2017 Peter Blake

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.

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

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

Sir Peter’s Chiswick Empire work features many of the artists who performed at the Empire over the years.

1. Johnny Lockwood
2. Anne Shelton
3. Arthur Askey
4. George Formby
5. Terry Dene
6. Cliff Richard
7. Max Bygraves
8. Leo Fuld
9. Jimmy Tarbuck
10. Hylda Baker
11. Tommy Cooper
12 Marty Wilde
13 Frankie Howerd
14 Ken Dodd
15 Borrah Minevitch (Harmonica Rascal)
16 Dickie Valentine
17. Arthur Lucan
18. Kitty McShane
19. Terry Thomas
20. Mike Winters
21. Bernie Winters
22. Schnorbitz the dog
23. Jimmy James
24. Jerry Wayne
25. Harry Hemsley
26. Vesta Tilley
27. Stan Laurel
28. Joan Rhodes
29. Marie Lloyd
30. Oliver Hardy
31. Harmonica Rascal
32. Harmonica Rascal
33. Harmonica Rascal
34. Liberace
35. Gladys Cooper
36. Julie Andrews
37. Max Wall
38. Peter Sellers
39. Max Miller
40. Ray Ellington
41. Tommy Handley
42. Benny Hill
43. Sybil Thorndike
44. Vera Lynn
45. Tommy Steele
46. Queen Alexandra
47. Wise
48. Alma Cogan
49. Morecambe
50. Harmonica Rascals
51. Betty
52. Wee Georgie Wood
53. Jonny Puleo (Harmonica Rascals)
54. Wilson,
55. Keppel

Artwork and maps