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Royal Albert Hall

Following the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the world’s first international ‘Expo’), the Hall was conceived by Albert, the Prince Consort, as the centrepiece of the proposed development of a range of national institutions - cultural, scientific and academic - that for the first time would be located on a single site. As a first step towards the realisation of the Prince’s masterplan, a 50 acre estate in South Kensington was bought from the substantial profits made by the Exhibition. By the end of the 19th century the area had been transformed and today embraces not only the Hall but the Victoria and Albert, Science and Natural History Museums, Imperial College, the Royal Colleges of Music and Art and the Royal Geographical Society: a living monument to the vision and inspiration of the Prince and his contemporaries.

Prince Albert died suddenly in 1861 before much of the site was occupied. But by that time the overall concept had firmly taken root. s for a ‘Great Central Hall’ were taken forward by the very eminent Victorian, Henry Cole, with whom the Prince had worked on other major public building projects. Under the terms of a Royal Charter of 1867, a ‘Corporation’ was established to ‘build and maintain’ the ‘Hall of Arts and Sciences’ (to which Royal Albert was soon added). Construction began that year and was completed in 1871, when the Hall was formally opened in the presence of HM Queen Victoria, the late Prince’s devoted widow.



The magnificent frieze that encircles the building succinctly describes its purpose:

‘This Hall was erected for the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences, and works of industry of all nations, in fulfillment of the intentions of Albert, Prince Consort’.

Those objectives reflect the terms of the Royal Charter under which the Hall was founded, and (together with a number of Acts of Parliament) continue to be regulated.

As well as providing, on a 999 year lease at nominal cost, the land on which the Hall stands, the Royal Commission for the 1851 Exhibition - which continues as the Hall’s ‘landlord’ - also made a substantial donation towards the overall cost of its construction, forecast at £200,000. The remainder of the initial funding was made up by the sale of some 1,300 of the original 7,000 seats in the Auditorium, at a charge of £100 per seat. These ‘permanent’ seats remain largely in private or corporate hands, the seatholders being the Members of the Corporation of the Hall.

THE BUILDING

Under Henry Cole’s direction, the Hall was designed by an unconventional grouping of Royal Engineers, sculptors and other craftsmen lead initially by Captain Francis Fowke and latterly by another Royal Engineer, General Henry Scott. The original idea of a ‘Coliseum’ accommodating 30,000 people was discarded as impractical. The design finally selected was also based on that of Roman amphi-theatres - like them, the Hall is elliptical and not round - but with a seating capacity of some 7,000. (The Hall now holds a maximum audience of about 5,500, but in greater comfort and safety!)

Externally the Italianite facade of the Hall, of red brick and teracotta, is graced by the famous 800ft mosaic frieze. The auditorium is both massive and graceful (its length is 219ft and its width 185ft) and is crowned by a dome (weighing 400 tonnes) that, when raised, was the largest in the world. Above the Arena, Stalls and three tiers of Boxes, there is a vast arcaded Gallery.

The Auditorium contains the great Organ, a majestic instrument that, like the dome, was then unequalled in its size. Immediately to the south of the Hall, and linked to it, stood the elegant and huge Royal Horticultural Society Conservatory which provided many of the services and facilities used by the Hall’s early patrons. The Conservatory was demolished in the 1890’s when further building took place on its site and on splendid gardens in which it was located.

The Hall is a Grade I listed building, a rare appellation that indicates its outstanding architectural importance. As part of a comprehensive building development programme, the Hall is currently being restored and renovated. On completion of that work, in 2003, the full majesty of the building will again be revealed.




THE HALL’S CONSTITUTION

The Hall is a national institution, but one that is entirely self-governing. With the exception of the appointment of one member of its twenty three strong board of trustees (the Council), the Hall has no formal links with the Government, nor does it receive any funding from either central or local Government sources. But the Hall is nonetheless a public, rather than a private, institution (it is not ‘owned’ by any one group of individuals) and its purpose - the promotion of the Arts and Sciences - is set clearly in the public domain.

The Hall was established, and continues to be regulated, by a Royal Charter granted in 1867. The Hall is held in trust for the nation by a ‘body corporate’. The Charter brought into being a ‘Corporation’ (of the Hall of Arts and Sciences) that was charged with ‘building and maintaining’ what is now more popularly known as the Royal Albert Hall. The Charter states the purpose of the Hall as being to be used for the ‘advancement of Science and Art’. As is usual in these circumstances, the Corporation has no share capital and pays no dividends. Operating surpluses that are generated by the Hall are donated to the Corporation and to the pursuit of its wider purposes. The Corporation has charitable status.

The terms of the original Royal Charter have, over time, been amended and supplemented by a series of Acts of Parliament, culminating in the Royal Albert Hall Act of 1966 that sets out the Constitution under which the affairs of the Corporation are presently conducted. The ‘government of the Corporation and the direction of its concerns are entrusted to a Council’, consisting of the President of the Corporation and eighteen (of twenty three) Members who, with the President, are elected by the Members of the Corporation (see below). The five remaining Members of the Council are appointed by related institutions and in one case by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The 350 or so Members of the Corporation are the present day successors to the original ‘Subscribers’ who bought permanent seats and thereby helped finance the construction of the Hall. (With a few exceptions, the current owners of these seats have no link by descent with the first seatholders.) The Members have a duty to elect the President and Council, and to support the Council in its pursuit of the objectives of the Corporation. Quite separately, Members have proprietorial rights as seatholders, as set out in the Charter and subsequent legislation. In effect, they have access to their seats for about two thirds of the events staged at the Hall; and those seats can be bought and sold for a capital sum. Members are subject to the payment of an annual contribution towards the running costs of the Hall.






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