Those of you familiar with Oxford Street will know the branch of Marks and Spencer on the South side of the street near Poland Street and may perhaps have wondered why it is called The Pantheon.
The answer? It was the name of the original building which stood there in the eighteenth century. Designed by the architect James Wyatt (1746 – 1813) and opened in 1772, it was of considerable architectural significance and a detailed description of the construction and development of this £37,000 [about £2.4M today] building can be found in the Survey of London. The suite of rooms had as its focal point a rotunda about 60 feet square over-arched by an elaborate timber and plaster dome similar in style to that of the Pantheon in Rome. Opposite the entrance to the rotunda was a semi-circular platform for the performers.
Charles Burney (one of the Pantheon’s shareholders) is certainly impressed:
“This most elegant building so far surpasses, in beauty, any other place appropriated to public amusements, throughout Europe…” [An account of the musical performances in Westminster Abbey and the Pantheon…in commemoration of Handel. London 1785, p. 46; and MR450.b.75.1]
It rapidly became the fashionable place to be seen, and Burney played a role in securing musicians from abroad to perform in the concerts at the Pantheon (an early manifestation of the concert agent perhaps).
Concerts were held once every two weeks during the season and were in fierce competition with those of the Professional Concert and of Salomon at the Hanover Square Rooms nearby. They included performances by two of the most famous singers of the time: Lucrezia Agujari and Madame Mara. Agujari sang in concerts at the Pantheon between 1775 and 1777 and was clearly a gifted coloratura with a range of some three-and-a-half octaves. The German soprano Gertrud Elisabeth Mara was also a colourful character, who gave concerts in London from the mid 1780s.
Perhaps the most extravagant event was the first Handel Commemoration concert on 27th May 1784. Such was the scale of the occasion that Wyatt made alterations to the building including extra seating, a larger platform (to accommodate the 200 hundred performers), a gallery over the entrance to the rotunda housing a Royal box and additional lighting throughout. Burney has left us a detailed description in his “Account…” already mentioned:
“The company tonight assembled very early for fear of not gaining admission, and the crowd was excessive…the whole building was so full that not another place could be had on any terms.” [Burney. Op. cit.]
It wasn’t only musical events which took place at the Pantheon: the 1784 and 1785 seasons included the demonstration of a hot air balloon by Vincenzo Lunardi, “The Daredevil Aeronaut”. Unhappily, on one occasion in 1785 the balloon was damaged by broken glass in the dome and deflated.
From 1791, the Pantheon enjoyed a brief spell as an opera house following the destruction by fire of the King’s Theatre in Haymarket, only to succumb to a disastrous fire itself two years later. Although Wyatt rebuilt it on a more modest scale, it never really recovered and sank into a genteel decline until it was finally demolished in 1938 to make way for the Art Deco building which we know today as the Marks and Spencer store. So listen carefully as you seek that perfect garment for your recital début this evening in the “new” Pantheon, as you may hear the glorious voice of Gertrud Mara in an aria from Antonio Sacchini‘s Armida echoing through the ether.