Edwin O Sachs Photographic Collection

Edwin Sachs portrait

This collection consists of a leather-bound commemorative album of photographs recording the work undertaken by Edwin Otho Sachs (1870-1919) to modernise the stage and production areas of the Royal Opera House in 1900-1901. Sachs was an architect and engineer who specialised in the prevention of theatre fires. Born in London, he was educated at the University College School, Hampstead, and Königliche Technische Hochschule, Charlottenburge, Germany, qualifying as an architect in 1892. Sachs had a life-long interest in the prevention of fires, and their management in public buildings. He worked as an ensign in the Berlin Royal Fire Brigade (1890) and later spent time with the Vienna Metropolitan and the Paris Fire Brigades. On his return to England, he took part in fire-fighting in London, becoming Vice-President of the National Fire Brigades’ Union, and in 1897 he founded the British Fire Prevention Committee.

Sachs’s other main interest was in theatre buildings and stage technology. Between 1896 and 1898 he published a three-volume treatise on Modern Opera Houses and Theatres, which included the Royal Opera House and was beautifully illustrated with his architectural drawings. In 1898 he was responsible for the installation of unique electrically operated stage lifts at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and that same year, was made technical adviser to the Royal Opera House, an appointment he held to the end of his life.

Edwin Sachs on the stage bridgesSachs’s first task at the Royal Opera House was to oversee the alterations to the auditorium and front of House areas. These changes are not recorded in this commemorative album which is devoted entirely to the areas behind and above the proscenium arch. The work undertaken by Sachs was the first major renovation to the stage since the theatre had opened in 1858. The raked stage was removed and replaced by a flat floor containing five movable bridges to Sachs’s own design. The bridges were eight feet deep, ran the width of the stage, and could be raised independently or together. The basement area beneath the stage was excavated in order to hold the motors which powered these bridges. The apron that extended out beyond the proscenium arch into the auditorium, which had been an additional performance area for the singers, was removed, allowing the orchestra pit to be expanded.

The Royal Italian Opera, as the theatre was known from 1858 to 1892, had been a traditional ‘hemp’ house, with stage cloths and scenery moved by ropes, pulled by the stage hands on the fly-floor. Sachs raised the height of the fly-tower, introducing a new grid and a continental counterweight system. This allowed the weight of the cloths to be taken by the machinery, and the additional height in the fly-tower provided an extra level of storage above the fly-floor. A new switchboard control for the stage lighting was installed at stage level, and the last remnants of gas-lighting were removed from the theatre.

Scenic painters working on 'Aida' backdropThe album also records some of the workshop areas in the Royal Opera House. The Paint Frame, located above the rear stage, features in several photographs and shows the English method of painting stage cloths hanging on vertical frames. The Prop Shop was in the spaces above the auditorium ceiling, and the Wardrobe at the top of the fly tower. These workshops, the storage areas around the stage, and much of the stage equipment recorded in these photographs remained in use, virtually unchanged, until the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House in 1997-99. The album provides a rare glimpse into the workings of a major opera house at the start of the 20th century.