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Past Exhibition of the Month - November 2012

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Aquatint of the fourth Drury Lane Theatre, opened to the public 10 October 1812,  published 1 November 1812. From Repository of Arts: Rudolph Ackermann.  Drury Lane Theatrical Fund.

Aquatint of the fourth Drury Lane Theatre, opened to the public 10 October 1812, published 1 November 1812. From Repository of Arts: Rudolph Ackermann. Drury Lane Theatrical Fund.

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Historically the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is one of the world's earliest and most important playhouses and the present structure, opened 200 years ago on 10 October 1812, is acknowledged to be 'London's finest theatre building' (Pevsner). The first stone had been laid 29 October 1811 so the building was completed and opened in just under a year at a cost of £150,000.

Designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt (1775-1855) in neo-Grecian style, this 'magnificent object' (as an early visitor described it) was the fourth permanent structure on the site, succeeding buildings of 1663, 1674 and 1794. The last of these, designed for Richard Brinsley Sheridan by Henry Holland (the Duke of Bedford's Surveyor), had burned nearly to the ground in February 1809 and it was mainly due to the efforts of Samuel Whitbread, the brewer and MP who succeeded Sheridan as Chairman of a new Company of Proprietors in 1810, that the new edifice was completed.

Although Wyatt's building has sustained a number of additions and alterations - notably three rebuildings of the auditorium in 1822, 1901 and 1922 - its interior public spaces remain 'important late Georgian monuments in their own right . . unparalleled in any British theatre for their splendour and sense of theatrical occasion' (The Theatres Trust).

As a house for serious music TRDL has sometimes seemed overshadowed by the neighbouring Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and by the former King's Theatre / His (Her) Majesty's in the Haymarket. However its own performance annals include events of the greatest musical distinction and significance to British music history. Numerous 19th-century English operas received their premières here, by composers such as Balfe (13, including The Bohemian Girl), Benedict (The Gipsy's Warning, etc), Wallace (Maritana), Mackenzie (Colomba) and Stanford (The Canterbury Pilgrims). Continental operas staged for the first time in this country include The Bartered Bride, Boris Godunov, The Golden Cockerel, Guillaume Tell, La Juive, Khovanshchina, Manon, Martha, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Prince Igor, Robert le Diable, Tristan und Isolde and Les Vêpres Siciliennes. In 1870 Der fliegende Holländer (in English) was the first Wagner opera to be heard in the UK. Sims Reeves, Jean de Reszke, Chaliapin, Richard Tauber, Paul Robeson and Rudolf Nureyev were among those who made their British stage debuts at TRDL. Other important artists who performed here have included Malibran, Grisi, Rubini, Lablache, Titiens, Caruso and Sutherland among singers, Paganini, Thalberg and Menuhin among instrumentalists, and Berlioz, Jullien, Hans Richter, Mahler and Sir Thomas Beecham among conductors. Beecham gave prestigious concerts and opera seasons at the Lane, and in 1913 and 1914 brought the Diaghilev company to the theatre, with a repertoire which included the first British performances of Le Sacre du Printemps, Le Chant du Rossignol, Daphnis et Chloë and Jeux and Strauss's Legend of Joseph. Legendary dancers who have appeared here include Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Perrot, Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinsky, Markova and Fonteyn. This paragraph cannot be concluded without mention of Alfred Bunn, who was firstly Stage Manager for Elliston, then Manager from 1833-1840 and 1844-1848. He introduced many foreign performers to the English Stage and attempted to establish English Opera.

This rich and varied musical heritage has perhaps been obscured by the theatre's latter day identification with musicals. They began with Friml's Rose Marie in 1925, and continued with Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, King & I, My Fair Lady, Billy, A Chorus Line and Miss Saigon - all of which had more than 700 performances. Miss Saigon holds the record and lasted 10 years. We plan to illustrate more of the musical history of TRDL in the future. Next year will be the 350th anniversary of the granting of the Royal Patent and opening of the first theatre.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Auditorium of the third Drury Lane Theatre.  Engraving by Isaac Taylor after Edward Pugh published 11 August 1804 by Richard Phillips' in Modern London : Being the History and Present State of the British Metropolis, London, 1804. Fire and ruins of the third Drury Lane Theatre. Engraving by Wise after Whichelo. Published 7 August 1811. Interior of the third Drury Lane Theatre. Engraving by Dale after John Winston. Published 27 September 1820.

Share certificate No. 93 of Captain Richard Henry Alexander Bennett (1742?-1814), Naval Captain and MP for Shaftesbury.  Drury Lane Theatrical Fund to whom this certificate was left by Captain Bennett.

Exterior of New Drury Lane Theatre.  Engraving by Busby after Whichelo, 1 September 1813 for The Beauties of England and Wales. New Theatre Royal Drury Lane.  Drawn and engraved by Frederick Wilton Lichfield Stockdale, [c.1812]. 1812  Exterior (Plate I) from Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Theatres of London, London, 1826 by Edward Wedlake Brayley.  Drawn and engraved by the late Daniel Havell.

Exterior, showing the Portico which had been added in 1820. Engraving by Thos. Dale after Thos. H. Shepherd, 16 February 1828 from Metropolitan Improvements : London in the Nineteenth Century, London,  ?1828. "The grand Portico, in front of Drury-lane Theatre, is in a state of great forwardness, and will be completed on the opening of that establishment for the season on Monday [30 October] . . . . ." Morning Post, 28 October 1820. A later view of the 1812 Theatre from the North East, showing the Scene Room which was built in 1814 and the Colonnade which was added in 1831. Pen and wash drawing by Francis Unwin (1885-1925). Exterior showing both the Portico and the Colonnade, the latter designed by Beazley.

Article Gentleman's Magazine October 1812 Interior View (before any remodelling) from La Belle Assemblée, Vol 6, 1813. Engraving by William Hopwood after N. Heideloff.

View from the Stage from Edifices of London - Theatres.  This and the following two engravings show the theatre after reconstruction by Samuel Beazley in 1822.  Engraving by J. Le Keux after T. Wyatt. Top - Transverse Section looking to the Stage. Bottom - Section of Rotunda and Stairs to Boxes. Longitudinal Section from East to West.

Free pass dated 26 May 1818, signed by Mrs Maria Rebecca Davison, née Duncan (1780? - 1858), actress and vocalist. [On 31 October 1812 she married James Davison.]  "She had a fine voice and a good knowledge of music, sang with much expression, and was in her day unequalled in such Scotch ballads as John Anderson and Roy's Wife. Her singing as the Marchioness Merida in the Travellers,  Drury Lane 13 May 1823, revealed powers almost fitting her for opera." (DNB) Free pass dated 5 November 1819, signed by Robert William Elliston for a performance of The Road to Ruin.. Free pass dated 28 February 1826 signed by William Gore Elliston (1798-1872), eldest son of R.W. Elliston.  When Elliston Senr. became ill in 1825, probably following a stroke, he delegated the management of Drury Lane to his son William. Following his father's bankruptcy and retirement from Drury Lane, William emigrated to Tasmania in1830 and spent most of the rest of his life there. He died in Hobart on 4 December 1872.

Robert William Elliston (1774-1831) actor and manager of Drury Lane.   Published by Richard Phillips, 1803. Elliston made his debut at Drury Lane on 20 September 1804. At the opening of the New Drury Lane Theatre, he spoke the address, written by Lord Byron, and then played the leading role in Hamlet.  In August 1819 he became Lessee of the Theatre and opened the first of seven seasons on 4 October.  In 1822 he spent £22,000 on remodelling the auditorium.  With his health failing and mounting debts, on 3 June 1826 he forfeited the lease and was declared bankrupt 10 December the same year.  He died in his house at Blackfriars 8 July 1831 aged 57. Samuel Whitbread (1758 - 1815) brewer, philanthropist and Whig MP for Bedford.  Bust by Nollekens, 1814,( decorated for the 200th Anniversary of the building, 10 October 2012). Whitbread became chairman of the committee set up to rebuild the Theatre. There were debts of £500,000 left after the 1809 fire but he worked tirelessly and with the help of his political friends, Whitbread managed to raise the necessary funds to rebuild  Drury Lane. On 6 June 1815, he committed suicide whilst suffering from depression. Edmund Kean (1785?-1833) actor and one of the great figures in British theatre history. Engraving from a drawing by Samuel Cousins, 1814. Following his sensational debut at Drury Lane as Shylock on 26 January 1814, he was so popular with audiences that he played 3 times a week for many seasons there, alternating his great roles of Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear and many other non Shakespearean parts. A controversial figure because of his private life, his health failed and he died 15 May 1833, at his house in Richmond and was buried in Richmond Parish Churchyard aged only 48. The playbill of 5 March 1814 announced "The demand for Boxes and Places for Mr KEAN's next Performances continuing to encrease [sic] beyond all former example, he will repeat the Part of King Richard every Monday and Shylock every Thursday till further notice."

Playbill for the Oratorios, 20 March 1816. Playbill for the Oratorios, 30 January 1817. Playbill for Der Freischütz, 8 March 1825.

Auditorium showing on stage the Wrestling Scene in As You Like It. Engraving by T.H. Ellis after T. H. Shepherd, 1843.

We are grateful to Drury Lane Theatrical Fund for their collaboration in the mounting of this display.