Frank Matcham (22 November 1854 – 18 May 1920) was an English theatrical architect and designer. He was known for his designs of many British theatres including those of the Moss Empires group and in London the Hackney Empire (1901); the London Coliseum (1904); the London Palladium (1910) and the Victoria Palace (1911).
Born in Newton Abbot, Devon, Matcham was apprenticed to the architect, George Sondon Bridgeman, before moving to London where he joined the architectural practice of Jethro Robinson, who was at that time consulting theatre architect to the Lord Chamberlain's office. He completed his first solo design of the Elephant and Castle theatre which opened in June 1879. Between 1890 and 1915, Matcham helped train, Bertie Crewe and W.G.R. Sprague, and all three were responsible for the design and construction of over 200 theatres and variety palaces in the United Kingdom.
Born in Newton Abbot, Devon, Matcham's father was a brewery clerk, who was raised in Torquay, where he attended Babbacombe school. In 1868, Matcham was apprenticed to a local surveyor and architect, George Sondon Bridgeman. In the mid-1870s, Matcham moved to London and joined the architectural practice of Jethro Robinson, consulting theatre architect to the Lord Chamberlain's office. In 1877, Matcham married Robinson's youngest daughter, Effie, and, at the age of 24, took over charge of the architectural practice after his father-in-law died. Matcham received no formal training as an architect, but learnt the practicalities on the job. His first solo commission was to complete Robinson's designs of the Elephant and Castle theatre (opened June 1879).
Matcham and two architects he helped to train, Bertie Crewe and W.G.R. Sprague, were together responsible for the majority - certainly more than 200 - of the theatres and variety palaces of the great building boom which took place in Britain between about 1890 and 1915, peaking at the turn of the century.
Matcham himself designed: The interior of the Theatre Royal, Newcastle; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham (1891); the Blackpool Grand Theatre, the Theatre Royal, Wakefield and the Buxton Opera House (1894); the Royal Hall (Kursaal) in Harrogate (1903); and the Liverpool Olympia (1905). He also designed several famous London theatres: the Hackney Empire (1901); the London Coliseum (1904); the London Palladium (1910); the Victoria Palace (1911). Matcham is remembered in Northern Ireland for his design of the Grand Opera House (opened December 1895) on Great Victoria Street, Belfast. In Douglas, Isle of Man he designed the Gaiety Theatre, which survives to this day.
Matcham also designed theatres in Scotland: in Aberdeen, there were His Majesty's Theatre, built in 1904 to replace the Tivoli Theatre - the Tivoli was originally known as Her Majesty's Theatre, opened in 1872 to the designs of C.J. Phipps, and was subject to alterations by Matcham in 1897, followed by a complete interior rebuild by him in 1909. Both theatres still survive in Aberdeen, although the Tivoli is disused after a spell as a bingo hall. In Edinburgh, he designed the Empire Palace Theatre, opened in 1892, and he also rebuilt it after a fire in 1911. It was subsequently demolished and rebuilt in 1927/8, this time to the designs of Sunderland architects Milburn and Milburn. The theatre still stands today, having been refurbished, after a time as a bingo hall, as the Edinburgh Festival Theatre; it now incorporates a modern glass facade built in 1994. Matcham also designed the King's Theatre, Glasgow on Bath Street in 1904 which is still in use. In Portsmouth the Kings Theatre and the New Theatre Royal are still active.
One unusual commission, built around 1900, is the three blocks in Briggate, Leeds, that are today known as the Victoria Quarter. Matcham's Empire Palace Theatre, which was the centre-piece of the design, was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a Harvey Nichols store, but his surviving exteriors and the County Arcade were later refurbished.
Matcham was among the pioneers in the use of steel cantilevers in his designs, and took out patents to protect his work. This allowed balconies to be built out into the theatre without the use of pillars supporting each tier. These had characterised the work of the previous generation of theatre architects. Without pillars, there were improved sight lines and, popular with theatre owners, an increased audience capacity.
Preserving the legacy
By the outbreak of the First World War, no significant town was without its theatre, or music-hall, over 150 designed by Matcham. By 1982, however, it was estimated that 85% of the theatres that had lit up British towns and cities in 1914 had been lost - 35 of them, including 20 of Matcham's, in London alone. John Betjeman and Simon Jenkins had spoken up for such architects of Victorian and Edwardian parish churches as the Gilbert Scotts, JL Pearson and GE Street, but few had heard of theatre architects such as Matcham, Bertie Crewe, C.J. Phipps, W.G.R. Sprague and Walter Emden.
That gross neglect came to an end with one too many proposed ruthless destructions: the Granville Theatre in Walham Green, in 1971, where the Greater London Council stepped in to stop a developer. This incident attracted attention to the works of the 'theatre boom' architects and led to the protective listing of many other theatres of the period.
On 22 November 2007, Matcham was commemorated by actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales unveiling a blue plaque at the site of his London home, 10 Haslemere Road, Hornsey. English Heritage, who award the plaques, noted "His theatres are particularly notable for their exuberant interiors – he was quite prepared to mix architectural styles, from Tudor strapwork to rococo panels, military insignia to classical statuary. They also set new standards in providing good sightlines and high safety standards, with the inclusion of features such as fireproof construction, adequate emergency lighting and ready means of exit. Matcham’s work proved extremely popular with the public, and its opulence and flair continues to enthral audiences today."
Gallery of architectural work
- Frank Matcham Society, accessed 10 May 2012.
- Michael Sell Frank Matcham - Theatre Architect, arthurlloyd.co.uk, accessed 10 May 2013
- Principal Probate Registry, Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration made in the Probate Registries of the High Court of Justice in England, p. 195.
- John Betjeman was instrumental in saving Wilton's Music Hall in 1964
- McKie, David (29 July 2004). "Give them a big hand". The Guardian (London).
- Frank Matcham blue plaque (English Heritage) accessed 13 December 2012
- Brian Walker (ed) Frank Matcham; Theatre Architect Belfast (1980)
- David Wilmore (ed) Frank Matcham & Co Dacre (2008)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Frank Matcham.|
- Frank Matcham Society
- Theatres built by Frank Matcham
- Frank Matcham page
- Frank Matcham and Company at the Victoria and Albert Museum.