Monday, April 2, 2012

Royal Opera Arcade, London

Shopping opportunity

The Royal Opera Arcade, tucked away next to what is now Her Majesty’s Theatre, between Pall Mall and Charles II Street in central London, is Britain’s oldest shopping arcade. It was designed in 1815, as a passage roofed with a vault and lit by circular skylights, by John Nash and George Repton. Along one side run 18 shops, each with a neat, projecting quadrant-cornered window – very fashionable in this period. Each shop has a basement and a mezzanine floor inside but these are small shops and the whole development is compact – the walkway is less than 4 metres wide. This was England’s first arcade of this type and the design is influenced more by the Parisian arcades than by English precedents such as the long-vanished ‘Exchanges’ of the 17th century. Although few later architects copied Nash and Repton’s lovely vaults and domes, the overall layout set the style for this kind of exclusive, covered shopping development, and others, such as the famous Burlington Arcade off Piccadilly, soon followed.

Arcades along these lines evolved as developers saw the opportunity to woo shoppers off city streets – which were muddy, noisy, crowded, and often dangerous – into a drier, cleaner, more protected environment. In an arcade, well-to-do Regency and Victorian shoppers did not get their clothes* spattered with mud and stood less chance of losing their money or portable possessions to Oliver Twist and his predecessors. In the little shops in an arcade they could expect to find small, luxury items – jewellery perhaps, exquisite glassware, pens and equipment for the gentleman’s study, upmarket gifts and costly knickknacks. From the 18th century onwards shopping was for the middle and upper classes increasingly a form of recreation, and places like Nash’s Royal Opera Arcade provided a comfortable setting in which this leisure activity could take place. Fifty years on, though, the arcade was less successful, perhaps because shoppers were more attracted to the area around Piccadilly. Henry Mayhew, in his The Shops and Companies of London (1865), described it as “the Arcade of the Melancholy-Mad Bootmakers”. Nowadays it has rediscovered some of its early glamour, and details of the current shops can be found here.

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* For women's fashions in 1821, just a few years after the arcade opened, look here.


Ann said...

These are great, they're so lovely. They feel very peaceful to me.

Anonymous said...

Best of luck to the Royal Opera Arcade! I always feel it has slipped behind its siblings (the Burlington Arcade, the Piccadilly Arcade, the Royal Arcade, Princes Arcade).
Do you have any recent information on the fate of the Burlington Arcade which, last I heard, was threatened with “enhancement” or “redesign” or “improvement” i.e., destruction of its character?
François-Marc Chaballier

Hels said...

Ohhh I love this topic. I went back and compared the dates of the Royal Opera Arcade (1815) and Burlington Arcade (1819), and you are of course correct. So I assume Lord George Cavendish of Burlington House saw the Opera Arcade and loved it.

Since there were no British models to inspire Opera Arcade, which French arcades might Nash have seen? And who was Nash's patron?

Thanks for the link

bazza said...

I clicked through to their website and they claim to be the world's first shopping arcade!
It's the epitome of elegance.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

François-Marc: At the Burlington Arcade, some work is going ahead (new lighting, for example, and some paintwork), but the more drastic proposed changes seem to have been dropped after failing to get through the council's planning process. So good news there, but I think the arcade's supporters remain vigilant.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Yes, I think Cavendish must have seen the arcade, or the plans - the arcade took quite a while to build, by all accounts.

In her The History and Conservation of Shopping Arcades, Margaret MacKeith mentions the Passage Feydeau (1791) and the Passage du Caire (1797-99) in Paris. Few British travellers can have seen these before about 1814 because of the wars, but she asserts that they were known in Britain by this date.

The question of Nash's patron is quite complicated. The arcade was part of the adjoining theatre, so the theatre management was involved - and there were various leasees of the theatre around this time as different managers bought one another out. I think that funding also came from the Crown Estates.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: The claim to be the "world's first" is debatable, but it does depend exactly what you mean by a shopping arcade. There do seem to have been earlier ones in Paris (see my reply to the comment from Hels), but at least one of the first (Passage Feydeau) no longer exists, and probably the others are much altered.

Thud said...

I've been considering building some vaulting for some time now, i just need the right place and a bit more courage.

Ron Combo said...

Sorry Wilko, but would you be good enough to explain what a metre is exactly?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Sorry, Ron. It's one of them things they have in some taxis that the driver uses to overcharge you.