Concert hall, built 1867-1871 by Lt. Col. Henry Y. D. Scott (using designs by Captain Francis Fowke) for the "Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences Corporation", on the former site of Gore House. Opened 29 March 1871 by Queen Victoria. Named in honour of Queen Victoria's late husband, Prince Consort Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-1861). The Royal Albert Hall Organ (9779 pipes) is the second-largest organ in the U.K. (second only to the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral Organ).
In 1851 a Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park, London, for which a so-called Crystal Palace was built. The exhibition was a great success and led Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, to propose that a permanent series of facilities be built in the area for the enlightenment of the public. Progress on the scheme was slow and in 1861 Prince Albert died, without having seen his ideas come to fruition. However, a memorial was proposed for Hyde Park, with a Great Hall opposite. The proposal was approved and the site was purchased with some of the profits from the Exhibition. Once the remaining funds had been raised, in April 1867 Queen Victoria signed the Royal Charter under which the Hall was to operate and on 20 May, laid the foundation stone.
Designed by members of the Royal Engineers, influenced by ancient amphitheatres, the Hall was constructed mainly of brick, with terra cotta block decoration. The dome on top was made of steel and glazed. There was a trial assembly made of the steel framework of the dome in Manchester, then it was taken apart again and transported down to London via horse and cart. When the time came for the supporting structure to be removed from the dome after re-assembly in situ, only volunteers remained on site in case the structure dropped. It did drop - but only by 5/8 of an inch! The Hall was scheduled to be completed by Christmas Day 1870 and the Queen visited a few days beforehand to inspect. She was reported as saying "It looks like the British Constitution".
The official opening ceremony of The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences (its full title) was on 29 March 1871. After a welcoming speech by the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria was too emotional to speak, so the Prince had to announce that "The Queen declares this Hall is now open". A concert followed, when the Hall's acoustic problems became apparent.These were not properly tackled until 1969 when a series of large fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs (commonly referred to as 'mushrooms') were installed in the roof to cut down the notorious echo.
Initially lit by gas (when thousands of gas jets were lit by a special system within 10 seconds), full electric lighting was installed in 1897. During an earlier trial when a partial installation was made, one disgruntled patron wrote to The Times newspaper declaring it to be "a very ghastly and unpleasant innovation".
Royal Albert Hall
More, even, than the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall owes its existence to Henry Cole, secretary of the Science and Art Department. The growth of the museum was nourished by a widespread wish for something of the kind: the hall was far more the creation of individual wills, and chiefly of Cole's.
It was built between 1867 and 1871, to the design of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Scott, R.E. (1822–83), based on a design by Captain Francis Fowke, R.E. (b. 1823), who had died in December 1865. Both Scott and Fowke were attached to Cole's Department, and although that Department was not officially associated with the hall each was assisted by other members of its design-staff. The various contributions to the final design cannot be stated definitely but it is clear that the hall owes its general form and much of its internal arrangement to Fowke and his assistants, whereas the exterior and the specific character of the architecture inside and out is mainly owed to Scott and his helpers.
The hall represents, as Marcus Binney has noted, two distinct aspirations—one for a large chorus or music hall, and another for a conference centre to serve the needs of the learned world. Both objectives appealed to Cole, as they did to the Prince Consort, but it is evident that Cole, whose love of music, 'theatricals', and publicity is apparent thoughout his life, was chiefly excited by the idea of a large hall of popular appeal, whereas the circumstances in which it was begun, on the estate of the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners and in some sort of commemoration of the Prince, seemed to require it to be formally dedicated to the service of science and art.
One respect in which the hall as built was consonant with the Prince's ideas was in its financing by private rather than public money. This approach was even more congenial to Cole, whose sanguine temper and fertile brain turned him readily to the investing public as a source of capital, and this cast of mind was one of the factors that gave the hall its ultimate character.
As early as 1853 the Prince had been thinking that the Royal Academy of Music might like to build a 'music hall' on the Commissioners' estate, on the south side of Cromwell Road. Donaldson, Cockerell and Pennethorne included halls here or elsewhere on the Commissioners' estate in layouts suggested by them at that time—some being circular. This idea came to nothing but in 1855 a 'large covered building suitable for the performance of Music' was (Cole says) intended to be the centre of a private development suggested by the Prince for the present Victoria and Albert Museum site. It would have been surrounded by a quadrangle of shops and flats with museum and art galleries above them. This idea also fell through but for ten years the project strongly influenced Cole's ideas about the physical form of a hall complex.
In summer 1857 Cole was planning a great music hall 'constructed with due regard to the principles of sound'. The Prince was unwilling to back it directly but Cole consulted with the builder John Kelk and produced a scheme for an enormous amphitheatre. Within it, 30,000 people could 'assemble and practise chorus singing', providing 'a new and beneficial attraction especially to thousands of artizans who now seek their evening amusements in debasing pursuits and temptations'. Cole was envisaging it with straight sides and rounded ends, probably placed within a surrounding rectangle of galleries. It would have been built by a Chorus Hall Company and financed both by life-subscribers 'desirous of promoting the Moral improvement of the people and of being present at the concerts, shows etc' and by ordinary shareholders attracted by promises of a good dividend.
Soon another international exhibition was in prospect at the southern end of the Commissioners' estate, and the great hall was adopted by the authorities into their plans. In 1859 Fowke as the exhibition's architect was planning a gigantic straight-sided amphitheatre, perhaps as much as 600 by 300 by 220 feet, and holding 26,000 people, as the main feature of his building. It was only abandoned at a late stage in the preparations, in February 1861.
Two or three months later a private company of 'musical amateurs' was proposing to replace it by a temporary circular hall holding 10,000 people, to house concerts under Alfred Mellon. It would have been financed by the sale of shares in the profit from a year's working. It is not known if Cole had anything to do with it and the idea seems to have come to nothing. The site would have been at the north end of the estate, and approximately that of the present hall.
In the following year thoughts about a hall at South Kensington were taking a different turn. At the end of 1861 the Prince had died, and among the various means of commemorating him a hall more or less on the present site was considered. It was especially a cherished idea of General Charles Grey, the Prince's former and the Queen's present secretary, whose zeal for the project throughout its changing forms was hardly less than Cole's. (He died in 1870, just before it was finished, and is commemorated in the hall by a bust which Cole commissioned from the sculptor Boehm in 1876. The hall, however, was being visualized as a much more modest structure than Cole's amphitheatre. This was because, if commemorative, it ought to have been some sort of fulfilment of the Prince's very imperfectly realized schemes for the main quadrangle of the Commissioners' estate, where he had envisaged a hall less as a great popular resort than as a 'centre of union' for the various societies cultivating science and the arts which he wished to attract to the area. Chiefly, it was to house the meetings or conversaziones of savants. The societies in question seemed unwilling to move to South Kensington but there were still hopes that the National Gallery or the Royal Academy might come from Trafalgar Square, and Grey recalled that the Prince had thought of a hall of sculpture to form a grand entrance to the galleries to be built for them on the estate. It would also afford a fine northern approach to the garden of the Royal Horticultural Society, perhaps through a great archway. Grey became enthusiastic for the hall of sculpture as an adjunct to the 'personal memorial' to the Prince (the Albert Memorial) on the other side of the Kensington Road. Cole added that it could be used for scholastic purposes, perhaps in connexion with the industrial or technological 'university' that might be established at South Kensington. Edgar Bowring, the Commissioners' secretary, also thought of it in this context. At any rate a hall was likely to be, rather vaguely, 'useful', and calculated to enlist the support of such as Gladstone for a subscription on behalf of the Prince's memorial. In the summer of 1862 a committee of architects which had been asked to advise by the memorial committee under the Conservative leader, Lord Derby, suggested that a hall, or 'central point of union' of 'general character', might be part of the memorial. The vagueness of this notion was the object of some ridicule. But when a select group of largely identical architects was asked for designs for a memorial layout a hall was included in the 'programme'. The size very tentatively indicated to them was modest—some 150 feet by 80 feet.
At the end of 1862 the architects produced their designs, together with those for the personal memorial. Events were to rob them of much practical importance in the history of the hall, and it is therefore of the less significance that only two designs, T. L. Donaldson's and (more partially) P. C. Hardwick's, are known from illustrations, although the plan of another, James Pennethorne's, is recorded. All three were classical and rectangular, Donaldson's hall being placed parallel and the other two at right angles to Kensington Road. The younger Charles Barry's hall was said to be based on the chapel at Versailles: his brother E. M. Barry's had a portico and dome and would have held 3,000 persons.
The remaining two architects' designs have a little more long-term interest in the story of the hall. M. D. Wyatt proposed a top-lit hall of fair size, circular in form with a diameter of 130 or 150 feet, in alternative classical or Gothic versions. The significance of this is shadowy, but he was the one architect of the seven who was to have a continuing connexion with the hall as built, in an advisory role (being one of a committee set up to aid Henry Scott in 1866), and an anonymous correspondent in The Building News in 1874 suggested, for what it is worth, that his design was the prototype of the hall as built: it seems that in Fowke's or Henry Scott's hands the hall design was, for a brief period, circular and not elliptical as built. The other architect was Gilbert Scott, who produced four drawings. He came nearest of any to designing the hall, but in the end was totally excluded: unlike Wyatt, he was not one of Cole's circle.
By his own description, Gilbert Scott's main offering was a domed 'hall of science' based on Saint Sophia, employing sculpture, painting and mosaic freely in decoration. He was moved to comment: 'I may safely say, without being charged with self-praise, that if my design were carried out, it would, after making due allowance for dimension, material, etc. be scarcely excelled in beauty of form by any single and unbroken interior in existence.' A second version interpreted the same design in a pointed-arch style and was, he thought, no less fine. Two smaller and cheaper designs for rectangular halls were again in semi-Byzantine and Gothic. The Builder called Scott's designs 'very fanciful and in their style very beautiful'. Cole contented himself with noting, 'no utility in the Hall'.
Scott's design for the personal memorial was chosen, in the spring of 1863. But it was obvious that it would swallow up all, or more than all, the funds then available, and Lord Derby's committee relinquished the hope of themselves building the hall also. Scott's estimates for this had ranged between £57,000 and £90,000. The 1851 Exhibition Commissioners had, however, agreed to reserve the site for a hall.
Scott addressed himself to the various problems posed by the 'personal' memorial design, under a harassing fire of criticism from Cole, who was meanwhile incubating fresh ideas to set before Grey for the accomplishment of the hall. In the autumn of 1863 Cole wrote to Grey from Vienna. He and the Department's art superintendent, Richard Redgrave, were travelling in central Europe and looking into all the large halls they came to. The 'Spanish Hall' in the Hradschin Palace in Prague was, Cole wrote, good for sound but measured only 120 feet by 60 feet, whereas 'the Albert Hall should be at least twice this size'. On the train home from Strasburg he wrote again, exposing his views more fully. He had been sceptical of the success of a hall limited to the pursuit of science and the arts and had already told Grey that it must be linked to all the activities at South Kensington to make it popular. Now that the initiative lay for the time being with him he was turning the project back towards the gargantuan populist schemes. The hall should be 300 feet by 200 feet and seat 15,000 people. It would cost some £200,000, to be raised by the sale of debentures, giving a transferable right of free admission, and of life-admissions. The fare to be provided was listed: the meetings of learned, artistic and scientific societies, Royal Horticultural Society flower-shows, the concerts of musical societies, cheap organ-concerts, special art and industrial exhibitions, occasional public meetings, public fetes, and uses ancillary to the annual or decennial international exhibitions planned for adjacent sites in South Kensington.
Henceforward the great hall was for Cole and those (like Grey) influenced by him an object to be achieved regardless of any direct utility for the cultivation of the arts and sciences narrowly conceived. It was, furthermore, an object whose miscellaneous purposes would constitute a very incoherent 'programme' for the architect of a unitary building.
Cole's design, however, was still at that stage the straight-sided amphitheatre within a rectangle of flats, shops and galleries, and therefore contained within itself at least the potentiality of a permanent revenue applicable towards the running costs of the hall independent of the 'box office'. Grey reminded doubters that this element of commercial practicality was in accord with the Prince's thinking. The Queen agreed.
Cole's scheme late in 1863 is indicated by a sketch plan and section in the Victoria and Albert Museum reproduced by Marcus Binney. Cole and Henry Scott later thought that the section was significantly close to what was built.
With Gilbert Scott otherwise engaged the project was in South Kensington hands, and it was to Richard Redgrave's son Gilbert, an architectural draughtsman in the Department, that Cole's plans were first sent for working out. As the author of the approved memorial design Gilbert Scott could hardly be ignored, but it seems to have been only in March 1864 that Cole and he were discussing the hall. Then it was in a sense that can hardly have been gratifying to him. According to Cole's diary, he now suggested to Scott that the latter should design the exterior of the building but that for the interior he should be only one of a committee of four with Cole himself, Richard Redgrave and the Department's architect, Fowke. Evidently in respect even of the exterior the final voice was to be with this committee though Scott would have had a (probably ineffective) dual vote. The question whether the building should be round or oblong was also discussed between them. Scott, who 'inclined to an early Gothic with a tinge of Byzantine', said that he would consider the proposition. In June 1864 he produced a design for the exterior of the surrounding rectangle. An undated lithograph probably shows what he intended and in itself hints that, as Scott said later, he had in fact remained ignorant of the internal arrangement. He soon learnt, however, that the exterior Cole wanted was limited to the Kensington Gore front of a block of chambers to be built between the road and the rectangular hall complex, to which it was to be only lightly attached. Scott applied himself to this task—for the sake of his own memorial opposite, it may be supposed, as much as the hall's.
Meanwhile Grey had tried to arouse the personal enthusiasm of Lord Derby, whose support as President of the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners seemed essential. Derby was, however, very sceptical. He distrusted Cole's hypothetical figures for receipts and expenditure: above all, he saw clearly that the basis for the hall's success in aid of science and art was its use by an appropriate range of as yet reluctant societies, chiefly but not only the musical.
Faced with this hesitation Cole forced the issue by a bold act. In August 1864, while on the train to Norwich, he wrote to tell Grey what he had decided. 'I have come to the conclusion that the only way to get the Memorial Hall done is to do it!' He had therefore determined to circulate a prospectus, appeal for subscribers himself, and then go to the Commissioners for a lease of the site. His idea was to sell sittings in the hall at £100 each: he had already sold three. 'I don't intend to be beaten in this Matter and I intend to have the thing so advanced that please God and the Queen, the first stone may be laid perhaps with that of the personal memorial.' With great energy he then applied himself to canvassing for subscriptions among the highest ranks of society. His resolution was rewarded by a declaration of the Queen's approval, communicated to him by Grey with authority to make it known. What Cole in his resourcefulness was selling was not, now, shares and life-admissions but (conditional on a long lease from the Commissioners) virtually freehold sittings. This was to have very complicating consequences for the managers who later had to run the hall essentially on its box-office takings.
Lord Derby remained to be convinced, but a greater object was to win the active support of the Prince of Wales, and in January 1865 a significant step towards this was taken when Cole and Richard Redgrave went to Osborne to see the Prince, with Grey and his sympathetic colleague Sir Charles Phipps in attendance. Cole saw the visit in terms of his working sessions at Osborne with the Prince Consort, and suggested that he should 'stay as long as it is necessary to exhaust the subject of the Hall'. They took with them the design which Gilbert Scott had provided, to Cole's satisfaction and at the third attempt, for the Kensington Gore front, and a model of the interior which Fowke had designed for the hall. The visit lasted two days. The Prince of Wales approved the scheme and promised, when it was further developed, to call a meeting at Marlborough House to adopt it.
Kelk was the likely builder of the hall, on the acoustics of which Cole and Fowke had consulted with the engineer (and Cole's old colleague of 1851) John Scott Russell. How, with Gilbert Scott's contribution limited to the Kensington Gore front, the visible exterior of the hall-block itself was to be handled is not clear. This block, with the amphitheatre within it, extended east to west. The amphitheatre's intended capacity had dwindled as the design was worked out, to 12,000 in September 1864 and then to 6,000 in December. As indicated by the interior model of January 1865 and the plan in a prospectus of the same date it still retained the straight-sided form, with interior dimensions of 295 feet by 184 feet.
The model and the prospectus-plan do not, however, correspond, and probably ideas were very fluid, for in the previous month, December, Cole had already been drafting a prospectus that spoke of the amphitheatre as similar in proportions to that of Aries. Presumably, therefore, it was already becoming elliptical.
What followed saw the elimination of Gilbert Scott's contribution to the ensemble. The circumstances of this are not very clear. One purpose of the front block of chambers had been to increase the incentive to a 'capitalist' to undertake the enterprise. Late in 1864, however, Cole thought he was having such success with the sale of seats in the as yet non-existent hall -- the purchase of £1,000-worth by his friend the builder Charles Freake seems particularly to have encouraged him that Grey wondered if the ancillary building-speculation might be dispensed with. By February 1865 Cole was hoping to sell a £1,000 box in the hall to Napoleon III, and was discussing the omission of the block of chambers. In that month he dropped Gilbert Scott's (and Fowke's) name from his prospectuses. Kelk as the likely contractor was for some reason strongly against building between the hall and the road, and this was perhaps decisive. By March Cole, whose 'own personal Canvass' had raised £12,000 or £15,000, was confident that most of the necessary funds could be raised by the sale of boxes. Gilbert Scott seems thereafter to have played little or no part in the deliberations. By March 1866 Cole was dissuading Grey from any attempt to harmonize the hall with so 'eclectic' a structure as the Albert Memorial: 'Let us strive only to get the best possible work and not be afraid of trouble.' In July 1866 Scott withdrew his designs in a letter to Grey. The latter referred it to Cole who misled him into thinking that Scott's only contribution had been the façade to Kensington Gore: perhaps Cole himself had forgotten Scott's design for the hall rectangle. It seems that by then the responsible authorities felt that some factor definitely excluded Scott from participation, even though Fowke's death (at the end of 1865) had confronted them with the necessity of finding a successor. One of the Prince of Wales's officials, Herbert Fisher, when newly associated with the hall project, was curious why Scott's name was not mentioned in this context but was evidently satisfied when told by Cole 'the history of Scott's connexion with the Hall which I had not before heard'. Lord Derby, who was by no means hypnotized by Cole, was obviously also glad to be free of Scott's design and had only to remind the Prince of Wales of it to reinforce his argument that to give a stronger hand to the architectural profession in shaping the hall might lead to greater cost. In his mind, Scott's 'expensive turn and love of elaborate work' was a disqualification. So perhaps it was only a fear that Scott might run wild in this respect that finally excluded him.
Spring 1865 had evidently seen the elimination also of the rectangle surrounding the hall. The concept was becoming more Roman. Cole's prospectuses had already explained that the east end could be 'fitted up like a Roman theatre' and in February 1865 were resorting to classical terms in description of the hall (which was now being likened in its proportions to the amphitheatre at Nîmes, not Aries). In April and May 1865 Lord Derby's support was won for the participation of the 1851 Commissioners, not only by the virtually free grant of the site valued at £60,000 (which was eventually leased to the corporation of the hall for 999 years at 1s. per annum but by a monetary contribution. This was in effect a vote of confidence in Cole's scheme for a large, popular hall for miscellaneous purposes financed largely by seat-holders. An alternative, advocated chiefly by one of the Commissioners, Robert Lowe, was for a smaller hall, intended principally for use by the appropriate 'learned' societies: any musical activities it housed would not have been intended for a popular audience. It would have been, in Lowe's words, 'a Sheldonian Theatre', whereas he feared that the great hall would become 'a Cremorne'. It would in some respects have been nearer the Prince Consort's ideas and probably a more appropriate object of help by the Commissioners. Lowe, who was partly motivated in all this by an 'intense distrust' of Cole, suggested, therefore, that it might be built and financed wholly by the Commissioners. Cole replied that his hall attempted 'to hit a mean size suitable for Conversazioni, Musical Meetings, Exhibitions, and even for speaking, but it is not to be viewed as a Lecture Room'. A smaller hall 'would be much less attractive and useful'. A practical objection to Lowe's scheme was that although it was more modest than Cole's the Commissioners could not raise the £100,000 necessary without selling part of the estate, whereas £50,000 would suffice for a significant grant-in-aid of Cole's scheme. Further, the learned societies showed no desire to transfer their activities to South Kensington, and to build up its popularity with them the best means seemed to be the very musical performances of general appeal that Lowe would have excluded. The Queen told Lord Derby that she would regret any great reduction in the size of the hall. Grey encouraged the Queen in this attitude, and told Bowring (as the Commissioners' secretary) that success would be 'commensurate with the grandeur and magnitude of what is done'. The hall should 'exceed in size and grandeur any Hall now existing in the World'.
Lord Derby, who could probably have killed Cole's scheme, was still cautious and realistic. He thought the connexion of the scheme with Cole— 'one of the most generally unpopular men I know' —a very mixed advantage. He foresaw that Cole's hall would be 'inconveniently large for the meetings of really scientific societies' and might degenerate into 'a mere place of public amusements, of which monster concerts would be the least objectionable'. He feared a 'fiasco' if the hall lacked users. But he nevertheless came down in favour of the larger project, and carried the Commissioners' Finance Committee with him. In May 1865 Grey could tell the Queen that Derby was 'heartily enlisted in the Cause'. Hopes that the Royal Academy, ejected from its home in Trafalgar Square, would come to South Kensington were encouraging the ambition that part of the hall might be occupied as a picture or sculpture gallery (perhaps for the Chantrey bequest. But Derby's faith was mainly in the musical societies, eked out with exhibitions and flower shows, very much in Cole's vein, and it would seem that having expressed his doubts he allowed himself to be overborne by Cole's success in obtaining royal support, and by the pressure of a very general but strong argument. This was that the Commissioners had a clear duty to do something with their estate, and that the only 'something' likely to be realized was the one which, for better or worse, had Cole's drive behind it. Derby's caution was therefore limited to making the Commissioners' grant of £50,000 conditional. They would contribute a quarter of the building cost, if the public supported the enterprise sufficiently to subscribe the remainder, up to a maximum total cost of £200,000. The contribution took the form of the purchase of five hundred sittings. As it happened, the condition of public subscription was not truly fulfilled, but by the time that stage was reached the project was sufficiently advanced to be carried forward all the same.
The Prince of Wales's support had been obtained, but his treasurer, Sir William Knollys, was profoundly sceptical of 'one of the most theoretical undertakings possible'. He told Grey in March 1865 that it was 'a visionary scheme, and as to being remunerative to the subscribers it would be absurd to think it'. He suspected that the Prince was also more doubtful than supporters of the scheme let appear. But Knollys seems to have been replaced in the deliberations by a more acquiescent, if still critical, figure in Herbert Fisher, and in July the Prince presided at a meeting at Marlborough House to undertake formally the erection of 'a great Central Hall'. It was numerously attended, and Cole, Grey and Bowring were hopeful that the presence of the heads of various societies would be helpful to the hall's prospects. A Provisional Committee of twelve was formed under the Prince's presidency. Other members included his brother the Duke of Edinburgh, Lord Derby, Lord Granville, Grey, Lowe, Bowring and Cole. A secretary was appointed, Colonel Henry Scott, R.E., who had been seconded in the previous year to help Cole in the management of the Royal Horticultural Society's affairs. He was, like Fowke, a very inventive and resourceful man, a surveyor and chemist as well as engineer. For the time being, however, his duties were administrative. A prospectus issued after the meeting promised 'exhibitions and musical performances on a grand scale' and claimed that a sitting in the hall was 'a property from the use of which constant enjoyment and instruction may be derived, and which, in a pecuniary point of view, will prove a remunerative investment'.
With the abandonment of Gilbert Scott's masking block in February—March 1865 Fowke embarked on a revision of his design. Cole's diary contains jottings about Fowke's effort to provide an elevation for the hall divested of the surrounding rectangle. 'Fowke wanting to avoid the design of Coloseum for the Hall and proposed some heavy structure!' (25 February). 'Discussed form of Albert Hall with Fowke—who proposed a Venetian treatment' (27 February). On 1 March Fowke was suggesting 'two new systems for outside of the Hall—a Coloseum treatment and Bramante'. As Henry Scott later told the Royal Institute of British Architects, Fowke's elevational designs did not match the interior model. Scott did not, however, make it clear that this was because the plan had already developed far towards the final elliptical form. Fowke had evidently also turned the hall to the present north-south axis. Some idea of his elevational treatment can no doubt be obtained from photographs of a model that is no longer known to exist. This is difficult to date and was probably made after Fowke's death (see below), but in general scheme and style seems to express more of Fowke's architectural office than of his successor's.
In the summer of 1865 Fowke's health collapsed and in December he died. Cole's first and perhaps only real thoughts were to keep the designing within his Department, and he at once spoke to Henry Scott 'about succeeding Fowke'. Lord Derby accepted that the publication of the plan and the invitations already issued to purchase boxes made any radical change in the design impracticable, but he thought that 'some eminent Architect' should be called in to give the subscribers confidence. The architectural press naturally thought the same. Derby's fears of the profession's expensiveness seem, however, to have prevented his suggesting anyone in particular. From Marlborough House came the suggestion that the presidents of the Royal Academy, the Institute of British Architects and the Institution of Civil Engineers, and others such as Tite, Layard, Beresford-Hope and Lord Elcho might be added to the Provisional Committee, partly to represent 'the Artistic Element' generally, and partly also, no doubt, to give an eye to the architecture. Grey was for sticking to Fowke's design so far as it went, though hopeful that an 'architect' might be found to complete it.
Cole was reluctant to bring in a professional architect, but suggested either a competition for this commission or the employment of a former member of the Department, Gottfried Semper (by then Professor of Architecture at Zurich). This was indeed a harking back to the days of the Prince Consort, for whom Semper had prepared some designs for the 1855 project mentioned earlier. Grey took up the latter suggestion, reminded the people at Marlborough House of Semper's theatre at Dresden, and urged this 'most scientific man' on Lord Derby. Derby did not like the idea of employing a foreigner, and Grey, as Cole must have anticipated, did not like competitions. Meanwhile Scott, who had been put in charge of the Department's drawing office in January, and his assistants were getting on with the development of the design. By April 1866 they were left in possession. It was, after all, the most economical solution.
Cole had thought it practicable to dispense with an architect because he considered Fowke's draughtsmen competent to modify and complete his design, and especially because Fowke had discussed his intentions fully with his 'chief draughtsman'. This was evidently John Liddell, who some years later in a letter to The Building News claimed that he had prepared sketches, drawings and a model during Fowke's lifetime, 'at first under his direction, but mostly at my own residence' (and submitted a bill for 50 guineas to Fowke's widow. Fowke's interior already presented, in fact, most of the essential features of the final building —the arena, the amphitheatre, the two or three tiers of boxes lining an inner containing wall, and, above and outside them, a promenade or art gallery which extended all round between the inner and outer walls and commanded views down through an arcade into the hall itself.
James Fergusson urged a reconsideration of the basic form of the hall. Regarding it principally as an auditory, he had wanted Fowke to replace an amphitheatre by a Greek theatre, and in the summer of 1866 attempted to induce Scott to adopt this or at least a circular form. Cole was strongly against any change, and held Scott to the existing scheme. He was told the amphi-theatrical form was indispensable.
The Department regarded Fowke's interior as largely settled, but not the elevational treatment, and during 1866 Scott seems (although the documentary evidence is scanty) to have largely recast the exterior. At New Year 1866 he had taken a holiday viewing the greater churches of East Anglia and the East Midlands, and returned to consider the finished version of Fowke's design in so far as the draughtsmen had been able to complete it. Through February and March the intended exterior effect probably retained much of Fowke's design, particularly the high-level external buttresses spanning the inner and outer walls to support the dome. The vanished model possibly dates from the first half of 1866, when 'tower-staircases' were under discussion: in the buttresses, the ground-floor arcade and the stylistic handling it seems to be clearly Fowkesian, and fits approximately the hall-section as left by Fowke. But it shows the frieze, which, if Gilbert Redgrave and Scott are to be relied upon, was introduced by the latter.
Liddell's regular employment in the Department had terminated about the time of Fowke's death (or a little before), probably because of Liddell's 'difficult' personality. In March 1866, however, Scott had an 'elevational drawing' by Liddell in his hands, and engaged him officially to make a corresponding drawing of the interior of Fowke's design, for 40 guineas. Liddell later said this was because of his position 'as the repository of all his [Fowke's] latest ideas and intentions'. Undated sketch-elevations by Liddell among his papers correspond approximately but not entirely with the vanished model, and include the frieze.
In April Cole noted that Scott 'suggested new treatment by making a case for the Hall independent of inside', and on 1 May 'Designs for Hall settled with Scott, to take the Pola amphitheatre and to ornament it'. No other reference to this monument at Pula in Istria seems to occur. The entry is perhaps less momentous than it sounds and may refer only to a short-lived idea to turn the hall back to an east-west alignment, and give it four entrances on the diagonal axes as at Pula. Cole then went on a short visit to France, Switzerland and northern Italy, staying a night at Nîmes and visiting the amphitheatre. Gilbert Redgrave and the decorative artist Reuben Townroe, both of whom were deeply involved with the hall design, were evidently on a similar tour at the same time. Back in England in June Cole noted, 'Scott completed scheme of the last design for the Hall'. Perhaps it was at this time that Fowkesian ideas about the exterior were in the main abandoned, and nothing is known of any contribution by Liddell after his engagement as a draughtsman in March.
A committee of advice to help Henry Scott was, however, constituted in the summer. The idea seems to have been suggested to Cole by William Tite in April. It consisted of the engineers John Hawkshaw and John Fowler, Richard Redgrave, the architectural writer and designer James Fergusson, and two architects— Tite himself and M. D. Wyatt.
By August 1866 the Prince of Wales had seen, and liked, Scott's drawings and a model. Further perspective drawings were delayed, Scott said, by the inexpertness of draughtsmen, and when Cole saw a drawing of the exterior he commented 'outside bawdy and loose: abused it well'. Evidently incorporating some unknown suggestions by the committee of advice, the designs had received the Queen's approval by November. The working drawings were already in progress and by December were submitted to the Commissioners' surveyor for costing. This gave a figure of £235,000, but by April 1867 it had been brought down to £199,748, or just within the maximum cost specified by the Commissioners.
The financing of the hall had by then survived a crisis. In May 1866 the failure of the bill-brokers, Overend, Gurney and Company, had put some firms out of business (including that of Sir Morton Peto, a Commissioner and a supporter of the hall project) and had caused an investors' panic that threatened to stop the purchase of sittings in the hall at a figure of about £110,000. By that time Kelk had withdrawn as a possible builder of the hall and his place had been taken by his former associates in the construction of the 1862 Exhibition building, Messrs. Lucas Brothers. They now offered, in July 1866, that if their tender were accepted they would take £38,000-worth of their price in the form of sittings in the hall. This hardly amounted to the demonstration of general public support as envisaged by Lord Derby, but was thankfully accepted as a means of realizing the Commissioners' promise.
After a last-minute hitch, Lucas Brothers' tender was accepted in April 1867, and in the same month a royal charter incorporated the subscribers to the 'Hall of Arts and Sciences'. The uses specified for the hall were national and international congresses for science and art, musical and organ performances, prize-givings, conversaziones of societies for the promotion of science and art, agricultural and horticultural exhibitions, national and international exhibitions of arts and industries, exhibitions of pictures and sculpture, and generally any purpose connected with science and art. On 10 April the foundations were begun, and on 20 May 1867 the Queen laid the foundation stone. She declared her wish that the name should in future be The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences. Scott found time to construct a canvas-roofed amphitheatre for the ceremony of about the size and shape of the intended building. His administrative concerns were multifarious (the size of the invitation envelopes, what dress to wear, how to write to the Archbishop of Canterbury): a larger worry was where to put the earth excavated in sinking the arena 15 feet below the Kensington Road. The exterior and interior of the hall as then proposed were shown by engravings in The Illustrated London News. The interior view gives a good idea of the strange mixture of uses intended for the hall.
Compared with Fowke's design the 'ellipse' was a little wider. Principally, it seems, to avoid the difficulty of building to a true elliptical form on such a scale the outline was 'a very close approximation to an ellipse, and is formed of arcs of circles struck from four centres'. Fowke's internal arrangements had also been adjusted, between June and November 1866, to give the additional accommodation required by the Royal Academy of Music, which for a time seemed likely to extend its activities and remove from Mayfair to the hall. This hopeful prospect was, until its extinction in 1873, some compensation for the disappointment when the Royal Academy of Arts finally decided in 1866 not to come to South Kensington. The amenities included subsidiary theatres over two of the porticoes (that over the western being used as such until the inter-war period).
On the exterior the many innovations on Fowke's design included the outside balcony and the great continuous frieze above it, as well as external staircases or perrons that were later abandoned. Fowke's ground-floor arcade was omitted. Internally an important change had been the reduction in the height to which the tiers of boxes rose, in order to reveal an expanse of vertical walling below the picture gallery. Scott later commented that any loss of grandeur was compensated for by the greater appearance of solidity given by the visible wall. Overhead the ceiling and lighting arrangements were still to be much modified.
Building proceeded for four years during which considerable changes were made. A strong motive behind all of them must have been anxiety not to exceed the intended cost. The hall had many enemies. The vagueness of its purpose, the admixture of a profit-motive in its promotion, the association of this element with the royal family and with the educational and commemorative ideals of its sponsors, the unpopularity of Cole himself, and jealousy of the expanding empire of his Department all aroused hostility. The challenge to the architectural profession implied by the Department's methods, and (no doubt) the prospective threat posed by the hall to vested theatrical interests invited criticism. Some was very vigorous.
The enmity was sharpened by the promoters' cultivation of the aristocracy. In June 1867 Scott was anticipating that the boxes between those of the Queen and the Princes, and the staircase approaching them, might be reserved for noblemen. Prophecies that the cost would greatly exceed Scott's estimates were published, and it was important to the authorities that they should be falsified.
On the exterior the changes were towards greater simplicity. The closely wrought modelling of the 1867 elevation was replaced by a plainer and larger-scaled treatment. Some alterations inside and out were still being made or discussed in mid and late 1870. One was an adjustment to the north portico, probably occasioned by the success of the hall's enemies in thwarting a Government scheme to straighten the Kensington Road, that would have extended the hall's curtilage. The hall thus remained, and remains, askew to the road. Its convexity makes this less important than it seemed in the days of the rectangular 'hall of sculpture'.
Inside the hall an important change was the introduction of a bank of 'balcony' seats above the upper tier of boxes. The development subsequent to the commencement of building which doubtless occupied Scott most closely, however, was in the form of the roof. In place of Fowke's, supported by buttresses and ceiled with a flat centre, Scott substituted a wholly curvilinear roof of iron and glass, and employed, in his own words, a 'wrought iron wall plate of girder shape resting with its web on the wall and supporting the ends of the roof principals'. In this he was helped by the two engineers on the committee of advice, Fowler and Hawkshaw. The latter's newly building roof at Cannon Street Station encouraged Scott in his use of trussed girders for the principals. By their recommendation Scott had the assistance of two other civil engineers, J. W. Grover (formerly an officer of the Science and Art Department) and R. M. Ordish, who made the drawings and calculations (and who had recently designed the details of a rather similar feat of engineering, the roof of St. Pancras Station. The 'gigantic nature and novelty' of the problem caused some concern. As The Builder said in 1869, it was 'no child's play'. The construction was given to the Fairbairn Engineering Company of Ardwick, Manchester, where the roof was assembled by way of trial: Scott said that Sir William Fairbairn modified some of the details.
By May 1869 two main ribs were in place. The ironwork was supported on a tower of scaffolding, that itself excited admiration; and when in May 1870 this was removed the stability of the roof was hailed by Scott's supporters as 'a great Engineering triumph'. Cole told Lord Granville that the deflection was hardly more than a quarter-inch, and the good news was relayed to the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, Gladstone. Scott, according to Cole, was 'as modest about it as a Maiden, giving every one credit but himself'. No doubt he had been basically confident of the outcome, and is said to have written to a correspondent: 'I have no more real anxiety about the roof than your cook has when she places the cover over your leg of mutton. The weight is equally distributed, and there is no thrust'. The slenderness of the members within the roof-structure still impresses anyone who sees them with the nicely calculated and economical engineering of the design.
It was not, however, a pure 'engineer's' roof. Scott said that from that point of view he would have sprung the ribs perpendicularly from the wall plate. In fact, they were set askew, as the alternative 'would have given an ugly shuttle-shaped figure in the centre of the ceiling instead of the present ellipse'. The ceiling treatment was redesigned during the building of the hall (again, conjecturally, for economical reasons), to eliminate most of the plasterwork in favour of more extensive glass, stencilled in black and ochre by Reuben Townroe.
This last decoration was, however, obscured by a great calico 'velarium' suspended from the ceiling, also stencilled by Townroe. This conspicuous and classical feature was nevertheless intended at least as early as 1869 and was not, as some critics said, a last-minute improvisation to improve the acoustics. Scott mentions Tite and J. W. Wild as having recommended this feature to him. Cole thought it 'most graceful', and in fact it seems to have realized an abandoned idea for shading the glass roof of the North Court in Cole's museum. At the hall also its object was as much to reduce glare as to aid hearing. The subsequent stiffening and elaboration had, however, an acoustic purpose.
The notorious acoustic problems that have beset the hall through most of its history were probably rooted in the multifarious conception of its functions held by Cole, in which visibility for many different purposes was as much a desideratum as audibility. Fergusson and H. H. Statham were two contemporary critics who thought Cole's adherence to the amphitheatre basically misguided. Cole, Fowke and Scott were, however, certainly not neglectful of the problem. Cole's diary records visits to theatres with Scott, when they noticed the acoustics. The building of the lecture theatre at the South Kensington Museum itself ensured Cole's involvement in acoustical experiments in 1869, and Scott's account of the hall given to the Royal Institute of British Architects testifies to his own preoccupation with the question. He received a diversity of advice on the degree of resonance to aim at, and decided, he says, on ample, but not excessive, resonance, that might be reduced by draperies. To achieve this he lined much of the hall with wooden battens three quarters of an inch from the wall. During the construction of the hall Cole thought the effect would be splendid. The hall was 'as sonorous as the board of a Cremona! You can hear the most delicate harmonies on a fiddle in the most distant part from the player and it will be one of the wonders of the age.' And again, 'It is as sonorous as a great Double Bass.' While the interior scaffolding was in place most people agreed with him, and noted the 'bell-like clearness' as the builders sang at their work. But in February 1871, with the scaffolding removed, an ominous entry appeared in Cole's diary: 'found Echo in Balcony'. Again a week later he noted, 'Echoes in Hall very curious'. The echo made itself unfortunately obvious during the Prince of Wales's reading of his address at the opening ceremony. The Builder promptly announced that with his velarium Scott had 'bound the recalcitrant echo in a transparent web', and for some purposes the acoustics of the hall remained excellent. But the long history of deceived hopes that the echo had died continued until recently, when the introduction of suspended glass-fibre 'diffusers' in 1968–9 would appear to have ended the trouble.
In the construction of the solid fabric by Lucas Brothers, however, the hall proved very satisfactory. (Lucas's clerks of works were William Hemsley and Sankey. At least some of the wrought-iron girders were, like other iron used at South Kensington, from Belgium. The concrete floors, supplied by Fox and Barrett, were of fireproof construction. The main wall was 3 feet 2 inches thick, of picked Cowley stocks laid in Portland cement, faced with red bricks supplied by William Cawte of Fareham, pointed with dark grey or black mortar. Scott described the facing bricks with relish: 'they are very heavy and hard, having, if I may use the expression, a metallic looking and slightly conchoidal fracture, are little absorbent, and are for beauty of tint unsurpassed by any bricks in the kingdom'.
The excellent terra-cotta was supplied (with delays that Scott accepted as endemic to the trade) from Gibbs and Canning's Glascote Works at Tamworth, where the circumference of the hall was set out, evidently full size, as a 'brick ring'. The Building News said in 1869 that the terracotta was 'manufactured at Tamworth expressly for the purpose by men employed by Colonel Scott'. No attempt was made to smooth any superficial roughness, which was thought acceptable, indeed picturesque, in a building that depended 'more for its effect on the sweep of its lines than on exquisite finish'. Waterhouse, for one, applauded this treatment of the material, which he thought helped to preserve its surface.
Apart from the architectural detailing a very striking use of terra-cotta was in the mosaic frieze which encircles the building below the main cornice. According to Scott in 1872 Cole suggested the frieze to him. Cole himself, however, noted during the early months of Scott's responsibility for the hall, in June 1866, 'Scott having a new design of Hall to accommodate the Frieze -- against which I protested'. In 1867 the intention was that the frieze should be 'sculptured'. This was, however, abandoned for want of time, money and competent modellers to accomplish so large a task. In 1867 the frieze was also intended to be relatively smaller than as it was built.
At that stage the decorative artists of the Department, Reuben Townroe and James Gamble, seem to have been chiefly concerned with the work. The figures drawn on the frieze in the model of a segment of the 1867 exterior look likely to be Townroe's. He and Gamble were named as responsible for the 'modelling' of the frieze in a newspaper in 1869 (when, however, the execution in relief had almost certainly already been abandoned), and Scott named them in 1872 as having been advocates of the smaller size of frieze—evidently, to increase the apparent scale of the hall. By the beginning of 1868 a flat pictorial design had probably been adopted, as the painters Maclise, Leighton and (Albert?) Moore were being considered to execute it. The frieze was carried out in terra-cotta tesserae, with buff figures outlined in black on a chocolate ground, executed by Minton, Hollins and Company, who employed the ladies of the South Kensington Museum's mosaic class to make the 800 slabs of which it is composed. In material, type and manufacture it thus followed closely the panels on the quadrangle of the museum. Those were designed by Townroe (as were the long friezes intended to adorn Scott's completion of the museum in 1870). In the light of this, and Townroe's probable authorship of the frieze sketched on Scott's model of 1867, it is not intrinsically surprising to find that some forty years later Townroe was claiming in conversation about the frieze with D. S. MacColl that he had 'set it out, after Beccafumi', the Sienese mosaicist. MacColl published the claim as fact.
Nevertheless it is difficult to see that Townroe contributed actively to the frieze as executed. Indeed there is clear evidence that other artists made the designs. Initially these were a triumvirate consisting of H. Stacy Marks, A.R.A., F. R. Pickersgill, R.A., and W. F. Yeames, A.R.A., with whom Scott settled the essentials of the design: all had worked at the South Kensington Museum. They were later joined by four other artists, E. Armitage, A.R.A., H. H. Armstead, J. C. Horsley, R.A., and E. J. Poynter, R.A., and one or more sections of the frieze (sixteen in all) were entrusted to each artist. They made cartoons a foot high (some now preserved in the hall): these were photographed by Sergeant Spackman, R.E., and projected, in 'magic-lantern' style, at the full dimension of 6 feet 6 inches high on to paper, where the outlines were traced. Spackman ('himself an artist', as Scott said) was chiefly responsible for choosing the thickness of the black outline. The effect was tested at full size and at the correct elevation in the South Kensington Museum. It was, however, found difficult to hit on the right scale. Scott eventually increased the size from that intended in 1867. Cole, perhaps in harmony with most tastes, would have liked it even larger.
Reading anti-clockwise from the north the subjects and their designers are: Various Countries of the World bringing in their Offerings to the Exhibition of 1851 (Poynter); Music; Sculpture; Painting (all by Pickersgill); Princes, Art Patrons and Artists (Armitage); Workers in Stone; Workers in Wood and Brick; Architecture (all by Yeames); The Infancy of the Arts and Sciences (Pickersgill); Agriculture; Horticulture and Land Surveying; Astronomy and Navigation (all by Marks); A Group of Philosophers, Sages and Students (Armitage); Engineering (Horsley); The Mechanical Powers (Armstead); and Pottery and Glassmaking (Pickersgill).
In the official 'History' Gilbert Redgrave was frank about the varying success of the artists. He praised the merits of Poynter's design, over the north portico, but noted that it was less suited to execution in mosaic seen from a distance than Pickersgill's on either side of it. In the latter's representation of Sculpture, showing 'some monks at work at a recessed wall-tomb, while one of them tries the effect of natural foliage in the spandrils as a suggestion for the decoration', there is perhaps as much of 'South Kensington' as of the Middle Ages. The cost of the frieze was £4,426, for 5,200 square feet. Scott acknowledged the modesty of the fees accepted by the seven artists, who were paid £782 in all.
Above the frieze runs an inscription which reads: This Hall Was Erected For The Advancement Of The Arts And Sciences And Works Of Industry Of All Nations In Fulfilment Of The Intention Of Albert Prince Consort. The Site Was Purchased With The Proceeds Of The Great Exhibition Of The Year MDCCCLI. The First Stone Of The Hall Was Laid By Her Majesty Queen Victoria On The Twentieth Day Of May MDCCCLXVII And It Was Opened By Her Majesty The Twenty Ninth Of March In The Year MDCCCLXXI. Thine O Lord Is The Greatness And The Power And The Glory And The Victory And The Majesty For All That Is In The Heaven And In The Earth Is Thine. The Wise And Their Works Are In The Hand Of God. Glory Be To God On High And On Earth Peace.
Fortunately, the hall was put in hand just before a rise in building costs, and with the aid also of thrifty management it was possible to announce at the opening that the hall had been built for about the estimated sum of £200,000. Or, if it did exceed that figure, it was not by an extravagant amount: the total cost was probably some £214,000.
Apart from its economical execution, the hall's manner of construction constituted an intangible asset. Its subsequent history was bedevilled by financial difficulties attributable to the methods of its Victorian creators. But materially the Corporation came into possession of a very sound structure, and the maintenance of this basic fabric has not in itself made great calls on the available resources. In 1865 Cole had told Gladstone that the hall would be built without recourse to public funds. (ref. 191) At the opening the Prince of Wales was able to state that this was so. Once the funds collected for the Prince Consort's commemoration had been absorbed elsewhere, an appeal for public money seems never to have been envisaged.
The cost of the building had, however, used up all the available funds. When the Queen had been shown over the nearly finished hall she had noted 'it certainly is a splendid building and I hope and trust may pay'. But by the time the hall had been begun its friends and enemies were already drawing attention to the difficulty that would be found in inducing impresarios to take the hall when the best seats were already sold in virtual perpetuity. In 1877 the Commissioners' secretary said that the sales had been at too low a price, which should have been £150 instead of £100 per seat. There was no endowment fund, and with the running charges estimated by a hostile but accurate critic at £5,000 per annum the hall was launched on a virtually impossible task of at once maintaining itself and serving science and art. In this respect the substantial 'popular' success of the South Kensington Museum must be thought to have profoundly distorted the judgment of the hall's potentialities by Cole and his friends.
The hall was opened on 29 March 1871. The Queen found it an emotional occasion, though no more so than Cole; He had few or no doubts: the hall was 'the finest building of its kind in Modern Europe'. The nearest he ever came, in fact, to acknowledging that it was ill-suited to its sterner purposes seems to be a diary entry in 1879 when he attended a lecture-demonstration of electric lighting: 'Fairly good— but Hall too large'.
As completed it held, by Scott's reckoning, 7,165 persons exclusive of 1,200 singers and instrumentalists in the 'orchestra': if necessary, the total capacity could be raised to 10,000. Rapid emptying of the hall was secured by numerous separate exits for the staircases, which replaced the originally intended arrangement of staircases leading into an encircling corridor. One hydraulic lift was provided. Scott gave the audience in the stalls swivel-chairs to turn towards the performer and his success in ensuring that 'every body can sit, and see, and hear with perfect ease and comfort' was applauded by Waterhouse. (The heating engineer, W. W. Phipson, however, contracted to give a mean winter temperature of only 55°–58°. The picture gallery, whatever its defects per se, was at least expected to be a delightful adjunct to a concert. 'The opportunity for a leisurely promenade, brilliantly illuminated, adorned with chosen works of art, and within hearing of fine orchestral music, is such as is nowhere else afforded.... It is likely to be, in such times, crowded with notorieties...'
The brilliancy of the artificial lighting—something of a 'South Kensington' attribute—was commented upon, and the good effect that the hall's design derived from 'our modern means of illumination by night'. It was said that the thousands of gas jets could be lit, by electricity, in ten seconds. (Fowke had similarly contrived rapid mechanical gas-lighting in the South Kensington Museum. Gas was replaced byelectricity from 1879 onwards.
The most conspicuous feature of the interior was the organ, made by Henry Willis for a contract price of £7,500. An advisory committee was presided over by the Earl of Wilton. With its length of 65 feet and height of 70 feet it was hailed as the largest in the world. The exposure of the pipes and the relative absence of casing was, Cole says, suggested by him. It was repaired and enlarged by Harrison and Harrison of Durham between 1921 and 1933.
The interior was, of course, found impressive. Fergusson thought the visual effect unrivalled in Europe. The Illustrated London News commented on the newly opened hall: 'the eye can follow curves which yet seem interminable, and thus the mind becomes filled with an impression of endless space and sublimity'. The effect of the repeated columns between the boxes seems, however, to have been the subject of contention at a late stage in the building of the hall, when Cole would appear to have advocated the use of 'brackets', more than 'columns', against the combined forces of Scott, Townroe and Wild. The decision, which probably went against him, was evidently made or influenced by his acquaintance, Sir Coutts Lindsay. Disagreement arose again between Cole and Scott—obscurely, but rather seriously—over the colour-decoration of the interior. This was hardly begun at the time of opening, when Scott had no clear-cut scheme prepared. In July 1873 a committee was appointed to supervise the decorations. The Duke of Edinburgh, Lady Marian Alford, Lord Clarence Paget, Cole, Warren De La Rue, J. F. D. Donnelly, Charles Freake and Scott were, or became, members. Evidently the work was mainly in Townroe's hands. It seems that Cole wanted subdued colouring in the furnishings, advocating some kind of 'marquetry' treatment. He appears to have angered Scott by trying to have box-fronts coloured brown. Scott, who had designed the tiers of boxes partly with an eye to the display of ladies' dresses, seems to have preferred a lighter colouring, and Cole was particularly disgusted when F. W. Moody, of his Department, perhaps with Scott's consent, had 'put in light blue and vermilion columns! most vile'. The committee-members' opinions differed very widely, and their colour experiments continued until April 1875 when they decided on a treatment 'in reds', which Townroe executed in the summer and autumn.
As with other buildings on which the personnel of the Science and Art Department was employed, and which spanned the transition from Fowke to Scott, it is hardly possible to apportion responsibility for its design exactly. The early months of 1874 saw, in fact, a controversy in the correspondence columns of The Building News on the identity of its 'architect'. Fowke's twenty-six-year-old son Frank had worked as a youth in his father's drawing office in the last year of Fowke's life. He resented the gradual transference to Scott of public credit for the architecture of the hall, and detested Scott as (he thought) the silent pilferer of his father's designs. He now uttered a 'protest' on behalf of his father's contribution. Gilbert Redgrave spoke for Scott. John Liddell intervened to assert the importance of Fowke's contribution to the design and of his own share in Fowke's work. According to a diary-jotting by Frank Fowke, Scott, although not participating in the published correspondence, 'proposed question as to who Architect of Royal Albert Hall [was] shd be settled by Arbitrator'.
Scott was not disposed overtly to claim much for his individual part in the development of the design. He told the Royal Institute of British Architects that he was not himself an 'architect', and professed to have been reluctant to alter Fowke's design without the approval of others. As has been seen, he had a committee to advise him, and was occupied with many non-architectural duties as secretary to various other South Kensington enterprises. Reuben Townroe spoke of him as a 'man with many irons in fire, large family'. Cole's diary testifies to Scott's efforts to augment his income by 'outside activities' as his family increased, although this was chiefly after the hall was finished, when he tried, with Cole in partnership, to make a commercial success of turning the sewage of great cities into cement, by a company of which Gilbert Redgrave was for a time secretary. On the other hand, the common quality in the buildings or designs produced under his name is possibly witness to his architectural presence.
In judging how far Scott may have let himself benefit unduly from the work of others the signs of modesty in his account of the hall, and Cole's praise of that quality in him, should be set against his understatement of Fowke's development of the amphitheatrical plan and the fact that in subsequent years (when the sewage company was doing badly) Cole became very disenchanted with him. Rightly or wrongly, Cole then spoke of Scott's 'selfishness' and want of sincerity, and on one occasion, in 1880, called him an 'edition' of Judas Iscariot.
Of the assistants, Gilbert Redgrave, who had been an 'architectural pupil' of Fowke's, probably had the longest continuous connexion with the hall. He himself said that he was a 'draughtsman' but Scott acknowledged 'his general advice and assistance in every part of the work': in particular he was indebted to him, 'for the whole of the work connected with the preparation of the terra-cotta' (a material on which Gilbert Redgrave wrote an article in 1868).
Such of the plans and detail drawings in the possession of the Corporation of the hall as are signed bear his or Scott's signature or initials. Redgrave says that his fellow draughtsman was Thomas Verity, and in 1891 the latter's obituarist called him Scott's 'principal assistant' at the hall. Scott says Verity was 'charged with the preparation of the constructive working drawings'. He is mentioned once in Cole's diary in connexion with the box-fittings. M. B. Adams's later statement that Verity 'detailed the Albert Hall for General Scott', probably refers chiefly to the interior, which seems to bear marks of his French taste and where John Liddell (in seeking to belittle Scott) claimed that he could point to signs of Verity's work.
It seems, however, that an important contribution to the decorative detailing, inside and out, was made by the two artists, Reuben Townroe and James Gamble, who did so much of the decorative work at the South Kensington Museum under Scott. This was stated at the time of the opening and by Gilbert Redgrave. Gamble is mentioned only once by Cole, in 1866, but Scott says that Gamble 'was much consulted throughout, and . . . was my boldest adviser in most cases of doubt'.
The more active responsibility was Townroe's, and it seems that it is to him that the specific character of the external architectural detailing is chiefly due. Scott speaks of him as responsible 'for the actual modelling or immediate superintendence of the whole of the modelling work' in terra-cotta. He mentions Townroe's strong views about the treatment of that material and about the size of the frieze. (For Townroe's claims in respect of the latter see above.) Additionally, Cole noted in June 1866 a discussion with Scott of 'Townroe's new elevation' which, by reason of its date, seems likely to refer to the hall; and at a later period often mentioned Townroe's decorative work on the interior c. 1870–75: in December 1873, for example, Scott 'looked at Townroe's decoration of Hall—thought it beautiful'. An undated drawing indicates that he was to provide a model for the frieze of the 'main internal entablature'. In 1912 a former assistant in the Department's architectural office remembered him as responsible for all the architectural detailing and modelling, and for much of the decoration, including that of the 'Entrance Halls, Corridors, and Withdrawing Rooms'.
The general reaction to the hall's appearance was, on the whole, favourable. The use of brick and terra-cotta, which had been prescribed to Scott as a necessary feature of the design, was hailed, like that at the Huxley Building, as the 'dawn' of an era in London architecture. The Building News liked the porches—'one mass of enrichment, the general effect of which is rich and pleasing', and the beauty of their terracotta modelling does compensate in a measure for some weakness of their architectural form. Lady Eastlake was one who preferred the hall's details to its general shape: 'the Hall looks ill at a distance, being low and formless in outline; but, seen near, it... is both sumptuous and elegant. Much depends on its keeping its agreeable colour.' Sidney Colvin in The Pall Mall Gazette said the hall was 'more of an engineer's than an architect's building, and is far from faultless; but being at bottom a simple, genuine, and effective piece of construction, on a big scale, does in effect give a sense of vastness with dignity'. As such, he contrasted it favourably with the Albert Memorial over the road. Those who most liked the memorial tended, in turn, to dislike the hall: they, and others, wanted to maintain the visual separation between two such dissimilar buildings that was afforded by the trees on the north side of Kensington Road. The Daily Telegraph, admiring buildings like Columbia Market, naturally deplored the 'Hague-cum-Hanover-square' style of the exterior. But abuse of 'the squat rotundity and Franconish aspect of the music-hall' only shows how difficult it was genuinely to dislike so corpulent a building.
Whether approving or not, the public was interested in the hall, and during 1872 some 44,000 people paid 6d. each to see it. The subsequent financial troubles of the hall were, however, increased by a certain difficulty of access. The uphill approach from South Kensington Station (opened in 1868) was served by buses (of the Metropolitan Railway) for only a year or two. Until the late 1880's much of the pedestrian route could at least be taken under cover, through the arcades and conservatory of the Royal Horticultural Society. Schemes in the 1870's by the engineer T. W. Rammell for a subterranean pneumatic railway from the station to the hall failed for want of capital. In 1883, when the continuance of the covered above-ground route was being jeopardized by the impending dispossession of the Royal Horticultural Society, the Metropolitan Railway was proposing the construction of a subway to the hall large enough to take both pedestrians and tramcars. It was, however, executed, by the Metropolitan District Railway, only as far as its present termination, where an entrance to the gardens was formerly situated. It was opened as a pedestrian subway, for intermittent use, in 1885, with a toll of 1d., but was not opened freely and continuously until 1908. With the demolition of the arcades and conservatory in 1889–91 the northern part of the walk was no longer under cover, and has so remained. In 1890–1 there were abortive schemes for a subterranean tramway to the hall en route to Paddington, but the only step towards the extension of the subway was the construction of small parts of it under the Royal School of Needlework and Prince Consort Road in the 1890's.
Although when first built the hall did not, as it does now, have a distinct southern entrance it was, functionally, more southward 'oriented' than it is today. Its juxtaposition on that side to the Royal Horticultural Society's conservatory, with which Scott (as he boasted in 1867) had 'schemed a pretty connexion', linked it to Scott's new exhibition galleries, and the Horticultural Society's garden. In the early years of the hall its fortunes and those of the exhibitions and the garden moved (and in fact declined) together. Soon, the hall was having to be put to unlikely uses. In c. 1884 two roadways were made extending south-west and south-east towards Queen's Gate and Exhibition Road outside the garden's northern arcades. The former was made as a carriage road in connexion with the building of Queen Alexandra's House (1883–7), and at the same time the present chimneystack in the roadway, built to Scott's design to serve flues from the hall, replaced another further south-west. The south-east road was initially a footpath only. Then in the late 1880's the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners resumed possession of the garden, and the area south of the hall was entirely reconstructed. The conservatory and arcades were demolished in c. 1889–91 and the Memorial to the 1851 Exhibition moved northward in c. 1891–3 to its present position. At about that time the canopy was added round the outside of the hall: the Companion to the British Almanac liked the design and said it 'gives scale' to the building. In c. 1897–8 the porch was made on the south side (architect, Frank Verity), together with the road-way there: the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners contributed largely to the cost, and at the same period paid for the terrace round the memorial to be made.
Later alterations have included the provision of more exits required by the London County Council, particularly from the upper part of the hall, in 1922 onwards, when some external doors were added in the existing style (but a darker terra-cotta). Significant changes in the internal appearance have, however, chiefly arisen from improvements to the acoustics. A sound-reflecting canopy over the orchestra was introduced in 1941 (when the Promenade concerts were removed from Queen's Hall). (ref. 258) In 1949 the velarium was taken away and the glazed inner dome replaced by one of aluminium (architect, H. R. Steele). In 1968–9 acoustic 'diffusers' were suspended from the roof. At present (1974) the hall is being restored as funds become available to the Centenary Appeal launched in 1970 for the purpose. Sir Hugh and Lady Casson have been retained by the Corporation as consultants for the interior work, which is being carried out in accordance with Sir Hugh and Lady Casson's designs by the architects to the Corporation, Ronald Ward and Partners. The work by Ronald Ward and Partners on the exterior has included the enclosure of the north portico with steel and glass in 1971.
From: 'Royal Albert Hall', Survey of London: volume 38: South Kensington Museums Area (1975), pp. 177-195. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/
The Royal Albert Hall is an arts venue dedicated to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, situated in Kensington Gore in central London. Since its opening on March 29, 1871 the Royal Albert Hall has played host to a multitude of different events and legendary figures and has been affectionately titled 'The Nation's Village Hall'. As well as hosting the Proms every summer since they were bombed out of the Queen's Hall in 1941, the Hall has been used for classical and rock concerts, conferences, ballroom dancing, poetry, keep-fit displays, education, ballet, opera and even a circus (Cirque du Soleil). It has hosted many sporting events, including boxing, wrestling (including the first Sumo wrestling tournament ever to be held outside Japan) and tennis. It also hosts the annual Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance, held the day before Remembrance Sunday.
1995-2003 major renovation. Used for political and religious meetings, exhibitions, banquets, sports tournaments, balls, and classical and pop concerts, including the BBC's annual "Proms" summer concert series. Capacity: up to 5266 persons, depending on the nature of the respective event.