This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts by students of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA programme, composed to accompany the ‘Building the Royal Albert Hall’ display on view at the V&A in Room 127 (the entrance to the Architecture Gallery) until 7 January 2018. Here second-year student Karen Morton discusses some of the considerations involved in designing the interior of the Hall.
As the foundation stone for the Royal Albert Hall was being laid by Queen Victoria, the precise details of the interior design of what was to become an iconic destination had yet to be finalised. As befits the proper order of construction all thought and effort was initially concentrated on the general design, the building materials and techniques and challenging structural elements such as the supporting structures for the domed roof.
An important contribution to the decorative detailing of both the exterior and interior was made by the decorative artists of the Science and Art Department; Reuben Townroe, a sculptor and draughtsman and James Gamble, who also did much of the decorative work under Henry Scott at the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum).
The Morning Post on 30 March 1871 reported that:
Mr Townroe, who designed and carried out the decorations of the royal boxes, also designed and modelled the exterior terra-cotta work, and designed the whole architectural effect of the exterior, with the exception of the frieze of figures in Mosaic. The decorative details of the organ case, the painted glass roof, and the velarium are also from his designs; indeed he has been held responsible for both the interior and exterior decorations….’
In July 1873 a committee was appointed, including the Duke of Edinburgh, Lady Marian Alford, Henry Cole and Henry Scott, to supervise the interior decorations considering comfort and aesthetic appeal. The Archives of the Royal Albert Hall hold the minutes from meetings of the decoration committee which reveal that these discussions took place after the Hall actually opened and some decisions that were made regarding what the public would eventually see were not actually carried out until 1875. The committee members apparently had difficulty agreeing on colour schemes and continued their colour experiments until April 1875 when they decided on a treatment ‘in reds’, which Reuben Townroe executed in the summer and autumn. 
The Hall’s Decoration Committee minutes on 12 April 1875 report:
‘The Committee recommend that the decoration of the Hall be completed…. in reds as the most effective and economical that has been suggested…. The Committee ordered that the red band to be carried around the fronts of the Boxes and Balcony’
The Hall’s Council minutes on 5 May 1875 record:
‘The auditorium was painted deep crimson, gold, white and slate. The cost to paint the auditorium in these colours was estimated at £400 and two painters were employed to complete this work. The lines of the first tier of boxes were to be carried onto the organ. The red band was to be carried round the fronts of the boxes and balcony.’
A glimpse of contemporary public opinion is seen in a personal letter dated 19th November 1875; a lady writes to her friend ’Dearest Marion’ describing the colour of the auditorium:
‘….The Hall is greatly improved by the deep rich crimson colour it is now painted, relieved by gold, white and slate.’
Today the Royal Albert Hall is furnished in an elegant and sumptuous style befitting a world-class entertainment venue and the public have come to expect attractively decorated walls and carpeted floors. However, this was not always the case and at the opening the auditorium awaited a final decision and the floor covering comprised coconut matting which, whilst undoubtedly hardwearing, would today be considered less than glamorous. Further descriptions of the public areas are given from contemporary sources:
The Times on 27 March 1871 commented:
‘The amphitheatre and area are covered in with cocoanut matting, dyed to a dull red, and the chairs, both fixed and movable are covered with a somewhat similar tint….’
Although criticism is not generally withheld in contemporary reports, there is no adverse comment recorded regarding the use of coconut matting, so we can assume that this was considered an acceptable decorative solution at the time.
With thanks to Elizabeth Harper Archive Manager and her colleagues at The Royal Albert Hall Archives
To see what else V&A/RCA History of Design students have been up to, check our pages on the V&A and RCA websites and take a look at Un-Making Things, a student-run online platform for all things design history and material culture.