The British middle and upper classes saw Queen Victoria’s reign as a time of great discovery and many of London’s great museums, galleries and exhibitions – including the Great Exhibition of 1851 – opened in the 1850s. Surviving examples are the Victoria and Albert (debuting in 1852 as Museum of Manufacture), the National Portrait Gallery (1856), the Reading Room at the British Museum (1857), and the Natural History Museum (1860). One that did not fare as well was The Royal Panopticon of Science & Art, opened on March 18th, 1854.
It stood proudly on the eastern side of Leicester Square, where you will find the Odeon Cinema today, and was the brainchild of Irish exhibition promoter Edward Marmaduke Clarke. Clarke had been the founder of the London Electrical Society and he was passionate about science. He assembled a Council of scientific-minded gentlemen, obtained a Royal Charter in 1850 and set about building the ornate ‘Saracen-style’ Panopticon. The word originally meant ‘an area where everything is visible from a central point’, but came to refer to (possibly as a result of this enterprise) a room for the exhibition of novelty items.
T Hayter Lewis was appointed architect and although he expressed some doubts as to the Moorish look he was expected to achieve, he did a fine job in erecting one of the most bizarre buildings ever to grace London.
A huge Moorish arch provided the entrance and around the exterior were shields bearing the coats of arms of prominent writers, artists and scientists. Three months before opening, The Illustrated London News reported: ‘the imposing facade… will be by no means diminished by the two lofty minarets which rise on either side to a height of upwards of 100 feet; and from which… it is proposed to exhibit powerful lights.’ The exterior was further enhanced by tiles made by Minton and shields of the coats of arms of prominent scientists, writers and artists, including Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Humphrey Davy and the Queen herself.
Inside, the 97-feet high central rotunda had three gallery storeys and in its centre, a fountain supplied from a 346 feet deep artesian well, throwing water to the peak of its dome. Its walls were decorated with enamelled slate, alabaster and glass. According to the Illustrated Handbook, it was ‘the most splendid room ever appropriated to scientific and artistic purposes.’
Lecture halls and exhibitions illustrated ‘diving,; turning and planing, drilling and boring, the combustion of steel; aurora-borealis and thunder; pin-making and needle-making, and gas cookery; freezing mercury; the liquefaction and solidification of carbonic acid; ballooning under water; galvanism, magnetism and electric light; and a large collection of machinery, models, etc.’ (The Illustrated London News).
The building was heated and ventilated by ‘Gurner’s Warming Battery’, featured an ‘Ascending Carriage’ (lift) and boasted the largest organ in England.
After an opening prayer by the Bishop of London, all went well for a while and 1,000 visitors a day flocked to the Panopticon. But gradually the numbers reduced and within two years it had gone bust, dragged its founder Edward Clarke in bankruptcy with it.
In August 1856 the whole premises and con£9,000. The original cost was estimated to have been £80,000. Smith sold the organ to St Paul’s Cathedral and changed the name to the Alhambra Palace, installing a circus ring and letting the premises to Howes and Cushing’s American Circus in 1858. Ironically the circus managed to lure Queen Victoria, who had not visited the Panopticon, and its popular success was assured.
In 1871 Smith obtained a license to present drama and the name changed to the Royal Alhambra Theatre, taking many other variables over the next decade (including Royal Alhambra Palace, Alhambra Theatre Royal and Theatre Royal Alhambra) until it burnt down in December 1882.
A year later a new building opened as the Alhambra Theatre Royal, changing to a music hall, the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties in 1884, but reverted to the Alhambra Theatre in 1890. It was eventually closed and knocked down in late 1936, with the new Odeon opening a year later.