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The Victoria Quarter, London

The Victoria Quarter, Briggate, Leeds. Listed Building. Designed by Frank Matcham (partial view). 1898-1904. Location: between Briggate and Vicar Lane. This is another vast retail and office complex like the Leeds City Markets, but distinguished by its warm, finely ornamented terracotta façades and its integral arcades. It consists of three matching blocks which spread across two streets. One of the streets is Victoria Street, which was covered over in 1988-90 to form the newest arcade — hence the modern projecting glass roof shown here. Although Peter Leach and Nikolaus Pevsner find this more recent steel-framed structure inharmonious, they still consider the complex as a whole "[t]he highlight of Briggate" and a "spectacular development," describing it as follows: "Each part is of three storeys and an attic, unified by flamboyant façades of warm pink and buff terracotta elaborated in a free Baroque style with swags, strapwork and scrolls, Dutch gables, domes and corner turrets" (444). Originally, as one might expect from a development by this architect, the complex contained a theatre.

Left: New and old: the interior of the covered Victoria Street. The colourful abstract pattern in the stained glass roof bridges the original blocks' frontages on either side. Right: Close-up of one of the corner turrets on King Edward Street. This is the other street that the complex crosses. Note, as well as the features described in Pevsner, the little heraldic lions at intervals, holding shields.

Left to right: (a) County Arcade exterior. (b) Close-up of sculptural decoration on the façade. (c) County Arcade interior.

Within the north block is one of Matcham's masterpieces, the most impressive of the arcades for which Leeds is famed, and possibly the most beautiful anywhere in the country. Leach and Pevsner, continuing to praise the Victoria Quarter, describe the arcade as "glowing with decoration in marble, mosaic and Burmantofts faience" (444). They mention particularly the marble columns, mahogany shopfronts, balustraded balconies and stone ball finials. The design includes three domes supported by triangles of vaulting, or pendentives, with colourful and part-gilded mosaics. Below the central one, where Cross Arcade leads at right angles to King Edward Street, is a circular floor-mosaic, another of the later 20c. additions. Matcham's design here is said to have been influuenced by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, of 1865 (see listing text).

Left: Close-up of roof, showing mosaic. This image was cropped, with thanks, from Jungpioneer's photograph at Wikimedia Commons, and is available under the GNU free documentation license. Right: Playbill for an appearance by Houdini at the Empire Theatre, Leeds. This was printed by John Warrington Head, Printers and Lithographers in Leeds, and the image was taken, again with thanks, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue, reproduction no. LC-USZC2-3781.

According to both Pevsner and the listed building text, the gilded Art Nouveau mosaics around the central dome show figures representing aspects of the town's industrial development: the figure on the right, unspooling thread, seems to represent textiles; the one on the left seems to be consulting plans. This was the time when the town centre was being completely transformed by grand new buildings. The arts were not forgotten: between Cross Arcade and Briggate was Matcham's splendid Empire Palace Theatre, built for Edward Moss and opened in 1898, but closed in 1961 (see Walker 161). It was demolished in 1962 in what John Earl has called "the great theatre massacre" of the post-war decades: "The best theatres on prime sites were often the first to go" (qtd. in Stamp 63). This one held over 1,700 people and attracted the great stars of the age (see "Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds"). It is now used for up-market retail space. As Gavin Stamp says, Matcham was "the doyen of theatre architects," but "theatre architecture was not taken very seriously and the great Victorian theatre archtects, in their day, were not numbered among the recognised leaders of their profession" (63) — a terrible mistake to which the Victoria Quarter in Leeds bears convincing testimony.

Related Material


"County Arcade and Cross Arcade". The Theatres Trust. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

"Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds" (this features an old postcard showing the theatre façade). Arthur Lloyd Co.Uk. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

"SE3033NW Queen Victoria Street." British Listed Buildings. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

Stamp, Gavin. Lost Victorian Britain: How the Twentieth Century Destroyed the Nineteenth Century's Architectural Masterpieces. London: Aurum Press, 2010.

Walker, Brian Mercer, ed. Appendix. Frank Matcham: Theatre Architect. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1980. 154-74.

Last modified 29 September 2012