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Thursday, 16 February 2017

Covent Garden Theatre in Regency London

Theatre Royal, Covent Garden from The Microcosm of London Vol 1 (1808)
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden from The Microcosm of London Vol 1 (1808)
The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, was one of only two theatres licensed to perform plays in Georgian London. The other was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and there was intense competition between the two. In addition, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, had a limited patent that allowed it to perform plays during the summer.

The first theatre (1732-1808)

The first Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, opened in 1732. It was built by the actor John Rich, the manager of The Duke’s Company – one of the only two theatre companies then licensed to perform plays. Rich had commissioned John Gay to write the highly successful The Beggar’s Opera and made sufficient money from the performances in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to invest in a new theatre building. Rich moved his company and their licence to the newly completed Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, which opened on 7 December 1732 with a production of William Congreve’s The Way of the World.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was appointed musical director and many of his operas and oratorios were first performed at Covent Garden.

Theatre improvements in 1792

In 1792, the stage-manager and part-owner Thomas Harris employed the architect Henry Holland to give the theatre a makeover. According to The Microcosm of London, Harris spent £25,000 on internal and external refurbishments.

The Microcosm of London described the new improved theatre:
The principal entrance is in Bow-street, under an antique Doric portico, through a large and spacious saloon, handsomely fitted up and warmed by stoves, leading to the lower circle of boxes, and a double staircase that leads to the upper circles.
The amphitheatre is entirely new, and contains three circles of boxes and a spacious gallery: the form is that of a truncated ellipse, or an egg flattened at one end; the effect of which upon the stage, and upon the sound (not always to be determined by rules) is certainly good. The front of the stage advances something more than the old one into the pit, and is in a straight line.
The boxes are separated from each other by partitions, which are low in front, rise behind, and are placed in a new and commodious direction. They are lined and ceiled with wainscot, but are not papered, for the advantage of sound: their fronts project in a manner very accommodating to those who sit in the first rows.1
Inside Covent Garden Theatre in 1804 from Old and New London (1873)
Inside Covent Garden Theatre in 1804 from Old and New London (1873)
Feltham’s The Picture of London (1807) also described the theatre:
The internal form of this building is that of a horse-shoe. It contains four tiers of boxes, that hold about twelve hundred persons; the fronts of which are painted white, bordered with gold and green, and the partitions are coloured in green, and relieved with a fanciful variety of bordering, which has a delicate and pleasing effect.
The pit holds six hundred and thirty-two persons, is forty feet in breadth, and thirty-eight in depth, and contains twenty benches, which are so conveniently raised, as to give the audience a full view of every part of the stage.
The principal lobby, or lounging-room, to this theatre, is of an octagon form, and is thirty-eight feet each way. In this place women attend with tea, coffee, and fruit.
The Covent Garden stage is ninety-two feet in length, and thirty-four feet in breadth, between the stage doors, and is decorated with expensive and splendid scenery. Mr. Richards, secretary to the Royal Academy, and Mr. Phillips, are the principal scene painters of the theatre, who stand high in public opinion from the excellent labours of their pencil.2
The King’s box

Special provisions were made for the royal family, including a separate entrance:
There is a room elegantly fitted up for the reception of their Majesties, which is twenty-two feet square, and situated near the King's entrance in Hart-street. The stage-box, when occupied by their Majesties, is most superbly decorated with rich silk, and velvet hangings, which are fancifully adorned with gold fringe and tassels.2
The private entrance for the royal family was through a large building in Hart-street ‘erected for the scene-painters, scene-rooms, green-room, dressing-room, &c.’2 The stage-door and box-office were also in Hart Street.

The first price riots

The theatre reopened on 17 September 1792 to scenes of heckling and disruption. The managers had raised the prices to the same level as Drury Lane Theatre to help cover the cost of the improvements and had failed to install a one-shilling gallery. As a result, the opening performances were interrupted by the audience’s noisy complaints. When the management promised to erect a one-shilling gallery as soon as possible, however, the opposition to the new prices dissolved.

Visiting the theatre

According to Feltham’s The Picture of London (1807) the numbers of people that could be accommodated in the theatre and the prices for each type of seat were:


The doors opened at 5.30pm and the performance started at 6.30pm. People could be admitted for half price at the end of the third act of the play which, according to the The Picture of London (1809), was ‘generally a little after eight o’clock.’3 The Picture of London (1813) went into a little more detail, specifying that half-price began at the end of the third act of a five-act play but at the end of the second of a three-act play.

Feltham’s The Picture of London (1818) stated that
… the modern dinner hours of 7, 8, and 9 o'clock, have doubtless interfered with the frequent attendance of a large portion of the population, at entertainments which take place between the hours of 6 and 11; yet two theatres, through a season of 200 playing nights, each capable of containing 3000 persons, are moderately filled, and often crowded. To accommodate the public, the theatres have altered their times of beginning to seven o'clock.4
The box book

The Picture of London (1813) stated that ‘places for the boxes may be taken in the morning at the Box-Office, on paying 1s. for a party; or a private box may be takes for a family, on paying for six places.’5

The box book was kept by Mr Brandon. There appear to have been two Mr Brandons – James and John
… who are remarkable for their attention to the public, and ever ready to render each applicant for a box as comfortable as the arrangement of their box-book will allow. They particularly distinguished themselves by their impartiality and justice to the public, when the boxes of Covent-Garden were in great request during the zenith of Master Betty’s theatrical glory.6
Behind-the-scenes tours

According to The Picture of London (1807), behind-the-scenes tours were available for a small payment ‘on proper application at the stage door, and to persons who never saw the machinery of a theatre, they afford a most interesting spectacle.’

It added that: ‘Constables always attend at the doors, to take improper persons into custody.’7

The first theatre burns down

On 20 September 1808, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, was completely destroyed by fire. It was estimated that the loss of property was around £150,000 of which only £50,000 was covered by insurance. To raise sufficient funds to rebuild the theatre, the management issued subscription shares of £500 each.

George, Prince of Wales, laid the foundation stone of the new theatre on 31 December 1808, and within ten months, the theatre was finished. Whilst the theatre was being rebuilt, the Covent Garden Theatre Company performed at the Opera House and then at the Haymarket Theatre.

The second Theatre Royal (1809-1856)

Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
The new theatre was designed by the architect Robert Smirke and modelled on the Temple of Minerva in the Athenian Acropolis. The Picture of London (1818) stated that Smirke had ‘reared a theatre more elegant and more majestic than any this nation has hitherto possessed.’8

The main fa├žade was on Bow Street:
The Doric portico in Bow Street, with its four fluted columns, and statues of Tragedy and Comedy, were by Flaxman, and the two long panels in the upper part, with representations in basso-relievo of ancient and modern drama, were by Flaxman and Rossi.9
The theatre entrance
The principal entrance to the boxes is under the portico in Bow-street. On the left side of the vestibule is the grand staircase, which, with its landing, forms the central third part of an hall, divided longitudinally by two rows of insulated columns, coloured after porphyry. This leads to the anti-room, with porphyry pilasters, and a statue of Shakspeare on a pedestal. The doors on the right open into the box-lobby, which is decorated in a similar manner. There is another entrance from Covent-Garden, by a staircase with a double flight.
The royal entrance is by the open court from Hart-street, which will admit the royal carriages to the door of the private staircase that leads to the apartments provided for their Majesties.10
The interior of the new theatre

The saloon leading to the private boxes, Covent Garden Theatre,  from Ackermann's Repository (1810)
The saloon leading to the private boxes, Covent Garden Theatre,
from Ackermann's Repository (1810)
The Microcosm of London described the inside of the new theatre:
The interior of the Theatre is rather larger than that of the late structure; and differs from those hitherto constructed, by approaching nearer to a circle. There are three circles of boxes, with a row of side-boxes above them, on a level with the two-shilling gallery. These upper side-boxes are without roof or canopy. Immediately behind them rise the slips, their fronts forming a perpendicular line with the back of the upper side-boxes. The one-shilling gallery in the center ranges with the fronts of the slips, the whole assuming the circular form, and upholding a range of arches, which support the circular ceiling : the latter is painted to imitate a cupola, in square compartments, in a light relief. The pannels are of a grey colour, with wreaths of honeysuckles, &c. in gold. The box fronts are perpendicular, and their ornaments are painted on canvas, and fixed on the fronts. Each circle is supported by slender reeded pillars, in burnished gold. The covering of the seats is of a light blue.
The Theatre is lighted by patent lamps and elegant chandeliers.10
The Picture of London (1818) wrote:
The stage is large, and well calculated by its depth for the exhibition of processions and extensive scenery. Two very elegant and lofty pilasters support a semi-elliptical arch, over which is the royal arms. Two figures are painted on each side of the arch in relief; they are females, holding wreaths of laurel, trumpets, &c. A crimson fall of drapery, in rich folds, is painted within the arch, and covers the supporters of the curtain. The ceiling is painted to resemble a cupola, divided into square compartments, and surmounted with the figure of an ancient lyre. The shape of the house before the curtain is that of a rounded horse-shoe, wide at the heel. This shape is continued from the bottom to the top of the house, with an unbroken uniformity, and by that means every sound, as it enters, is regularly diffused, and the slightest whisper is rendered audible. Still the width of the proscenium is sufficiently ample to present all the scenery to the view of those in the sides of the pit, or the side boxes.11
New Covent Garden Theatre from The Microcosm of London Vol 3 (1810)
New Covent Garden Theatre from The Microcosm of London Vol 3 (1810)
The OP War

The new Covent Garden Theatre opened on 18 September 1809. In a desperate attempt to recoup some of the costs of rebuilding, the theatre management decided to increase the prices of the boxes from 6s to 7s and the pit from 3s 6d to 4s. This was a big mistake. The opening performance of Macbeth, with Mrs Siddons playing her iconic role of Lady Macbeth, was disrupted by the audience loudly protesting about the price increases. People also complained about the increased number of private boxes. This disruption lasted for around six weeks and became known as the ‘Old Price’ riots or OP War. The OP War finally ended when the management agreed to reduce the price of the pit back to the old price of 3s 6d and reduce the number of private boxes to the same as before.

Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth  after painting by GH Harlow from    Shakespeare on stage by W Winter (1911)
Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth
after painting by GH Harlow from  
Shakespeare on stage by W Winter (1911)
Theatre improvements in 1813

The theatre was redecorated and embellished in 1813.
The Rose, the Thistle, and the Shamrock, in burnished gold, adorn the different circles of the boxes; and the arch over the proscenium was formed into an elegant cove, enriched with the same national ornaments. The hearing of the house has been thus made perfect; and it is now generally esteemed the most tasteful and most comfortable theatre in Europe. The introduction of gas, from a magnificent chandelier in the centre of the ceiling, forms a new era in lighting theatres.11
The performers

The main performers were contracted to the theatre for a period of three to five years, but the lesser performers were employed on a season to season basis. All the actors were paid weekly and subject to fines if they missed rehearsals or performances unless they were genuinely ill.

The top performers had an additional perk:
NB All performers whose salaries are above six pounds per week, are entitled to four ivory tickets for the free admission of their friends to the theatre, viz. a double and single order for the boxes, and two double orders for the first gallery. All performers whose salaries do not amount to six pounds per week, are totally excluded from any similar privilege.12
Later history

Covent Garden Theatre in 1850 from Old and New London (1873)
Covent Garden Theatre in 1850 from Old and New London (1873)
The Theatres Act was passed in 1843 breaking the monopoly of the patent theatres – Covent Garden and Drury Lane – and enabling other theatres to put on plays. The Covent Garden Theatre was remodelled as the Royal Italian Opera House and reopened on 6 April 1847. However, it lasted for less than ten years in this form as the theatre was again burnt down on 5 March 1856.

Burning of Covent Garden Theatre in 1856 from Old and New London (1873)
Burning of Covent Garden Theatre in 1856 from Old and New London (1873)
The new theatre opened on 15 May 1858 and this building remains at the centre of today’s Royal Opera House.

Notes
1. From Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
2. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1807 (1807)
3. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1809 (1809)
4. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
5. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1813 (1813)
6. From Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
7. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1807 (1807)
8. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
9. From Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1873, London) Vol 3
10. From Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
11. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
12. From Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1807 (1807)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1809 (1809)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1813 (1813)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
The Gentleman’s Magazine (1809)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1873, London) Vol 3