Royal Albert Hall

Origins of the elliptical plan

Sketches of early ideas for the Hall of Arts and Science

Detail of sketches of early ideas for the Hall of Arts and Science, about 1865 
Pencil on paper
Artist: Sir Henry Cole
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings & Archives Collections

The Hall of Arts and Science, later the Royal Albert Hall, appears to have been planned as a round building, or amphitheatre, almost from the very beginning.

These undated sketches were produced by Sir Henry Cole in around 1865, whilst discussing the project with A.H. Layard, later Chief Commissioner of Works. They show a central elliptical hall surround by a series of courtyards within a large rectangular block.

In the mid-1850s the Prince Consort had proposed a music hall in the centre of a complex including shops, flats and art galleries. It is possible that Cole's sketches refer to a similar early scheme for the hall. The prince's commercial venture fell through, like others for a music hall, but it appears to have influenced Cole’s ideas about the music hall project.

Sources of inspiration

In the autumn of 1863 Cole and Francis Fowke went to the South of France on a research trip and visited the Roman amphitheatres at Nîmes and Arles. At this date George Gilbert Scott was still involved with the project, however it would appear that Cole already had in mind both Fowke as architect and an elliptical amphitheatre as model for the new hall.

Another possible model was the rotunda at Ranelagh, Chelsea, built in 1741 but demolished in 1805. This was a large amphitheatre structure used as a venue for subscription concerts, just as Cole was planning for South Kensington.

By the time of the 1865 prospectus for the hall it was decided that it would be 'a spacious amphitheatre of nearly the same proportions as that of Nîmes' with 'two tiers of boxes'. Gilbert Scott had been dropped from the project, replaced later by Fowke, who served in Cole’s Department of Science and Art.