STEP UP to the rebuilt People’s Palace in Mile End and it is like stepping back to the 1930s. A facade of Portland stone and red brick, complete with Eric Gill reliefs. A magnificently recreated theatre within (an art deco confection in mint, cream and red. And a Grade II listed organ, a work of art in itself from the fabled Rutt company of Leyton.
But the £6.3m restoration, while the most sympathetic yet, is just the latest chapter in a story that goes back more than 200 years. The story of the People’s Palace is one of enterprise, belief, disaster and tenacity, and it began with the dream of one man.
Barber Beaumont was born in Marylebone in 1774. A talented artist, he studied at the Royal Academy school. He cannily made his speciality the then fashionable market for miniatures, becoming court painter to the Dukes of both Kent and York. But he threw painting over to make his fortune, founding and running the County Fire Office, which provided insurance to the people of the City and Westminster. The polymath Beaumont then turned his financial skills to helping the poor (or poorer), setting up the Provident Life Institute and Bank of Savings. One of the first friendly societies – a sort of proto building society – it encouraged the lower orders to save their pennies.
Barber in fact seems to have been an interesting bridge between the Georgian and Victorian eras. He had all the swagger of the Regency – fighting a duel in Hyde Park, and putting aside the dusty world of insurance to become a military commander during the Napoleonic Wars. But he was also creative, businesslike and thrifty, and he was about to become that most Victorian of creatures – a self-made, wealthy philanthropist. By the 1830s the East End was yet to become Jack London’s ‘Abyss’, but it was already the most noxious quarter of William Cobbett’s ‘Great Wen’. A million or more people toiled daily without cultural or educational relief or release, and with little entertainment that didn’t come from behind a saloon bar door.
Barber’s first attempt to help the poor was the Eastern Athenaeum in Beaumont Square, Stepney, a combined concert hall, library and museum. But the trust he set up, to build a home for higher education in the East End really bore fruit in 1887, 46 years after his death. Queen Victoria opened the Mile End People’s Palace and Queen’s Hall, dedicated to “the intellectual improvement and rational recreation and amusement for people living at the East End of London”. Additional funds were provided by City livery company, the Drapers. The original building was razed by fire in 1931 but quickly rebuilt and reopened, this time by George VI and Queen Elizabeth. After World War II, Queen Mary College took on the building – the ‘People’s Palace’ legend now sandblasted out, sadly.
Over the half century since, there have been many changes – not all of them sympathetic to the Art Deco original. But the latest, completed in September 2012 is a triumph. And the restoration threw up some serendipitous finds. The pipe organ is back in working order, and the old projection room – high up in the roof – is working once more. The building’s original art deco fire exit signs were found in a forgotten corner of the cellars and, having got the nod from the fire officer, were pressed back into use.
But the greatest find came as the restorers painstakingly chipped away the paint layers of three quarters of a century, carefully working back to the find the original colours. For in a space behind the Skeel Lecture Theatre, Eoin O’Maolalai, Senior Estates Project Manager at Queen Mary, uncovered fragments of a mural by Phyllis Bray (1911-1991) one of the acclaimed East London Group of artists of the 1930s*. He had begun his search after Tate Britain got in touch to ask whether the paintings had survived; Eoin went hunting in the most likely place, a storeroom above the theatre. He takes up the story, saying: “I found the wall and ran my fingers over the painted surface. What I felt wasn’t plaster; it was more like fabric. I looked more closely, found a tear in the fabric, peeled off some of the paint and below it I could see the vague outlines of what could be one of the murals.”
Bray had painted three murals for the theatre: Dance, Music and Drama, and Eoin had uncovered the last of these. Half of the painting had been lost, alas, when a suspended ceiling was installed in the 1950s, and the remaining paintwork was too fragile to be touched up. Instead, specialist restorer Catherine Hassall minutely scalpeled the covering paint off millimetre by millimetre: the canvas now hangs in the foyer alongside pictures of the venue in its 1930s pomp. Dance was found also, but was too damaged to save, and is now incarcerated behind a false wall; Music sadly is lost forever. The People’s Palace, however, lives on, reborn in an era where the delightful vulgarity of art deco is something to be treasured and used … rather than hidden behind false walls and painted over. It’s just the latest incarnation of Beaumont’s improbable dream, and of a building that refuses to die.
View The People’s Palace in a larger map
* We’ll be looking at David Buckman’s book From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group in a few weeks time, and will look in depth at Phyllis Bray then.
Queen Mary page about the venue and the project: http://www.qmul.ac.uk/peoplespalace/aboutthevenue/index.html
From Bow to Biennale website: http://www.eastlondongroup.com/#/from-bow-to-biennale/4568673571
A previous East End Life piece about Barber Beaumont: