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Grand Theatre and Opera House

George Corson

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Important events

(detail)1878 | opening

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George Corson |main architect

History

An example of an eclectic neo-Gothic style is the superb Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House (1878), still one of the finest theatres in Britain. By the mid-century, the major industrial cities had developed their own individual character. The prosperous textile, engineering and ready-made clothing manufacturers of Leeds had expressed their individuality in Cuthbert Brodrick's grandiose Town Hall (1853-8) and Corn Exchange (1860). The Grand Theatre, designed by George Carson, expressed a similar attitude of civic pride, and the fascinating and sensible arcades of the last decades of the nineteenth century gave tangible evidence of an individuality still evident in the third quarter of the twentieth. The Grand was in effect a cultural and shopping centre. Beneath the concert hall, now a cinema, was a series of six shops; the main entrance to the theatre was under the grand saloon and like the concert hall it ran parallel with the main street, New Briggate. The theatre was contained, as a protection against fire, in a quite separate structure. Fire precaution was, for that time, most carefully considered; the architect allowed for each unit of the building to be closed off independently in case of emergency. The stage facilities are all accessible from a side street. In the 18705, touring companies expected to have scenery and props provided for them on arrival, and as a result there are scene shops, rehearsal rooms, and a paint frame in its own paint shop behind the stage, unlike the standard cramped practice of using the back wall of the stage. The theatre had its own gas-making plant, and even a pottery for firing props and utensils.

 

This skilful planning is reflected in the richly decorated auditorium. Although a large house (it originally accommodated 3,200, with 2,600 seated and 600 standing, and now seats 1,552 with 100 standing), the sense of intimacy is remarkable, and the atmosphere exciting and highly theatrical. Three relatively shallow tiers are stacked as tightly as possible, each successive tier dipping down from its centre and set back from the one below it. This dipping line is carried on by the side boxes, the seats of which are also forward of those in the boxes above. The horns of the box tiers are finally rounded off. This careful planning, both in section and in plan, produces a perfect sightline from almost every seat, a technical achievement unusual in British theatres.

The decoration of the theatre was handled with comparable bravura. Four fretted fan vaults seemingly support a shallow saucer dome, enriched with deep modelled ornament of Second Empire flamboyance. The clustered piers flanking the proscenium arch provide another Gothic touch, while the deep undercutting of the plasterwork on the tier fronts has the ebullience of a Corinthian frieze. The royal boxes are set within a Cinquecento frame; unfortunately, the giant goddesses which once adorned them have been removed and are now stored, undamaged, in the old pottery. Otherwise, the house still preserves intact its 1870s bombast, worthy of a grand theatre in Brussels, Paris or Vienna.

 

In:  Glasstone, Victor: Victorian and Edwardian Theatres: An Architectural and Social Survey. Harvard 1975 p. 62 - 64

 

 

Author: Victor Glasstone

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