Since the hall’s opening by Queen Victoria in 1871, the world’s leading artists from many performance genres have appeared on its stage. It is the venue for some of the most notable events in British and International culture, hosting to more than 390 shows in the main auditorium annually and a further 400 events each year in other parts of the building.
The hall was originally supposed to have been called the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, but the name was changed to the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences by Queen Victoria upon laying the Hall’s foundation stone in 1867, in memory of her husband, Prince Albert, who had died six years earlier.
In 1851 the Great Exhibition, organised by Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, was held in Hyde Park, London. The Exhibition was a success and led Prince Albert to propose the creation of a permanent series of facilities for the benefit of the public. The Exhibition’s Royal Commission bought Gore House to make way for the scheme but in 1861 sadly Prince Albert died, without having seen his ideas come to fruition. However, a memorial was proposed for Hyde Park, with a Great Hall opposite. The proposal was approved by the British Parliament, and the entire site was purchased with some of the profits from the Exhibition
Opening Ceremony & Notable Events
The official opening ceremony of the Hall was on Wednesday 29 March 1871. A welcoming speech was given by Edward, the Prince of Wales because Queen Victoria was too overcome to speak.
In the concert that followed, the Hall’s acoustic problems became immediately apparent. Engineers first attempted to solve the strong echo by suspending a canvas awning below the dome. Not only did this help the acoustics but it also sheltered concert-goers from the sun. It used to be jokingly said the Hall was “the only place where a British composer could be guaranteed of hearing his work twice”.
the only place where a British composer could be guaranteed of hearing his work twice
an exceptional and distinguished performer … the effect was most marvellous
In July 1871, French organist Camille Saint-Saëns performed Church Scene from Faust by Charles Gounod; The Orchestra described his performance as “an exceptional and distinguished performer … the effect was most marvellous.”
Initially lit by gas, the Hall contained a special system where its thousands of gas jets were lit within ten seconds. Though it was demonstrated as early as 1873 in the Hall, full electric lighting was not installed until 1888.
Although there were many art exhibitions for the first decade since the hall opened its doors, many were spin offs of the art exhibitions that had started at The Great Exhibition and included glass, ceramics, stone and wood carving, textiles printing, botanical illustrations and fashion subjects. Often these exhibitions would be staged through the hall for several weeks whilst theatre and musical concerts were performed in the main auditorium. However, in 1875, a young Fra Henry Newbery launched ‘The Newbery Arts Prize’ and attracted over 800 artists from around the world to compete for his prize of 100 guineas. It was the first private arts competition to be hosted at the hall and was primarily for the classical artists of the day of varying subjects from three of the classical art disciplines of ‘Painting and Drawing, ‘Carved or Cast Sculpture’ and ‘Architecture and Design’.
In May 1877, Richard Wagner himself conducted the first half of each of the eight concerts which made up the Grand Wagner Festival. Wagner’s wife Cosima, the daughter of Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt, was among the audience.
The Royal Albert Hall today
Of course, the list of famed world-class performers, exhibitions and concerts continues today and in 2021, The Royal Albert Hall celebrates its 150th birthday with an impressive schedule of befitting concerts and exhibitions. However, it is The Newbery Arts Prize Exhibition which will once again adorn the walls of the long curved galleries as originally intended for by The Royal Commission.
Acoustic diffusing discs (lit in purple/blue) hanging from the roof of the Hall. The fluted aluminium panels are seen behind.
In 1906, The Central School of Speech and Drama was founded at the Hall, using its West Theatre, now the Elgar Room as the School’s theatre. The School moved to Swiss Cottage in north London in 1957. Whilst the School was based at the Royal Albert Hall students who graduated from its classes included Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, Harold Pinter, Lawrence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft.
In 1933, German physicist Albert Einstein led the ‘Einstein Meeting’ at the hall for the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, a British charity.
In October 1942, the Hall suffered minor damage during World War II bombing, but in general, was left mostly untouched as German pilots who used the distinctive structure as a landmark.
The largest project of the ongoing renovation and development was the building of a new south porch. Although the exterior of the building was largely unchanged, the south steps leading down to Prince Consort Road were demolished to allow construction of underground vehicle access and loading bay with accommodation for three lorries carrying all the equipment brought by shows. The steps were then reconstructed around a new south porch. The original steps featured in the early scenes of 1965 film ‘The Ipcress File’. On 4 June 2004, the project received the Europa Nostra award for remarkable achievement. The whole building was redecorated in a style that reinforces its Victorian identity. 43,000 sq ft (4,000 m2) of new carpets were laid in the rooms, stairs and corridors – specially woven with a border that follows the oval curve of the building.
Between 2002 and 2004, there was a major rebuilding of the hall’s great organ more commonly known as the ‘Voice of Jupiter’. It is now the second-largest pipe organ in the British Isles with nearly 10,000 pipes and 147 stops.
150 years after the doors were first opened, The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Science celebrates in a style befitting of its original dedication with a programme of concerts and exhibitions and the hall freshly renovated back to its original Victorian glory. It remains to this day, with a rarely unsurpassed provenance and history, one of the world most prestigious buildings for the arts and science.