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Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatre

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Important events

(detail)1879 | opening
The building was erected by architects Dodgshun & Unsworth.
(detail)1926 | fire
The first theatre was destroyed by fire, leaving only shell.
(detail)1932 | construction


(detail)William Frederick Unsworth |architect

Unsworth was an architect from Bath, where he had been articled to Wilson and Wilcox in 1869. He had a keen interest in the architecture of the past, especially French Gothic, and travelled extensively in France before starting in practice in London in 1875 at 13 Buckingham Street, Strand, London with his partner Edward John Dodgshun. Upon receiving the contract for the theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1876, the partners moved to larger premises at 2 Queen Street, Westminster. From 1880, Unsworth’s base was in Sussex and then later in Petersfield, Hampshire, where he was in partnership with his son and Harry Inigo Triggs. Among other public buildings Unsworth was to design were the chapel of King’s School, Warwick (completed 1895), and the interior designs for the choir of the chapel of Rossall School in Lancashire. He became a fellow of the RIBA in 1891. He exhibited between 1882 and 1902 as a watercolour and architectural painter of London, twelve times at the Royal Academy and once at the RBA.

(Sources: Johnson, J. and Greutzner, A., Dictionary of British Artists 1880--1940, Suffolk, 1976; Pringle, M.J., The Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon, an architectural history, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1994.)

IN: publicsculpturesofsussex.co.uk


The first theatre on the site was a mixture of everything from Romanesque to Tudor. The semi-circular front was a remote echo of Semper, but its mode of entry (via a separate building—the museum—and a bridge) was unique.

On the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth it was decided to build a monument at Stratford-upon-Avon. Argument as to what form it should take held up the project for ten years, but finally it was agreed that there should be a theatre and museum, and the competition to choose the design was won by Dodgshun and Unsworth. In April 1877 the foundation stone was laid, and the theatre opened on 23 April 1879, with Helen Faucit and Barry Sullivan in Much Ado About Nothing. To lessen the fire risk, a gallery separated the museum from the theatre. Patrons sitting in the two tiers entered via the museum and this gallery, while the stalls were approached from underneath it.
The entire beautifully balanced ensemble was carried out in a romantic and graceful mixture of Gothic and Tudor. Highly unusual for an English theatre at the time, as Sachs remarked in 1897, was 'the way in which the structure expresses its purpose on the exterior . . . fully in accordance with the most recent ideas on that point'. The tower was entirely ornamental and, like the museum, was not completed until some years later. Internally, a circular screen of Gothic arches carried the auditorium ceiling; the narrow proscenium arch, flanked by clustered piers, had a Tudor look about it. The building cost £20,000, and nearly £11,500 of this was spent on the theatre itself, which seated 900. Unfortunately, this delightful building was destroyed by fire in March 1926, although the museum block and bridge remained unscathed. The shell of the old auditorium was adapted into a conference room when the new theatre was built in 1929-32.


In:  Glasstone, Victor: Victorian and Edwardian Theatres: An Architectural and Social Survey. Harvard 1975 p. 60



Author: Victor Glasstone

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