Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - Carthage in the Haymarket

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IT is a fact worthy of remark, that London is a metropolis which, while it cheerfully acquiesces from century to century in the survival of slums, will very rarely be persuaded to tolerate the long-continued existence of ruins, or even of vacant spaces, within its confines. Ever since the days of James I., who vainly endeavoured by Royal proclamation to arrest the further growth of the capital, we have been possessed by a building mania, and one of the most difficult enterprises which modern philanthropists have entered upon has been to preserve a sufficient number of open areas in this overgrown Babylon, where the speculative builder is perpetually on the watch to swallow up every disposable spare yard of ground for brick-and-mortar purposes. Within my time Cremorne, Vauxhall, and the Surrey Zoological Gardens have all been built over, and a large portion of Hampstead Heath has been with difficulty rescued from the devouring maw of the building fiend.
    A towering Memorial Hall covers the site of the old Fleet Prison, and were I to go over the water I should be puzzled to find out where the Queen's Bench, the Marshalsea, and Horsemonger Lane Gaol once stood.
    [-369-] The same uncertainty will, ere long, reign touching the precise locality of Coldbath Fields and Tothill Fields prisons. Picturesque, although dingy, old Oxford Market has given place to a pile of residential mansions; and as for the Smithfield which Charles Dickens described with such terrible force in Oliver Twist, what with dead-meat markets, poultry, fruit, and vegetable markets, it has been transformed utterly beyond the recognition of Cockney Rip Van Winkles.
    Still, we are too active, too pushing to march in a hurry, and perhaps too greedy of gain to bear with ruins, or, for any lengthened period, with unoccupied spaces "eligible" for building purposes. It is true that we have no "classical ruins," so to speak, in our midst. If we dismiss as apocryphal the legend that the White Tower in the Tower of London was built by Julius Caesar, the oldest public edifice in London is obviously Westminster Abbey, and of Roman remains one of the very few that are extant within the Metropolitan area is the Roman bath in Strand Lane. Paris has two famous ruins, but with a great bridge of Time between them. One is the Thermes on the Boulevard St. Michel, the remains of the immense baths appertaining to an Imperial Roman palace, long inhabited, if not actually erected, by the Emperor Julian, the Apostate. Another most conspicuous ruin in the French capital is the charred and blackened shell of the Cour des Comptes, on the Quai d'Orsay. This most woeful of modern ruins was burned by the Communards in 1871.
    And this brings me at once to the subject of this [-370-] chapter. For some months past there has been a ruin at the corner of the Haymarket, eastward of Waterloo Place. The dilapidated edifice occupied a vast space of ground, at the eastern side in the Haymarket, and extending north and south from Charles Street to Pall Mall. It used to be known as Her Majesty's Theatre, but I prefer to call it Carthage, for the reasons of the infinite wretchedness of its plight and of the famous memories which it recalls. With our usual impatience of ruins, however, on its being generally confessed that there was no chance of prosperity for Her Majesty's Theatre as a home of Italian Opera, or, indeed, as a place devoted to any other kind of entertainment, and the Crown lease having fallen in, the theatre was not allowed slowly to subside into ruins, but was deliberately and ferociously torn down, with the view of straightway erecting a structure of quite another character in its place.
    It does not in the least matter to me whether the new edifice which is to arise on the area of the Haymarket Carthage is to be a Co-operative Store, or a branch of the General Post-Office, or a Brobdingnagian bucket shop, or another West-End branch of the Sempiternal Wild Cat Bank, Unlimited, or a gigantic hotel. I have heard that the last named is to be its destiny; but I prefer to regard it only as a congener of the antique African city which was set on fire by the Romans, and burned incessantly during seventeen days; which was partially rebuilt by Augustus, wrested from the Romans by Genseric and his Vandals, and at last [-371-] fell into the hands of the Saracens. Do you know Tasso's lines on the delended city? I will give them to you as beautifully rendered by Fairfax:

Great Carthage low in ashes cold doth lie,
Her ruins poor, the herbs in height can pass 
So cities fall, so perish kingdoms high,
Their pride and pomp lie hid in sand and grass.

    I repeated these lines to myself the last time when, coming from Pall Mall, I turned to behold the Opera Colonnade, the pillar smeared over with colours once garish, now dirty, and branded with the inscriptions of "Lot 54," "Lot 107," and so forth, and saw that the fašade of the once splendid theatre had been wholly demolished, the auditorium entirely dismantled, the stage ripped up, and only something like the phantoms of the frame of the proscenium, and of the different tiers of boxes remaining in unsightly brickwork. Where were the yellow satin curtains; where the huge central chandelier; and where, oh! where, the scenery and the costumes, the decorations, and, more than all, the wondrous harmonies, vocal and instrumental, that once made the Italian Opera House one of the chief glories of London? All gone as thoroughly and as hopelessly as Dido's city, the building of which was painted with such wondrous exuberance of imagination by our Turner. Would that he were alive to paint Carthage in the Haymarket by moonlight, and Colonel Mapleson musing like Marius of old among its ruins!
    With the operatic Punic ruin I was in my youth very much, although indirectly, concerned. So far as I [-372-] could gather from maternal information, my paternal grandfather, Claudius Sebastian Sala, a Roman citizen of ancient descent, came to this country in the year 1766 with a letter of recommendation to one Signor Gallini, a refugee domiciled in England - whose son became a celebrated dancing-master and giver of concerts and masquerades - who was at one time lessee of the King's Theatre, or Italian Opera- House, in the Haymarket, who afterwards married a daughter of Lord Abingdon, became Sir John Gallini, and gathered wealth enough to build the Hanover Square Rooms, now reconstructed as a club. I think that my grandfather had something to do with the direction of the ballet at the King's Theatre; and, indeed, the Terpsichorean art seems in the last century to have been extensively cultivated in one branch of our family, since, some years ago, on my friend, the late James Hannay - who was very much "gone" on genealogy - telling me he had discovered an ancestor of mine who was a Grand Inquisitor in Spain, I was compelled to inform him in reply that, whatever my presumed ancestor had had to do with the Holy Inquisition, I had had an ancestress whose vocation had been of a far cheerfuller, albeit humbler, nature, and that I possessed a letter, of which the ink had grown sadly faded, in her handwriting, and in which she had entreated her brother, my grandsire, not to let it be known that she had danced on the tightrope at the Carnival of Venice, in 1780, seeing that the publication of that certainly not incriminating, but scarcely dignified, fact might militate against her con-[-373-]tracting a matrimonial alliance with a wealthy banker at Trieste. It chanced, likewise, that I once became aware of a Signora Catarina Sala who lived at Como, and kept a tripe-dresser's shop; but I consoled myself by remembering that she belonged to the Lombard, and not the Roman, branch of our house.
    You may be sure that the apparitions of the old ballets at the King's Theatre rose up before me as I gazed on the skeleton proscenium, the dreary yawning gap which should have been the pit, and the naked arches which once supported the vanished tiers of boxes. I seemed to be listening to a phantom opera, say Vanneschi's Fetonte. Horace Walpole criticised that same opera in no amiable mood. Phaeton, he remarked, was run away with by horses that went at a foot pace like an Electress's coach, with such long traces that the postilion was in one street and the coachman in another. "Then came Jupiter with a farthing candle to light a squib and a half, and that was what they called fireworks." The old King's Theatre, where my grandfather possibly assisted Sir John Gallini in arranging the jigs and minuets in operas, subsequent to Vanneschi's Fetonte, was burned down in the year 1789.
    An engraving is extant of the combusted opera-house. It shows the front of the edifice much as when it was built by Sir John Vanbrugh, in the reign of George I. The fašade was only thirty-four feet wide, and the whole building, which was of red brick, somewhat resembles a Quakers' meeting-house. Over the entrance hall there is a large placard, announcing that "Ridant's Fencing [-374-] Academy" was held in an upper storey of the edifice; and on the piers below are large posters, announcing the appearance of Signor Rauzzina and of Signora Carnevale. It is to be hoped that these posters did not provoke the wrath of the more sentimental among Royal Academicians at the time as "a hideous disfigurement" of the beauty of the public buildings of London!
    A very different opera-house was that erected in 1790 from the design of an architect of Polish extraction, named Novosielski; but the new theatre began its career over-weighted with those debts and liabilities which had been its bane ever since Congreve and Vanbrugh started an Italian Opera-House in 1704 with a capital of three thousand pounds, in shares of a hundred pounds from each held by thirty persons, who, in addition to their interest in the theatre, were to have an admission ticket for life to all public performances given in the house. As the King's Theatre began, so did Her Majesty's Theatre end. Under Mr. Mapleson's management the magnificent structure was gutted by a great conflagration in December 1867. The assignee of the property, the Earl of Dudley, decided upon rebuilding the theatre without loss of time; and in March 1869 the new house, which had cost some fifty thousand pounds, was ready for the public.
    Everybody was anticipating the probable date of the opening of the new theatre, when there was fulminated in the Times a proclamation, from the directors of Her Majesty's Theatre, to the effect that no performances [-375-] would be given there during that season; the solution of this enigmatical notice being that the construction of the interior had cost so large a sum that, the greater part of the boxes and stalls being held on lease, the expenses would necessarily be in excess of the receipts, even in the highly improbable case of a full attendance every night. Poor old theatre! From first to last its progress financially was all downhill. The lessee to whom the ingenious device had occurred of selling the leases of boxes and stalls was a Mr. Benjamin Lumley, a highly respectable and accomplished gentleman, who had been the solicitor of M. Laporte, a French actor of some repute, and who succeeded at his (Laporte's) death to the managerial throne of Carthage in the Haymarket.
    You may read in magazine articles and volumes of reminiscences that from the time of the Regency to that of the accession of Her Majesty, the history of the Opera- House in the Haymarket is that of a series of triumphs. Yes; we all know that early in the century the incomparable prima donna Catalani sent London stark staring mad with her wonderful achievements as a vocalist, and that for the operatic season of 1809 she received the almost Patti-like remuneration of fifteen thousand pounds. Then came the triumphs of Pasta, and of Velluti, the wonderful male soprano of whom something was said in one of my papers on Regent Street. Then there was delightful Henrietta Sontag, and then succeeded the operatic stars of my own boyhood, Giulia Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini, Lablache, and later on, Mario. The magazine articles and the reminiscences do not tell [-376-] you, however, that the financial history of the theatre was one mainly of debt, difficulty, and ultimate ruin. 
    In 1837 the "King's Theatre" became "Her Majesty's Theatre" in honour of the accession to the throne of Queen Victoria, whom, in those days, we used to talk and sing about as "The Bonny English Rose." That M. Laporte, whom I mentioned just now, was "Doldrum, the Manager," immortalised in Tom Ingoldsby's ballad of "A Row in an Omnibus (Box)." A very silly intrigue among the operatic stars brought about a disturbance at the beginning of the season of 1841, almost equalling in turmoil the noisiest of the "O.P." riots. "Doldrum, the Manager," otherwise Laporte, had declined the further services of the great baritone, Tamburini, and had replaced him by a singer named Coletti; but Madame Giulia Grisi, whose beauty as well as whose talents had made her par excellence the artistic lioness of the day, was on the side of Tamburini, and at her bidding, or at least instigation, a tremendous demonstration against Coletti was organised among her aristocratic admirers. On the night of the first appearance of Coletti, the omnibus box on the pit tier - where is it now? - was crowded by the bucks and dandies of the day, yelling, shrieking, hooting, and calling for Tamburini and Laporte. The manager, foreseeing uproar, had discreetly caused the door of communication between the omnibus box and the stage to be locked. The patrician tenants of the box were additionally exasperated when they found that they were debarred from their usual privilege of lounging behind the scene and chatting [-377-] with the pets of the ballet between the acts; and the honour of having kicked through and eventually demolished the panels of the locked door was ascribed to a Prince of the Blood, now universally popular as an illustrious and gallant Duke. The stage at last was stormed by the patricians, and the performance came to an untimely close; but good- natured Count D'Orsay soon afterwards contrived to patch up a reconciliation between the dandies and "Doldrum, the Manager." Negotiations were entered into with Tamburini, and the ostracised baritone returned in triumph to Carthage in the Haymarket. Laporte resigned his sceptre in 1842, and when he died soon afterwards, Mr. Benjamin Lumley reigned in his place.
    Of that able, but in the end not successful, impresario, whose name must always be associated with that of Jenny Lind, whom he first introduced to a London audience, I preserve a very pleasant memory. In the autumn of 1850 I was engaged, at the instance of my friend, Alexis Soyer, sometime chef at the Reform Club, to paint on the staircase walls of Gore House, Kensington - which he was fitting up as a great cosmopolitan restaurant, to be known as "Soyer's Symposium," in view of the forthcoming Exhibition of 1851 - a comic panoramic procession of the leading celebrities of the day. The work was executed in oil and in monochrome, and I passed about eight hours a day for about three months, perched sometimes on a ladder, and sometimes on a plank suspended by cords from the ceiling, sketching in a mob of the then famous men and women of the [-378-] epoch, all with very large heads, and generally on the broad grin. That was thought to be humorous art in the year 1850. One day, coming down to lunch, with my brown holland overalls all grimed and spattered with oil and turpentine, Chinese white and Brunswick black, I found myself in presence of Soyer and a tall, dark gentleman of slightly Hebrew mien. This was Mr. Benjamin Lumley, lessee and manager of Her Majesty's Theatre. He had been watching me at work, and after a few pleasant words he left me. But the next day I received a note from Mr. Lumley's secretary, saying that he had placed my name on the free list for the pit of Her Majesty's Theatre for the entire season; so you see that, although my career as an artist was not a very protracted one, it was not wholly without distinguished patronage. Perhaps it was for that reason that when I looked the other day on poor old Carthage in the Haymarket there trembled in my eye a "drop of unfamiliar brine."


Printed by R.& R. Clark, Edinburgh

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