On the anniversary of his passing, we take this opportunity to celebrate one of the greats of UK theatre architecture, William George Robert Sprague (?/?/1863 – 4 December 1933).
Sprague was born in Australia in 1863 to actress Dolores Drummond, who spent some years in Australia, before returning to London in 1874.
At the tender age of sixteen, Sprague became an articled clerk for the legendary architect Frank Matcham for four years. In 1880 he was an articled clerk for Walter Emden for three years. He then formed a partnership with Bertie Crewe until 1895. His work rate was quite prolific, designing a number of theatres and music halls, mostly located in London. At the height of his powers he produced six intricately detailed and richly detailed jewel-box theatres in Westminster in less than four years. Unlike Matcham and Emden, Sprague studied architectural forms and conventions and applied his knowledge into his designs, was quoted that he “liked the Italian Renaissance” as a style for his frontages, but was happy to take liberties when needed “to get the best effects”. In 1902, the theatre newspaper The Era described him as “Britain’s youngest theatrical designer, with more London houses to his credit than any other man in the same profession.”
Sprague favoured two-tier auditoria, which invariably paid off for audiences in terms of atmosphere and sight-lines. Wyndham’s is a personal favourite and, to my mind, one of the most perfectly designed theatres I have ever had the pleasure to sit in.
Today most of his surviving theatres in the West End are owned (and lovingly restored) by the Delfont Mackintosh organisation. The Strand (now the Novello)(1905), The Globe (now the Gielgud) (1906), Wyndham’s Theatre (1899), The Queen’s (now the Sondheim) (1907), and the New (later the Albery and now the Noel Coward) (1903) all form part of DMT’s classy and well-maintained portfolio of theatres.
Other surviving Sprague West End theatres include two intimate under 500-seaters, the St Martin’s Theatre (1916) (current home of the Mousetrap) and the neighbouring Ambassadors Theatre (1913). There is also the Aldwych (1905), the “sister theatre” to the Strand, Outside the West End we can still find the Coronet in Notting Hill (1898) (for most of its life a cinema but now returned as a theatre), and The Camden Theatre (1900) (now a nightclub called KOKO).
His most significant design outside London was the Sheffield Lyceum (1897), thankfully restored and now a Number One touring house.
Later years saw Sprague designing fewer buildings, but he left with a wonderful swansong. The Streatham Hill Theatre was the last theatre credited to him (in association with W. H. Barton), opened in 1929. A massive suburban hall seating more than many a West End House, 2800, its size made it vulnerable later but thankfully it still survives today (read more in my article here).
Regular readers of this blog will also be interested to know that Sprague was the architect of the now-lost Fulham Grand Theatre, which was featured in my Lost Theatres collection (find the article here)
Sprague died in Maidenhead in 1933, leaving a legacy of some of London’s most beautifully intricate houses. It is fitting that we remember this great architect whose work has given such pleasure to so many audiences- and will continue to do so for years to come.
For those interested, the encyclopaedic ArthurLloyd.co.uk site has an interesting article headed A Chat with Sprague from 1905, which you can find here.