2017 Peter Blake

2017 Peter Blake

by Mark Wardell

Peter Blake: Chiswick Empire Theatre, 2017

The Chiswick Empire* was a large music hall on Chiswick High Road, opposite Turnham Green on the site of the current Empire House. Oswald Stoll, theatre and film-studio owner, put forward a proposal in 1910 that was met with customary horror by many of the good residents of Chiswick. It might encourage people to waste money, it would spoil the neighbourhood and lower the tone.

Nevertheless, Stoll prevailed and a row of shops and the local smithy were demolished to make way for it. Frank Matcham, architect of the London Palladium and nearly a quarter of the other theatres in England, was commissioned to design the huge theatre. Seating capacity was 1,948, with bright blue seating, terracotta carpet, and cream and gold walls. It opened in 1912 with a music hall song and dance, a ventriloquist, a film show and a model airship that flew above the heads of the audience. A fire in 1913 meant the décor had to be restored; this time the seating and curtains were bottle green.

Many of the world’s top stars appeared at the Chiswick Empire, including George Formby, Marie Lloyd, Sybil Thorndike, Vera Lynn, Arthur Askey, Laurel and Hardy, Ken Dodd and Cliff Richard. Circus, film, music hall, opera (not very popular), Shakespeare, Mickey Mouse and royal visits followed. In March 1959 the Middlesex County Council approved plans to build an eleven-storey office block on the site. The news came as a complete shock to the thirty staff, including the manager who had only been in the job for a few weeks, especially as the theatre generally played to full capacity. Liberace played the closing performance on 20 June 1959.

The replacement office block was called Empire House. In 2016 planning was approved by London Borough of Hounslow to increase the height and width of the high-rise, with the developers claiming that their designs paid tribute to the old Empire House Theatre. Both architects and laymen, however, found it almost impossible to find any hint of the old architecture in the generic new proposals from multi-national Lend Lease, which closely resembled similar high-rise developments at Elephant & Castle and elsewhere. Locals took the decision to go to judicial review but were unsuccessful.

Sir Peter Blake’s artwork pays homage to the performers that used to appear at his favourite local theatre. When the mural team visited him in January 2017 and told him which pictures were still required, his face lit up at the thought of doing the Empire. He said it was one of the main reasons he had wanted to live in Chiswick, and he recalled the many performances he had attended.

Karen Liebreich and Sarah Cruz with Sir Peter Blake

Sir Peter is the best known ‘pop artist’, famous for collaging images from popular culture. His most famous works include the sleeve design for the Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!), the Live Aid concert poster, the 2012 Brits Award statuette and the carpet of the Supreme Court in the Guildhall. Earlier in 2017 an enormous collage by Sir Peter enveloped the Mandarin Hotel in Knightsbridge.

Sir Peter’s Chiswick Empire work features many of the artists who performed at the Empire over the years, and a key will be published after a competition to name them has been completed!

Acknowledgements: With enormous thanks to Sir Peter Blake and Chrissy Blake.

* Christina Pain, “The Chiswick Empire”, Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 10 (2001)