LONDON HAD barely finished celebrating Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee when the Empire reopened as a theatre of varieties on December 22, 1887, with Katti Lanner as its ballet-mistress. The importance given to the two ballets produced by her for the opening programme foreshadowed the theatre's claim to be 'the home of ballet', a claim that understandably caused no little irritation to the Alhambra. With its smaller stage, the Empire could never hope to rival the scale of the Alhambra productions, nor was its corps de ballet ever to approach the standards of its neighbour's company, but in one sphere, stage design, it was to assert an undisputed superiority. This was due to the influence of C. Wilhelm, who designed the costumes for one of the two ballets presented on the opening night in 1887 and over a period of nearly thirty years was gradually to assume a dominant position in the production of the Empire ballets.

An Englishman despite his German-sounding name, Wilhelm was a shipbuilder's son, born at Northfleet in Kent on March 21, 1858. Considering perhaps that his real names of William John Charles Pitcher hardly befitted a budding artist, he adopted the name of C. Wilhelm at the outset of his career. A self-trained draughtsman, he obtained his first commissions after Gustave Planché had introduced him to E. L. Blanchard, who in turn brought him to the notice of Augustus Harris and other influential figures in the theatre. By 1887 he had already designed two ballets for the Alhambra -- The Golden Wreath ( 1878) and Diona ( 1880) -- as well as the Empire's opening production of Chilpéric in 1884. During the many years that he worked for the Empire, he was to indulge to the full his remarkable flair for colour schemes, which he considered as the all-important element in his work. 'Colour', he maintained, 'is the life-blood of my art, for, under the furnaceglare of the limelight from every direction, there can be, of course, no artistic light and shade into [sic] drapery except by the employment of colour'.1 His elaborate designs were prepared with the minutest regard for detail, and no costume made from a design

"'A Chat with a Costumier'" by T. H.L., in the Sketch, Mar. 8, 1893.


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The Empire Ballet


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