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About William George Robert Sprague, Theatre Architect

Introduction - The ERA on Sprague in 1897 - Sprague's Theatre Constructions of 1898 - A Chat with Sprague in 1905 - Index to Sprague's Theatres on this site

W. G. R. Sprague - From the ERA, December 16th 1905William George Robert Sprague, whose name was usually shortened to W. G. R. Sprague in contemporary reports, was a prolific Theatre Architect working during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of his Theatres, thought to have been about forty in all, have been lost over the years, but thankfully thirteen of them still survive, eight in London's West End.

Sprague's birth place and date of birth is often quoted as having been New Zealand in 1863 or 1865, however, recent research by John Earl, the former Director of the Theatres Trust, has cleared this up and it is now known that Sprague was actually born in Ballarat, Australia, in 1863, his mother was the actress Dolores Drummond. The family moved to England whilst William was still a child and he was soon set up as an apprentice to the now renowned Theatre Architect, Frank Matcham at the age of just sixteen. Sprague completed his 'articled years' with another well known Theatre Architect, Walter Emden, and eventually shared an office with Theatre Architect Bertie Crewe before going on to have his own Theatre Design Practice - Many Thanks to John Earl for this information.

OUR THEATRICAL ARCHITECTS

SPECIALLY WRITTEN FOR THE ERA, 30th of October 1897

An 1897 programme for the Metropole Theatre, Camberwell, later the Empire Theatre, designed by Bertie Crewe and W. G. R. Sprague in 1894.In the development of the suburban theatre Mr W. R. Sprague has played an important part. A life-long intimacy with Mr Charles Wilmot doubtless had much to do with the architect's confidence in Greater London as a field for theatrical enterprise. His first opportunity was the Metropole; one of his most recent achievements the Grand Theatre, Fulham - both landmarks in the progress of the suburban stage.

Right - An 1897 programme for the Metropole Theatre, Camberwell, later the Empire Theatre, designed by Bertie Crewe and W. G. R. Sprague in 1894.

W. G. R. Sprague's Grand Theatre, Fulham - From an early postcard.Mr Sprague laughs to scorn the suggestion that the exploitation of the suburbs is in the way of being overdone. The fact is, he says, that each new theatre seems to pay even better than its predecessors; and in these circumstances how can the supply be described as excessive? People who say that it is surely fail to appreciate the vastness of the cities surrounding this city of ours, and the growth of their population - in numbers, and also in the culture which finds its recreation at a theatre.

Left - W. G. R. Sprague's Grand Theatre, Fulham - From an early postcard.

That Mr Sprague should have adopted the profession of architecture is most natural, for his people have been artists through generations. He claims Samuel Drummond for a great grandfather. And being an architect, that he should devote himself to the construction of theatres is also natural, for his mother is the well-known actress Miss Dolores Drummond.

Mr Sprague was born in New Zealand, and spent his boyhood in Australasia. (See Introduction above for Sprague's correct birth details M.L.) There the friendship, already referred to, with Mr Charles Wilmot began. When the choice of a profession for the youngster came to be discussed, Mr Wilmot had an influential voice, and, in fact, placed Mr Sprague in the office of a well-known London architect, whence, in due course, he passed to another, both his principals being experienced designers of theatres. A special training Mr Sprague regards as absolutely essential to theatre design. The architect has to face problems that do not occur in any other class of work. Many of them, to be sure, have become quite a matter of course with the theatre architect of many years' particular experience.

One's query as to a sufficiency of work for the theatrical expert provokes a smile - Mr Sprague's reply is to submit a list of the theatres and music halls on which he is now engaged, fifteen in number. Prominent among them is the "lordly pleasure house" in hand for Mr Charles Wyndham - perhaps the most important commission as yet entrusted to the young architect. It is, as our readers are aware, situated in Charing-cross-road, northwards from the Garrick Theatre. The plans have been finally settled, and indicate a noble structure, with many special features that may not yet be discussed.

Wyndham's Theatre during the run of 'A Voyage Around My Father' in October 2006. - Photo M.L.

Above - Wyndham's Theatre during the run of 'A Voyage Around My Father' in October 2006. - Photo M.L.

Mr Sprague is disposed to lay much stress on theatrical exteriors. Too often, says he, the thought of the architect has been confined to the interior - reached by a mean passage between shops and such like. Mr Sprague would have the temple of histrionic art imposing to the passer-by. He thinks that among the architectural beauties of a city the theatre should be prominent, and should, moreover, have a particular character. It was in this belief that he set to work on Mr Wyndham's theatre - so much is obvious from the plans.

Various influences brought Mr Sprague and Mr Wyndham together, among them the success of the Grand Theatre at Fulham. To be sure, one cannot say this theatre shall be a reproduction of that theatre - the conditions vary so much, but especially the site. Fortunate, indeed, is the adventurer who lights upon a plot of land in a position suitable for a theatre which presents no difficulties to the designer. In the suburbs, of course, this is more frequently to be done than in the West-end, where the value and tenure of land make many a tempting site impossible. To make the very best of his site is the first consideration with the theatrical architect, and often taxes his ingenuity to the utmost. Then there is the question of suiting a house to its style of entertainment, and its general circumstances. Nothing, Mr Sprague thinks, is more foolish than to make a theatre too large; and a careful differentiation is particularly necessary in the suburbs. For a populous district of working folk, where melodrama at cheap prices is to be done, a vast theatre is suitable. In a "genteel" suburb such a house would frequently be half empty, and the fatal atmosphere of depression would be created. For such a locality a small, elegant theatre, always seeming prosperous, is the thing.

As to the principles of theatre construction Mr Sprague commits himself unreservedly to the two tier house. The objection often advanced by proprietors is that three or four tiers accommodate a greater number of persons on the same ground space. Mr Sprague joins issue. Used with a proper ingenuity the two tiers can he made to accommodate the same number of people as three tiers, making them ever so much more comfortable, and dividing the classes of playgoers quite as effectually. Mr Sprague has a hatred of obstructive pillars in the construction of a theatre, and the tendency of his studies has been to reduce and reduce them, till he uses none at all. The "sighting" of a house, sometime left to chance, and sometime the subject of vague experiment, should, to the expert architect, have become a matter of absolute certainty. Build your theatre such a way, and every occupant of a seat will indubitably have a clear view of the entire stage, which, by the way, Mr Sprague would "rake." He sees no virtue in a flat stage; and the particular vice that it robs the picture of perspective.

A favourite theme with Mr Sprague is the fireproofing of theatres. How many theatres, he wonders, that are theoretically fireproof, would burn like tinder, by reason of the "studding " freely used in their internal partition, and such like contrivances. "While we are about it." says he, "let us have our theatres absolutely fireproof. It is really a very simple matter. The cost is a little greater, very little, in fact, and recouped by the enormous saving in the rates of insurance.

Good bars Mr Sprague regards as most essential. He speaks not so much in respect of the convenience of the playgoer, but of the value that accrues to a theatrical property well equipped with bars. To a music hall they are of even greater importance. Mr Sprague, it will be noticed, is as much employed in the construction of music halls as of theatres. The general lines of the two buildings are similar; but there are differences. The music hall must have its promenades, its more liberal bar accommodation, its freer ventilation (for the tobacco smoke), and a more brilliant scheme of decoration. For a variety theatre, Mr Sprague is partial to Eastern styles, of which he is a sympathetic student.

A Programme for 'The Acrobat' at the New Olympic Theatre, Wych Street, Strand in 1890 - Click for details. Mr Sprague now regards his situation with some complacence. Work is coming in freely. But he has had his struggles in the past. When he began business on his own account, it was with no less than work involving capital expenditure of £30,000, which seemed promising enough, but the young architect had still his battles to fight. For his old friend, Charles Wilmot, he built the New Olympic - an unfortunate theatre, indeed, but spacious and convenient. An economic style of decoration had to be adopted, but if ever the tide of popular favour should be brought to the doors of the New Olympic it could be made into a very handsome theatre indeed. For Mr Mulholland, disposed toward the district of Camberwell, Mr Sprague found the particular site on which the Metropole was erected - what an impetus the success of that house gave to the suburban theatre.

Left - A Programme for 'The Acrobat' at the New Olympic Theatre, Wych Street, Strand in 1890 - Click for details.

At the outset Mr Sprague was concerned in the Brixton Theatre, which, however, passed into other hands, and through not a few vicissitudes ere it was completed. The Shakespeare Theatre at Clapham is his work. Most recently the Grand Theatre, Fulham. Our columns have lately recorded the opening of the Lyceum, Newport, and the Lyceum, Sheffield. So many samples of achievement.

Among the many works Mr Sprague has in hand at this moment may be mentioned the Broadway Theatre, Deptford, and the Coronet, Notting-hill-gate. A. handsome theatre at Camden-town is looming in the distance. Empires are in store for Stratford and for Holloway. Morton's Theatre at Greenwich is to be reconstructed and beautified, in fact, Mr Sprague is so busy that he has hardly time to put pencil to paper; and none at all for the pleasant pastime of - going to the theatre.

This article on W. G. R. Sprague was first published in the ERA, 30th of October 1897.

W. G. R Sprague's Theatres of 1898

The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the many Theatres W. G. R. Sprague was involved with in just one year of his prolific career in their November the 25th 1898 edition entitled New Suburban Theatres, and saying:- The following theatres are being erected from designs by Mr. W. G. R. Sprague: Coronet Theatre, Nottinghill-gate, which is on the eve of completion, and the Princess of Wales Theatre, in Kennington Park-road, is to be opened in December. This house occupies almost an ideal site, having a frontage of about 80ft. to Kennington Park-road, 150ft. to South-place, 90ft. to De Laune-street. The whole of the main frontage is of white Portland stone. The elevations are of Italian Renaissance character. The more expensive parts of the house are entered from Kennington-road by a few broad steps running the entire length of the 50ft. wide stone colonnade into a vestibule or lobby, and thence to the grand crush-room. This apartment is one of the features of the building, having a length of 42ft. and a width of 22ft.

The Empire Theatre of Varieties, in the Broadway, Stratford, is already roofed in, and will be opened in the coming spring.

At the new Empire, which is being erected in the Holloway-road, the gallery level has almost been reached, and this house is also expected to be ready for opening by the spring.

At the Royal Duchess Theatre at Balham the builders have already reached the dress-circle level, and the theatre will be opened next spring.

At the Terriss Theatre at Rotherhithe the foundations are dug, and the house will be erected and opened as early as possible next year.

The plans of a new theatre at Camden-town for Mr. Saunders have also been prepared by Mr. Sprague.

The above text was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, November the 25th 1898.

A Chat with Mr. W. G. R. Sprague in 1905

From the ERA, December 16th, 1905

W. G. R. Sprague - From the ERA, December 16th 1905 The actor may complain that he is not known except in his own day and generation, and that, as he is unable to present his art after his demise, he leaves nothing behind him of a practical, material nature to prove the quality of his genius to succeeding generations. Not so with the architect who designs the house in which the actor plays his many parts. A theatre might stand for two or three centuries, or even longer, and if in outward appearance it was particularly striking or artistic in design, the name of the architect would be remembered as long as the building was allowed to remain intact.

Right - W. G. R. Sprague - From the ERA, December 16th 1905.

Mr. W. G. R. Sprague, the well-known theatre architect, will leave behind him - may that be a long time hence - evidences of a busy and useful career in the existence of at least forty theatres in different parts of the United Kingdom, for he has designed and supervised the erection of this number of places of entertainment, no less than eight of them being situated in the West-End of London.

One of his latest undertakings is the Aldwych Theatre, built for Mr. Seymour Hicks. This building has a frontage of 70ft. to the thoroughfare from which it takes its name, and a return elevation to Drury-lane of about 80ft. It is a companion theatre to the Waldorf, and the two houses will form the wings of what will be an extremely fine block when this hotel is completed. The elevations of both are somewhat similar in design, though a little different in detail so far as the interiors are concerned. In the Waldorf the decorations are of the Louis XVI style, whereas in Mr. Hicks' theatre they are of a Georgian character, and there are only two tiers as against three in the first-named establishment.

The Aldwych Theatre when it first opened in 1905 - From The ERA, December 16th 1905."Perhaps from an architectural point of view you favour the two-tier house, Mr. Sprague?"

"I do, I think the two-tier house has distinct advantages. For one thing, the sloping of these portions of the auditorium comes much easier in the erection, and not only that, but the sighting is infinitely superior, while at the same time a cosier effect is gained. The decorations at the Aldwych are very chaste. No marble is being used. The grand staircase and the crush-room are in oak. Generally, the scheme or ornamentation is of white and gold, with the simple contrast of very rich rose du Barry draperies and carpets. The stage is ample for all purposes, being 40ft. deep, 70ft. wide, a height of 55ft. to the gridiron, and a depth of the stage cellar of about 25ft. enabling stage-cloths to be taken down below as well as up aloft. There is semi-circular vestibule which leads direct into the grand crush-room. The latter is a very fine apartment, and the walls are partly rounded, with a circular balcony overhead, which in its turn is connected with the grand foyer above, so that a height of nearly 30ft. is obtained from the floor of the crush-room. At the back of the dress-circle is a handsome and convenient lounge, from which one can view the performances. This is also in direct communication with the foyer and the crush-room. A special supper-room has been provided for the use of the management and the artists a short distance from the stage, and in this respect we have taken an idea from the old Beefsteak Club at the Lyceum Theatre under Sir Henry Irving's regime. Each part of the house is provided with spacious saloons, and arrangements in connection with the ventilation of the entire establishment have been carried out in accordance with the latest requirements of the London County Council. In the case of fire all smoke fumes would be thrown off directly above the proscenium arch, so that it would not be possible for the smoke to reach the audience. There are eight private boxes. The seating capacity of the theatre is about 1,200, and there is standing space for some 300 more. I believe you already know that the Aldwych is to be opened on the 23rd inst., with a new version of Bluebell."

"Is it too premature to say anything concerning the new theatres you are putting up in Shaftesbury avenue?"

"There are two, and they will comprise the whole of the ground between Rupert-street and Wardour-street, with a frontage of 150ft. to Shaftesbury-avenue, and going back as far as Upper Rupert-street. Both these theatres will be two-tier houses, and each will differ from the other in design. One is for Mr. Charles Frohman, and the other, of which the leading directors are Mr. Sydney Marler, Mr. Seymour Hicks, Mr. Jack Jacobus, and another well-known gentleman, will be let to a suitable tenant. It has been suggested that Mr. Frohman's theatre should be called the Queen's and the other should be named the Piccadilly (Note this one was eventually called the Hick's Theatre M.L.). The plans have been passed to the L.C.C., and it is hoped to have the entire block ready for the public by December next year. The seating capacity of each will be about 1,300 persons.

W. G. R. Sprague's Hick's and Queen's Theatres in 1907 - From the ERA, August 17th 1907.

Above - W. G. R. Sprague's Hick's and Queen's Theatres in 1907 - From the ERA, August 17th 1907.

Poster for a Variety performance at the Empire Theatre, Croydon, on the 15th of April 1912. Mr. Sprague is also busily engaged in supervising the erection of a large theatre of varieties at Croydon, after the style of the Duchess Palace. The new music hall, which will be called the Empire, is to be one of the largest in or out of London, for, although only a two-tier house, it is being built to accommodate 2,500 people. A unique position in the centre of the Croydon High-street has been chosen. The decorations will be of a lavish description, in the French renaissance, and the building in other respects will be thoroughly up to date. Work was started three months ago, and the intention is to open the house at Easter. Mr. Sprague is also concerned with the rebuilding of the Artillery Theatre, Woolwich, which, it will be remembered, was gutted by fire two years ago. This also will be a two-tier house. holding 1,300 persons. It is to be opened by Lord Roberts on the 21st inst.

Right - A Poster for a Variety performance at the Empire Theatre, Croydon, on the 15th of April 1912 - Courtesy Colin Charman.

And that is not the extent of the enterprises upon which Mr. Sprague is now giving his attention. He has prepared the plans for a new theatre in the Haymarket, as well as for a couple of fresh playhouses in the provinces.

What an athletic age we are living in! "The scheme of decoration generally adopted nowadays in the embellishment of theatres," says Mr. Sprague, in reply to a question, "is that of Louis XIV., XV., and XVI. - the delicate, chaste, style. Yet a certain simplicity in design is observed. But what are demanded more than anything are completeness and thoroughness in every detail, perfect sighting, the entire absence of columns in the auditorium, and fireproofing cloths. Every convenience, too, has to be furnished for the actors and actresses, and for the working of the scenery and stage appliances. In fact, theatre and stage-construction now appears to have arrived at a well-nigh immaculate state, and it would be difficult, indeed, to invent some fresh method which would improve very much upon what is being done in the latest designs at the present time."

"Supposing, Mr. Sprague, you were commissioned to design and build a theatre for drama alone, and another theatre for musical comedy, opera, or light pieces, what structural differences would you make in the two houses?"

"For a drama house I should set my circles slightly back, so as to give the spectator a better view of scenic effect, while the interior decorations at least would be treated in a bolder style than for light opera. These are little details which one cannot entirely explain, but which have to be taken into account when instructions are received to prepare plans. Now, for comedy or light opera, the architect would endeavour to to arrange the structure that the audience would be brought into direct touch with the artists. This would be done by closing the circle in, and keeping the whole semblance of the auditorium as dainty as possible."

The above article was first published in the ERA, December 16th, 1905.

Some of the archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

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