmond,
and opposite, the shield of Thomas Dundas, one of the theatre's
original patrons, has been reinstated, the original having been
lost in a small fire in the 1940s. Over the centre box are the
reproduced Royal Arms of George III known to have been introduced
when the 'Theatre' became the 'Theatre Royal'. The rest of the
box fronts have been painted with a simple swag motif in dark
green on the blue background, with the names of prominent playwrights
painted over the boxes in the style of the 'Shakespeare' box,
which is the only original to have survived.
|Reconstruction by Richard Leacroft of the original theatre
design (from The Development of the English Playhouse
by R Leacroft, Methuen 1973)
None of the
original stage surface survived the conversion into a wine vault
after the theatre closed in 1848 although many of the structural
timbers did survive and have been retained in situ. However, these
had deflected over the years and had subsequently been propped,
resulting in a bowed and uneven raked stage. New structural timber
joists were inserted including an oak flitch beam to support the
front of the stage, and adjustments were made to ensure as even
a rake as possible.
The 1788 trap sliders and the trimmers for
the grave trap had also survived, and have been retained in situ
beneath the new red deal stage, within which fast-rise trap doors
and one fast-rise trap have been installed so that the stage effects
used by Butler's company and others can be recreated.
of how far the stage extended was the subject of much debate,
and within the documentation which already exists on the layout
and form of the Richmond playhouse, much time has been devoted
to the original position of the forestage. Research now shows
that the original forestage extended to the first column, making
the pit a perfect square and extending the acting area into the
house by about 1.6 m (5' 3") and that this was cut back in the
19th century. A permanent flexible forestage has now been built,
replacing the temporary arrangement introduced in 1963.
layout of the stage at Richmond provides for two possible stage
formats; a stage front immediately downstage of the proscenium
doors, or a forestage to be added by inserting a number of 'drop-in
lids' to form a cover over the small orchestra pit. One expert,
Mark Howell, has taken issue with the existence of the orchestra
pit, saying that he knew of 'no evidence that 18th century provincial
theatres ever incorporated orchestra pits'.
This issue of the
Georgian orchestra pit illustrates perfectly the way in which
the conservation philosophy needs to be tailored. While the debate
about the existence of an orchestra pit is an interesting one,
the reality of operating the playhouse today demands that one
must be provided. The question is therefore one of carefully considered
design which respects and acknowledges the forestage of a provincial
Georgian playhouse and also recognises the need for a practical
operational orchestra pit.
|The introduction of a new ‘front of house’ to contain two bars, toilets, staircase and a lift avoided the need for extensive
alterations in the original theatre (the second gable).
The previous restoration of the playhouse
took place over a long period and in the early phases involved
both Richard Southern and Richard Leacroft, although the latter
played little part in the major restoration work in 1962. This
early work included the re-interpretation of the physical structure,
and in particular the wine cellar vaulting which lay beneath the
stage and auditorium pit. As part of this process it is clear
from Richard Leacroft's proposal drawings for the pit layout (produced
in 1949) that a new wall was constructed to support the front
of the stage (not the forestage). This provided:
- a rear wall
to the orchestra pit
- a structural wall for supporting the front
of the stage
- acoustic separation between the dressing rooms/machine
- some fire separation between the sub-stage and the
The concept of a formal structural wall separating
sub-stage from auditorium is in reality a late-Victorian concept,
not at all Georgian in origin, and superseded what was generally
only a wooden partition.
The evidence provided by Leacroft's drawings
and further evidence recorded during an examination of the theatre
by a local school teacher in 1939 has allowed greater clarity
to be brought to the layout of the sub-stage, which almost certainly
extended under the forestage in 1788.
It was decided therefore
to remove the 1963 proscenium sub-stage wall, which had little
relevance to the original layout of the playhouse, and to replace
it with heavy timber sliding doors, allowing either a larger orchestra
to be accommodated in the pit, or with the forestage in position,
additional dressing room space in the machine room which is sometimes
needed, albeit on an ad hoc basis. Large drawers were also provided
which slide under the pit floor to give much needed additional
1963 horizontally set fly floors have been replaced. Built in
red deal, they now follow the slope of the stage as they did in
1788, allowing painted stage set panels of a uniform height to
be slid into place on stage using scene runners, or grooves, which
have also been re-introduced.
These allow the authentic recreation
of late 18th and early 19th century theatre using a facsimile
of Britain's oldest set of scenery, The Woodland Scene, which
Richmond was fortunate to be lent in 1963. The original, which
was probably painted between 1818 and 1836, now resides in the
theatre's museum as it is too valuable to use on stage.
LIGHTING AND VENTILATION OF THE AUDITORIUM
There is no
primary evidence of the original lighting, which will have been
by candle since gas was not available in Richmond until well after
the theatre's closure. Whether or not oil fittings were installed
later in the theatre's history, it is reasonable to suppose that
glass chimneys were introduced here as elsewhere early in the
19th century to steady the fluttering flame of the new wax candles
which were more efficient than the older tallow candles.
1963 restoration the principal 'period' lighting was by artificial
candles bracketed off the columns. These were elegant in a domestic
way but never seemed appropriate to a public playhouse. They also
provided little light and the result was that they appeared to
be no more than decoration.
New 'candles' have been introduced
in the auditorium and increased in number from 16 to 54, each
set in a glass chimney supported by a cast iron fitting. From
above each column small iron rings are hung from brackets to a
design derived from those shown in the Eyre manuscript and in
Thomas Rowlandson's watercolour of the Scarborough Theatre of
1813, while the remainder are suspended on large iron rings from
the ceiling, one in a central position and two slightly smaller ones over the forestage.
||The original painted panel of the Sheridan box with a shield
and (below) one of the new painted panels decorated with
a ‘lion rampant’.
The panel over the door is also original.
When examined in the 1950s, several circular openings in the ceiling
were discovered, including one over the central forestage,
plastered over in the 19th century. Secondary evidence indicates
that these provided extract ventilation assisted by the stack
effect of warm air rising from the candle rings suspended below
them. These have now been recombined with black iron grilles to
provide fresh air input, and candle rings have been suspended
from them on retractable cables so that they can be raised above
the audience sight lines during performance.
All the candles have
random flicker and provide as realistic an impression of 18th
century lighting as modern technology allows, and lighting in
the ceiling to the boxes has also been introduced by way of threading
fibre optics above the 1788 sloping plaster ceiling. Virtually
invisible during performances, this lighting is sufficient to
enable patrons to find their seats and to read their programmes.
LIGHTING IN THE AUDITORIUM
introduction of modern stage lighting had resulted in an unsatisfactory
intrusion of heavy-looking black stage luminaires, hanging from
lighting rails that drew the eye and bore no relation to the architecture
of the auditorium. These have been replaced with new, much smaller
luminaires, finished in the same background colour as the ceiling,
and hung from lighting rails that mirror the line of the box fronts
and perimeter of the new painted ceiling, resulting in a greatly
reduced level of visual intrusion.
1788 benches, installed in 1963, have been re-introduced with
new detachable cushions, detachable backs, and removable bench
ends designed to extend the benches over the aisles as done in
1788. In the boxes the early 20th century gilt ballroom chairs
have been replaced with new chairs to a less intrusive 18th century
pattern. No great improvements in comfort have been made in the
auditorium, although elsewhere in the new extension are greatly
improved bars and lavatories.
PROSCENIUM ARCH AND DOORS
square-headed proscenium 'arch' was also modified. Inspection
of the building fabric and study of secondary evidence suggested
that a 3-point arch had been removed when the theatre became an
auction room in the 19th century. Evidence has recently been found
for the hanging of a detachable painted pelmet immediately behind
it. Both have now been reintroduced, completing the proscenium.
Perhaps the greatest change is the replacement of a bulky four-panel
reefer curtain of bottle green by a 5-panel less full reefer curtain
of plum baize, a colour in widespread use at the beginning of
the 19th century. This is capable of being hauled up out of view.
However, pride of place goes to the recreated front cloth. Front
cloths, which depicted a local scene, were a familiar integral
part of the decorations of many theatres in Britain and North
America for the whole of the 19th century. These front cloths
greeted the audience on arrival and helped raise their expectations.
The reefer curtain would be used only at the end of a performance
or, if any, at the interval, between mainpiece and afterpiece
of a long evening's programme.
Front cloths were generally roller
cloths. The bottom of the cloth was attached to a six-inch wooden
drum on which the cloth rolled upwards to reveal the scene and
There is no primary evidence as to what was painted
on the Richmond front cloth but there is evidence that a local
Royal Academician, George Cuit the elder (1743-1818) created painted
scenery for the opening of the theatre in 1788, and it was therefore
decided to reproduce on the front cloth a view of Richmond Castle
and the River Swale, painted by Cuit in 1810. This was painted
by Pauline Knox-Crichton and Peter Crombie.
Only at Richmond is
the earthy immediacy of the Georgian playhouse strongly evoked.
But the theatre has another role beyond being a living museum
for both the British and the international theatre community.
It has an equally significant role as the community theatre of
Richmond and the surrounding area. The recently completed work
will hopefully ensure that it succeeds in its latter role, without
which it cannot survive to perform the first.
article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2005
NICHOLAS ALLEN RIBA is a director of Allen Tod
Architecture Limited, a Leeds-based practice
specialising in arts and cultural projects,
conservation and regeneration, and in particular
the development of new uses for redundant,
often derelict historic buildings. He is a member
of the Register of Architects Accredited in Building
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