With the recent restoration of the Victorian theatre at Alexandra Palace, members of the Royal Society of British Artists were inspired to capture the Palace in all its former glory. 

The Victorian theatre at Alexandra Palace was recently restored, having been left derelict for some eighty years. The rebirth of its almost mystical original interior has inspired members of the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) to create works of art based on the Palace, the restoration of the theatre and its history, some of which feature in the Society’s Annual Exhibition at Mall Galleries, opening 4 July.

Most of us know Alexandra Palace, or 'Ally Pally', as the location of the first BBC broadcasts starting in November 1936.

Melissa Scott-Miller RP NEAC RBA, Alexandra Palace, Autumn Oil, 60 x 60 cm, £2,000

When the Palace first opened in 1873, it was called ‘The People’s Palace’ and in its first sixteen days, attracted over 120,000 visitors to its concert hall, art galleries, museum, lecture hall, library and theatre. Just 16 days later, the Palace was consumed by a fire. Over a century later in 1980, the building was once again engulfed in flames, burning a large part of the Palace to the ground. The latter blaze has been recreated by Annie Boisseau, the newest member of the Society, whose contemporary interpretation of Romantic Landscape painting fits the dramatic scene perfectly.

Annie Boisseau RBA Fire at Ally Pally Oil

One of the few areas to survive this conflagration was the impressive Palm Court, as depicted here by Meg Dutton:

Meg Dutton RBA Palm Court Etching

By 1875, the Palace had been rebuilt and the theatre’s stage incorporated cutting edge technology to allow the performers to disappear, reappear and be propelled into the air. Much use was made of these innovations for the very first pantomime staged in the Theatre, ‘The Yellow Dwarf’. It was descriptions of this extravaganza that provided the inspiration for Mick Davies painting:

Mick Davies VPRBA Dwarf at the Palace

“For me, this project is all about the acts rather than the surroundings, about the shows that amazed the audiences by the special effects that were new in those days – exploding cannons, people vaulting out of trap doors. It seemed very bizarre. I just want that kind of excitement,” says Mick.

The music hall, melodrama and acrobatic acts popular during this time have inspired many of the artists in their work.

Bridget Moore Sen RBA NEAC Old Clowns Gouache, 36 x 36 cm, £825

When the theatre closed all those years ago, it was neglected and used as a scenery store by the BBC until the 1950s, before being left to fall into complete disrepair. The decaying, cavernous space, with many of its earliest features intact, inspired RBA artist Austin Cole, who visited it during the recent restoration:

“My first impression as I walked into the theatre was, what an amazing space. It really was quite overwhelming – the building work, the renovation, the noise, the movement. What I focussed on was the drama of the light coming in from the back of the stage,” Austin recalls.

Austin Cole RBA Ally Pally Circle Etching, 30 x 50 cm, £320 (£240 u/f)

But now, newly restored, the theatre is once again open to the public for theatrical and musical performances 146 years after it first opened to awe-struck crowds.

Steven Outram RBA Ta-Da! The Brightest Star Oil, 43 x 38 cm, £4,800

There are a number of events taking place alongside the exhibition to celebrate this project:

Friday 5 July, 2pm to 4pm - Drawing Session with Balloon Modelling

Monday 8 July, 2pm - Talk and Screening about the project

Tuesday 9 July, 11am to 1pm - Austin Cole RBA, Printing Alexandra Palace