Mathematical Water Magic: An Exotic London Theatre Funded the Building of the First Eddystone Lighthouse. Alison Barnes Has Discovered What Kind of Shows It Staged

By Barnes, Alison | History Today, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Mathematical Water Magic: An Exotic London Theatre Funded the Building of the First Eddystone Lighthouse. Alison Barnes Has Discovered What Kind of Shows It Staged


Barnes, Alison, History Today


Between 1696 and 1720, London's most exciting shows were to be seen at the Mathematical Water Theatre in Piccadilly, where the owner, Henry Winstanley, and his wife Elizabeth put on spectacular water- and fire-work displays. On the day that it opened, however, Saturday June 6th, 1696, Mr Winstanley was not in London but oft the coast of Devon, starting work on a lighthouse.

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The eccentric architect had left on June 2nd to travel down to Plymouth, because King William had asked him to build the first-ever lighthouse on the Eddystone Rocks. Down the centuries numerous ships had come to grief on these unmarked dangers in the English Channel, some fourteen miles from Plymouth. He became a national hero because by 1698 he had managed to put up a structure on a rock that was often awash and to shine from it a navigational warning light. In 1697 he was taken prisoner from the rock by a French privateer, hut released on orders from Louis XIV, who is reported to have said: 'France is at war with England, but not with humanity.' Winstanley undertook this very risky lighthouse project at his own expense, hoping to recover his money from a share of the shipping dues. He was not a rich man and seldom got paid by the Royal Office of Works for acting as Clerk of the Works at Audley End and Newmarket Palaces. However, in addition to being an architect, etcher and inventor, he knew about fountains and pyrotechnics. So he decided to put these to use in his London Water Theatre in order to finance the lighthouse. In the event, he (with his lighthouse) was washed away by the Great Storm of November 1703.

Piccadilly was entirely rebuilt in the 1750s, so no trace of the Water Theatre remains. But from the Westminster rate books we learn that it was situated where No. 100 Piccadilly stands today. No picture of the theatre has yet been found, but a fairly clear idea of what it looked like can be obtained from documents and printed records. Winstanley got permission to erect the theatre in August 1693 from the landlord John Mosyer, who charged him only 5 [pounds sterling] a year ground rent on condition that the building reverted to him in 1720. For this reason the phenomenally popular theatre was forced to close in that year.

The advertisements for the Water Theatre tell us that it was a tall structure, instantly recognizable from 'the WindMill on the Top of it'. The mill pumped water for the shows from 'the Tyburn Stream', which in those days flowed right across Piccadilly.

The fullest description of the theatre's interior is to be found in the travel diary of Zacharias Konrad von Offenbach, who visited the playhouse on June 19th, 1710. He tells us that it looked 'very elegant, although only made of painted wood'; that it was lit by 'candles in glass candlesticks'; that the ceiling was crisscrossed by 'pulleys and ropes to which a refreshment tray is fastened, so that it can be pulled hither and thither about the auditorium'; and that 'the curtains screening the stage' were drawn whenever there was a change of set.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The inventory of the Waterworks, taken in March 1704 and now in The National Archives, provides the additional information that the curtains were 'Redd' and that the auditorium was decorated with the royal coat of arms carved in lime wood by Grinling Gibbons, much ornamental ironwork by the ironsmith, Jean Tijou, twenty-two pictures (some painted by Louis Laguerre) and '40 Lead Flower potts'.

The theatre's inventory also hints at the nature of the performances by listing among the props: 'a Unicorn, 2 Eagles, 2 Cupidds, 1 Figure of Neptune Painted and a Dragon and a Mairmaid of Wood'. On June 20th, 1696, John Evelyn recorded in his diary that he 'saw those ingenious Water works invented by Mr. Winstanley, wherein were some things very surprising and extraordinary'.

These are the only references to the shows throughout the early years of the Water Theatre's existence. …

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