I will always remember Vernon Homepage’s shoe shop which sold fabulous expensive shoes in a ‘posh’ shop next to the Winter Gardens entrance on St Johns Square. Little did I know as a young woman the treasure that was beneath the false wall coverings. When the refurbishment of the vaulted entrance to the Empress Ballroom was completed in early March and the Theatre Bar opened I was excited to see the Neatby tiled panels but was unprepared for the beauty of what I found; nine ornate panels which date back to just before the turn of twentieth century .
The stunning art nouveau panels feature a range of ladies in exotic costumes set in groups of two on either side of the dining area. The 15 known names of the panels –originally a set of 28 – are those of semi-precious stones, birds and butterflies and were created on commission by Doulton, now Royal Doulton, and designed by their leading artist William James Neatby.
The arts and crafts ceramic sculptor and artist W. J. Neatby, a native of the town of Barnsley, is best known for his designs of the tiles in the Harrods Food Hall though his work is fairly widespread, as decorative tilework and architectural sculpture in terra cotta for Doultons, with whom he had a long association, as well as designs in metalwork, enamelling, painted murals stained glass and furniture.
In London, besides his work for Harrods, Orchard House on Great Smith Street/Abbey Orchard Street features a terra cotta frieze of peacocks and apple trees by Neatby.
The beautiful panels in the Theatre Bar were originally surrounded by multi-coloured tiles and the vaulted ceiling was said to have featured varied designs in rich and harmonious colours, featuring mermaids, seaweed and fishes. The increased footfall of the present Opera House, built in 1938-39, necessitated the removal of panels at the rear of the hall and then the vaulted ceiling was removed to create offices on the first floor. Now only 12 of the original 28 panels survive.
For many years, 11 of the panels could be seen in Brown & Mallalieu’s car showroom but thankfully they were carefully covered over in 1972 when the premises became the shoe shop. As only nine panels are currently on show, I did ask the staff if I could go in to the kitchen to search for the missing two but, alas, they politely refused.
If you are out and about in Blackpool town centre, or at the Winter Gardens for a show this summer, drop in to the Theatre Bar and see these beautiful panels, another gem in the crown of a fabulous building.
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