We have recently completed a catalogue of the collection of Alfred Darbyshire (1839-1908), a leading Manchester architect and a prominent figure in the social and cultural life of the city during the Victorian period.
Alfred Darbyshire was articled to the Manchester architect Peter Bradshaw Alley in 1855 and established his own practice in 1862. He designed a number of domestic and institutional buildings in the region, but is best known for his work on theatres. He built the Comedy Theatre (1884) in Manchester – later called the Gaiety – and he carried out alterations at the Theatre Royal, the Prince’s Theatre and the Palace of Varieties in the city. In 1878 Darbyshire altered and redecorated the Lyceum Theatre in London for the great actor-manager Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905), with whom he developed the ‘Irving–Darbyshire safety plan’ (1884). This involved separating the audience from the stage with a fire-proof curtain and the provision of protected escape routes. The plan was first fully implemented in his rebuilding of the Theatre Royal, Exeter (1889), following the terrible fire that killed 186 people in September 1887.
However, Darbyshire’s collection is not a typical architect’s archive. There are no plans, specifications or contracts for the buildings he designed. Instead, it reflects his lifelong interest in the theatre, and his deep engagement in the social and cultural life of Manchester. Darbyshire was a keen amateur actor in his earlier years and he had many theatrical friends, including Charles Calvert (1828-1879) and Sir Henry Irving. He was one of Calvert’s executors and organized the Calvert memorial performances at Manchester in October 1879, securing the involvement of several leading actors, artists and literary figures including George Du Maurier, Herman Merivale, Lewis Wingfield, and Helen Faucit. Darbyshire played the role of the nobleman Jaques in As You Like It.
The bulk of the collection comprises fourteen large albums in which Darbyshire mounted autograph letters, cuttings from newspapers and periodicals, playbills, theatre programmes, printed ephemera, watercolour sketches, and photographs. Many of the items relate to Darbyshire’s interests in theatrical matters (such as his organisation of the Calvert Memorial Performance in 1879) and his membership of social and professional organisations in Manchester. Notable correspondents include Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Ford Madox Brown, Charles and Adelaide Calvert, Walter Crane, Annie Ireland, Henry Irving, George Du Maurier, Val Prinsep, George Gilbert Scott, Frederic James Shields, Ellen Terry, Genevieve Ward, Hon. Lewis Strange Wingfield, and W. B. Yeats.
Nine photograph albums contain photographs of buildings, predominantly in Manchester and the North West of England, designed or restored by Alfred Darbyshire and his partnership, Darbyshire and Smith; other buildings and street scenes in Manchester and Salford; and cathedrals, abbeys, castles and historic houses in Britain, Ireland, Italy and other European countries, Egypt and the United States. Most of the photographs appear to date from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but there are a few from the 1850s and ’60s.
Other items of interest include a manuscript catalogue of books, autograph letters and artworks owned by Alfred Darbyshire; an album of photographs of members of Darbyshire’s family, friends and associates; and an album of sketches and drawings by Alfred Darbyshire.
The collection is an important source for the social and cultural life of Manchester and the wider region in the Victorian period, as well as being of relevance to the history of art and architecture, theatre history, the history of photography, literary studies and cultural history.