Dramatic architecture

By Matt Elton, 2 March 2010 - 10:42am

Alan Crosby pays a visit to Leeds' Grand Theatre, and lifts the curtain on what such buildings can reveal about the cultural lives of our ancestors

Wednesday 3 March 2010
Alan Crosby
, editor of The Local Historian
Read more from Alan's blog

This weekend we were in Leeds, and enjoyed looking at the fine Victorian architecture of the city centre. It’s a reminder of the great wealth which the woollen industry generated, as well as the city’s role, for centuries, as a major trading and commercial centre for much of Yorkshire.

Compared with most other manufacturing and commercial centres in England, Leeds escaped relatively lightly during the Second World War. There were few major air raids and there was little serious damage in the city centre. That did not mean that it emerged unscathed subsequently – there is plenty of the in retrospect misguided redevelopment of the twenty years from the late-1950s to the mid-1970s, with the usual plethora of concrete, and the intrusive clumsy architecture of the time, but much of the nineteenth-century townscape still survives.

We were going to the Grand Theatre, and that was a real treat. It was built in 1878, rather before the real heyday of the sumptuous civic theatres (the 1890s and the Edwardian period were the time when the most opulent and extravagant examples were built in other cities) and it has a more comfortable and friendly feel.

The exterior is surprisingly modest, designed by a local architect in an intriguing combination of Scottish baronial style (little pointy turrets) and early Gothic (big arched doorways and windows). In reality, it’s in a style all of its own. The interior is splendid, with plenty of that rich red plush which distinguishes such buildings, but also with fan vaulting, mosaic work, lavish quantities of pale gold embellishment, and tall columns. And, like all proper Victorian theatres, the upper part of the building doesn’t suit anyone with vertigo – you look down at the stage from a terrifying height.

Such buildings are not only impressive in themselves, especially if (as with the Grand Theatre) they have been restored in recent years when their architecture and decoration are valued highly again. They also remind us of civic aspirations in the high Victorian period, when every self-respecting city and town had to have a showpiece theatre and, ideally, opera house. Across the country, city fathers and town councillors encouraged such projects, either funding them from the rates or, more usually, becoming shareholders in private companies.

In the 1850s and 1860s the aim had been to provide libraries, museums and art galleries, to improve the cultural and educational quality of urban life. By the later decades of the century the attention had shifted to theatres, opera and other superior cultural facilities. They were places where the prosperous citizens could enjoy music, drama and other high-quality entertainment, and the buildings had to look the part. No expense was spared – and no amount of gold and crimson was too small!

 

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