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Haymarket Opera House, Pall Mall, London, unexecuted plans, elevations and sections for the opera house, possibly for Hon. George Hobart, c1789 (28)

The present site of Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, has a long-standing connection to the theatrical arts, for which the site has been continually used, since the establishment of Sir John Vanbrugh’s theatre in 1705. Alternatively named Queen’s Theatre / King’s Theatre, and after 1837 renamed Her Majesty’s / His Majesty’s theatre, the site has seen three rebuilds, alongside numerous alterations made over the course of three centuries.

At the turn of the eighteenth century, growing disorder amongst the Betterton actors of The Duke's Theatre, Lincoln's Inn, lead to the decision to relocate the company to the Haymarket. There, they were to be housed in a new theatre, built to the designs of Sir John Vanbrugh on a plot of land along the Haymarket’s west side. The newly acquired site, previously occupied by a number of small dwellings and the Phoenix Inn and Coach House, measured 132 feet north to south, and 145 feet east to west. By 1704 construction of the new theatre was underway, with the first season opening on 9 April 1705.

Surviving plans for Vanbrugh’s theatre show it to have been an eleven-bay brick building measuring 130 feet north to south and 60 feet east to west. The theatre’s interiors were largely wooden in form, possibly with trompe l’oeil decoration. Initially Vanbrugh’s project was supported by a total of thirty subscribers, each donating £100 to the cause, and for which in return they received access to all of the theatre’s public entertainments, for life. John Hervey, 1st Earl of Bristol, is the only known subscriber; however Sheppard speculates that the unnamed supporters were quite possibly members of the Kit Cat Club.

Despite the support of its subscribers, the theatre struggled, and after losing money in the venture Vanbrugh drew up a fourteen-year lease, handing the management over to Owen Swiney on 7 May 1707. On 31 December 1707, a decree was passed by the Lord Chamberlain, announcing that all operas and musical performances were to be performed only at Her Majesty’s in the Haymarket. Swiney, like so many of the theatre’s successive managers, struggled to finance the opera, and ultimately succumbed to substantial debts. The theatre would not see its first successful run until 1710/11, with Handel’s Rinaldo. Subsequently a petition was raised to establish an academy which would nurture and promote opera, to be housed at the Haymarket, and under the direction of Handel. The academy was supported widely by the nobility, with George I making annual subscriptions at £1,000. Following the academy’s establishment, Handel oversaw the direction of opera at the Haymarket from 1720-1734, with John James Heidegger as acting theatre manager.

On 17 June 1789 Vanbrugh’s theatre was destroyed by fire, after the roof caught alight during an evening rehearsal.

From the late eighteenth century, until its closure in the nineteenth century, the theatre became notorious for its role in a number of legal disputes, the most infamous following on from the fire of 1789, when rival attempts to rebuild the opera house arose. There was an initial attempt made to rebuild the theatre at a site in Leicester Fields, undertaken by R.B. O’Reilly and Giovanni Gallini. However this was thrown into disarray when William Taylor, theatre manager to the Haymarket, gained support from his creditors to rebuild on the original site. A second opera house was subsequently opened by O’Reilly at the Pantheon in Oxford Street, and the ensuing rivalries left both houses in significant debt, and the new theatre at the Haymarket without a licence to perform opera, but music and dancing only. In 1791, following heavy losses O’Reilly fled to Paris, and in an attempt to rescue those involved, a proposal was forwarded for a benefit to be held for all those with claims upon the site of Vanbrugh’s original theatre. Before this could go ahead the Pantheon caught fire on 14 January 1792. However, the General Opera Trust was set in motion, with a deed signed on 24 April 1792. The trust was overseen by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas Holloway, and William Sheldon, and had support from the Prince of Wales, the Lord Chamberlain and the Duke of Bedford. Finally the dispute was settled in 1793, when the Haymarket was granted an opera licence in the January, with the first public performance taking place on 26 January. Despite clauses within the deed indicating an intention to improve management of the theatre, Taylor continued in his post. It is interesting to note that his name appears inscribed on a suite of rooms on Adam’s plan for the second storey (SM Adam volume 47/10), and Sheppard highlights this as useful in dating the designs to post 1780, when Taylor began his tenure. It is most likely that Adam’s scheme is speculative and dates to c1789, in the period following the fire when various attempts to rebuild were under consideration.

It is possible that this speculative scheme arises from Adam’s earlier connection to the Hobart family. From 1770 he was commissioned for alterations to 33 St James’s Square, the London townhouse of George Hobart (3rd Earl of Buckinghamshire, d.1804), at the bequest of George’s elder brother John, (2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire, d.1797). The brothers, it seems, had significant links to the Haymarket site. From 1769-73 George Hobart held a half share in the opera house and acted as theatre manager until his retirement in 1773. Crucially, once construction of Novosielski’s new theatre began, it was John Hobart who was granted the honour of laying the foundation stone on 3 April 1790. With such an apparent interest in the opera house, it is possible that the brothers consulted Adam following the fire of 1789.

There is also some evidence to suggest Adam may have made alterations to the site at an earlier date, executing designs for the interiors of Vanbrugh’s theatre. Sheppard highlights a reference made to this by Pennant, suggesting work undertaken by Adam in 1778. Bolton too underlines a reference to alterations made in October 1778 ‘at monstrous expense’. This is confused further by the designs made for the King’s box (SM Adam volume 27/77-27/84) with SM Adam volume 27/82 inscribed as for the Italian Theatre, also in the Haymarket.

Adam’s scheme for the opera house, elaborate and on a vast scale, proposed a complex of buildings, combining theatre with assembly rooms, shops and dwellings, and even a tavern annexe for the sole use of subscribers, with a bridge and separate entrance linking to the theatre. With monumental façades to the east and south, the scheme would have required significant expansion of the site, with the removal of surrounding dwellings and the extension of Charles Street into the Haymarket. For the south front, a curved façade was proposed, which was to contain shops and dwellings, along with an entrance for Actors & Actresses & other people belonging to the Theatre, (SM Adam volumes 28/16 and 47/2). For the east front, a monumental façade formed the main entrance from the Haymarket. If Adam’s elaborate scheme did indeed form a proposal for the theatre’s reconstruction following the fire of 1789, it was overlooked in favour of Michael Novosielski’s simpler one.

Michael Novosielski’s opera house was opened on 22 September 1791, with an additional concert room built in 1793-4. Novosielski's theatre was constructed upon an enlarged plot across the site of Vanbrugh's earlier opera house, measuring 170 feet north to south and 90 feet east to west. The stage was positioned at the south end of the building, measuring 45 feet in depth, with an auditorium formed of five tiers, with a total of 171 boxes, and with benches in the pit and gallery. Novosielski’s scheme was never fully realised owing to financial limitations. Sheppard, however, notes a similarity between this intended scheme and that of the simpler, less ambitious designs produced by Adam (SM Adam 28/24-25). This raises the possibility that Novosielski’s design was influenced by Adam.

From 1816-18 Novosielski’s opera house would undergo significant alterations, overseen by John Nash and George Repton. Influenced by earlier designs proposed by Henry Holland, Thomas Leverton and John Fordyce, Nash and Repton would create new façades to the north, east and south, along with the construction of the Royal Opera Arcade to the west of the theatre. Following a subsequent fire in 1867 and the demolition of the opera house in the early 1890s, the arcade is the only surviving element of Nash and Repton's complex.

The last performance at Novosielski’s opera house was held on 25 May 1889, and following closure the theatre was demolished. In February to March 1896, Hebert Beerbohm Tree made proposals for a new theatre and hotel on the site, built to the designs of C.J. Phipps. The present Her Majesty’s Theatre was constructed across the north end of the plot, opening in 1897, along with the Carlton Hotel to the south completed in 1899. The hotel was demolished in 1957-8, and currently New Zealand House, (designed by Robert Matton and S.A. Johnson), stands on the southern part of the site.

See also: 33 St James's Square; The Italian / Little Theatre, Haymarket

T. Pennant, The History and Antiquities of London, 1814, p. 84; A.T. Bolton, Article, Country Life, March 31 1917; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, volume I, p. 63; volume II, Index pp. 40, 73; F.H.W. Sheppard (ed.), 'The Haymarket Opera House', Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, 1960, Part 1, pp. 223-250; I. Gordon Brown, Building for Books: The Architectural Evolution of the Advocates’ Library 1689-1925, 1989, pp. 74-78; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, volume II, pp. 28, 49-50; H.M. Colvin, Biographical dictionary of British architects, 2008, pp. 732, 754-755, 852, 1068; F. Sands, Robert Adam's London, 2016, pp. 105-108; ‘Hobart, Hon. George (1731-1804), of Nocton and Blyborough, Lincs.’ historyofparlimentonline.org, accessed Feb 2018; ‘Hobart, John, Lord Hobart (1723-93), of Blickling, Norf.’ historyofparlimentonline.org, accessed Feb 2018

Anna McAlaney, 2019
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