The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Pugin's gallery in his Ramsgate church. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The phrase ‘Playing to the gallery’ suggests some type of over-the-top acting by a not particularly talented actor – the sort of performance that might once have been on display at Ripon’s long-gone Theatre Royal.

In the days of Charles II, theatres were not always the highest-class places, and some of the people who worked there were disreputable. They did, though provided opportunities for social advance for the attractive and quick-witted – women like Nell Gwynne, who sold oranges to the theatre goers until the king fell for her charms.

Detail of the west front of Wells Cathedral; the row of circular holes allowed the sound from the gallery behind to emerge. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Before her rise, Nell might well have been seen in the gallery of many a London theatre; two centuries after her time the magazine ‘Punch’ printed what even then must have been an old quip, ‘We are asked, what is the fruit of the gods? We answer, theatrically-speaking, oranges.’

The denizens of the theatrical ‘gods’, high up in their gallery, were usually those who could only afford the cheaper tickets; this was a change from the date of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, when it was least expensive to be a ‘groundling’ and stand in the open space in front of the stage. Then, the galleries were for those with a little more money.

The Globe and other Elizabethan theatres also used a galley at the back of the stage for dramatic effects; it could represent, for example, the battlements of a castle (think of Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost at Elsinore), a city gateway (like Harfleur in ‘Henry V’) or, most famously, Juliet’s balcony, from which she sighs for Romeo.

Castles had a form of wooden galleries to provide shelter and access at battlement level, while, in less troubled times, galleries were used at tournaments so that the excitement was easily seen.

Galleries in Westminster Abbey for Queen Victoria's coronation

And, of course, the great halls of medieval and Tudor houses had galleries, too; Derbyshire’s Haddon Hall is a good example. These galleries had a variety of uses, of course, but proved very convenient for putting instrumental players and singers above the activities below but still within earshot.

In Westminster Hall, the greatest of all medieval great halls, special galleries were constructed for coronations, and trumpeters, drummers, woodwind players and fiddlers were stationed there to provide the ceremonial music during the great banquets that, until the coronation of William IV, immediately followed the ceremonial in the neighbouring Abbey.

In the Abbey itself, seating for the many coronations was again provided by galleries; at different times the authorities managed to cram in as many as 8,000 people for the ceremony, on often-precipitously raked tiers.

Most of those attending would have seen little but processions, and perhaps would also have heard little except for fanfares and shouts of ‘God save the King’ or ‘God save the Queen’.

But Westminster Abbey coronations weren’t the only time that galleries would be found in churches.

Indeed, the word probably derives from ‘Galilee’, which was a porch attached to a large church. Visitors to Exeter Cathedral can see, high up on the north wall of the nave, a minstrel’s gallery.

Erected in the early 14th century when the nave was built, its stone front is decorated with musical angels.

Though it looks quite small from ground level, there is a quite sizeable room hidden behind, where singers and other musicians could be assembled to provide ‘heavenly’ music. The 19th-century architect Augustus Pugin liked the idea of such a gallery, so he incorporated one overlooking the altar of his own church in Ramsgate.

The same idea was used in the Middle Ages on an external gallery at Wells cathedral, where singers and trumpeter, again hidden from view, would suddenly sound forth in jubilant music; the effect was said to have been particularly impressive on Palm Sunday.

On a lesser scale, but still in church, the 18th century saw the development of a tradition of instrumentalists and singers occupying a west gallery.

These musicians, whose repertoire consisted almost entirely of simple tunes to metrical psalms, are most familiar today from Thomas Hardy’s novels. ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’, in particular, deals with the proposed replacement of the west gallery band of Melstock church with an organ. Hardy says, ‘The gallery of Melstock church has a status and sentiment of its own . . . [it] looked down upon and knew the habits of the nave . . . while the nave knew nothing of the gallery folk, as gallery folk, beyond their loud-sounding minims and chest-notes.’

It was likely to be some of the same musicians who played in the west gallery bands who were roped in to play for dances, too.

Two fiddlers, a ‘cello and a ‘clarionet’ would play the dancing tunes, and in public rooms there was often a gallery for them, to keep the dance floor free for the complicated dance figures; Ripon’s Assembly Room – now the Council Chamber, has one.

In the 19th century the bands disappeared from churches, but with an increase in church attendance, galleries often proliferated. New churches, like Ripon’s Holy Trinity of 1827, were built with galleries both at the west end and over the aisles.

A visit to Leeds Minster, opened in 1841, reveals a multiplicity of galleries, providing seating for more than 1,600 people. And, of course, Nonconformist chapels, like the former Methodist chapel in Ripon’s Coltsgate Hill, had galleries, too.

The fashion – and the need – for galleries changed in the 20th century, and many, including those at Holy Trinity in Ripon, were swept away.

But fashions and needs alter all the time, so it’s no surprise that Holy Trinity, in common with other churches that are attracting larger congregations again, has this century had a new west gallery put in place.

So whether it’s a theatre, a church, a town hall – or indeed a place to see art – the gallery has a long and proud history.

More from News