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Empire Theatre Leicester Square - Opening night programme, 1884 - Special Feature

 

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The First Empire Theatre 1884The EMPIRE Theatre (Shown Left) now stands on the site where once stood the stately Leicester House of 1636; whose architect, if not Inigo Jones himself, was certainly a pupil of his school; and in the neighbourhood lived the Sidneys, the Saviles, the Sunderlands, Newton and Swift, Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Hunter, Cruickshank, the surgeon, Chalks Bell, the author of "The Anatomy of Expression," Kosciusko and La Guiceiola and Dibdin, who did much for the navy with his fine sea songs; the home of the Sydneys, the last resting place of James the First's unhappy daughter, the - Queen of Hearts," the nursery and court of the first three Princes of Wales of the Hanoverian line, is swept away completely; Leicester Place standing on part of its site. The home of Hogarth, once the " Golden Head," has become Archbishop Tenison's Schools; and Sir Joshua's house, Puttick and Simpson's sale rooms.

 

Leicester Square in about 1750 - From 'Old and New London' 1897. The site of the Empire Theatre is at top centre of the image.Till the days of Charles II., Leicester Square, then called Leicester Fields, was open country the only building being Leicester House, on the north side of the square.

Right - Leicester Square in about 1750 - From 'Old and New London' 1897. The site of the Empire Theatre is at top centre of the image.

The grounds in which it stood were then most extensive, including on the south side all that part now occupied by Castle Street, Hemming's Row, &,c., as far as the King's Mews, and on the north the gardens reached to Gerrard

Early 20th century postcard of Leicester Square showing the Empire Theatre (top left) and the Alhambra Theatre (far right).Street, Soho. This house was built between 1632 and 1636 by Robert Sydney, Earl of Leicester, whose father, Robert, was the brother of the famous Sir Philip Sydney, killed at the battle of Zutphen. Here, Lady -Elizabeth Princess Palatine, (Queen of Bohemia, whose fascinations earned her the title of Queen of Beauty, spent the last days of her unhappy and romantic life.

Right - Early 20th century postcard of Leicester Square showing the Empire Theatre (top left) and the Alhambra Theatre (far right).

From 1712 to 1760, Leicester House was the palace of the Princes of Wales, and from their constant family quarrels was most happily named by Pennant "the pouting place of princes." During this period a passage was built connecting Leicester with Savile House. of which we shall speak directly.

In 1718, the Prince of Wales, afterwards George II, having quarrelled with his father and been commanded to quit St. James's, purchased Leicester House. Here in 1721, his son, the "bloody, butcher " of Culloden was born.

When George II, in his turn quarrelled with his eldest son Frederick, the latter took up his abode and held his court in Leicester House, doing everything he could to vex and annoy his father from thence. During his residence here the first performance was given within these walls which were soon to become the resting place of "shows" innumerable. The play given was Addison's " Cato," the Prince's eldest son, afterwards George III, sustaining the character of Portius. In 1751, Frederick died here.

The original site of Leicester Square - From 'Old and New London' 1897Leicester House was subsequently, occupied by private persons and then passed into the hands of Sir Ashton Lever, who there opened his "Holophusikon," which was a museum of curiosities of all kinds, including all the objects of interest collected by Captain Cook. He at first charged five shillings and threepence admission, then half-a-crown; but all to no purpose, the show was a failure.

Right - The original site of Leicester Square - From 'Old and New London' 1897

He therefore applied to Parliament for permission to dispose of it by lottery in 36,000 shares, at a guinea a piece; he however, sold but 8,000 and the museum passed into the hands of the winner, Mr. Parkinson. He lowered his charge to one shilling, but all ill vain, it still had no success, and the contents were disposed of under the hammer.

Leicester House -was pulled down in 1791, and on part of its site was erected the famous Burford's panorama.

Report for a magistrates hearing on the proposed use of Saville House for Musical Entertainments, Printed in the Globe newspaper, dated "Saturday Evening, October 13, 1849.' Courtesy Colin Charman. - Click image to Enlarge.An artist, of the name of Bobert Barker, standing one day on Calton Hill, Edinboro', admiring the view, was suddenly struck with the thought of reproducing the panorama before him on canvas, making the spectator occupy. a central position similar to that in which he himself stood, and trusting to perspective to reproduce the distances. The result was an exhibition of the " Panorama of Edinboro' and its Environs," at 25, Haymarket, in 1791. The show was an enormous success, and was followed by another of "London and Westminster, giving a correct view of the three bridges," by the same artist, exhibited at 28, Castle Street. A building was now erected by public Subscription, at the end of Cranbourn Street, on part of the site of Leicester House, and opened in June 1793, by a panorama of the "Fleet at Spithead," which was succeeded in 1794 by another, entitled " The glorious First of June," shewing Lord Howe's great victory over the French, with the correct positions of all the ships. The panorama now became an institution, and all the important events of the times were reproduced there, including the wars of Napoleon, the final attack on the wars in China, the -Artic discoveries of Franklin and Parry, the explorations at Nineveh, by Layard, and many others. The panorama passed from the hands, of Robert Barker to those of his son, Henry Aston Barker, who was succeeded by his pupil and painter, John Burford, from whom it descended to his son Robert.

Right - Report for a magistrates hearing on the proposed use of Saville House for Musical Entertainments, Printed in the Globe newspaper, Saturday Evening, October 13, 1849. - Courtesy Colin Charman. - Click image to enlarge.

Savile House, called also Ailesbury House, stood adjoining Leicester House on the west. In 1698, it belonged to the eccentric Lord Carmarthen, son of the Duke of Leeds with whom lodged Peter the Great, whilst he was in London. Indeed, these two seem to have been singularly fitted for each other's society, for Lord Carmarthen, besides being an amateur sailor and ship builder, was, like his guest, a most immoderate brandy drinker and altogether a rough customer.

The house passed into the Saviles by the marriage of Charles, third and last Earl of Ailesbury,with Lady Ann Saville, daughter of the second Marquis of Halifax. In 1790, the house was in the of that Lord George Savile who brought in the Catholic Relief Bill, which led to the Gordon riots, during which, Savile House was attacked by the mob and all the costly furniture books, and pictures, were buried in the square; they even tore up the railings of the house and used them for weapons.

Savile House was rebuilt early in the present century, and on the 14th February, 1806, Miss Linwood brought her famous gallery of pictures in needlework here, from the Hanover Square Rooms. The pictures, which numbered at last 64, remained here till April, 1846, when they were sold by, Christie and Manson...

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