In the last three decades of Queen Victoria’s reign Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901) was a colossus on the landscape of London’s theatres and grand hotels. Born on Greek Street in Soho, Carte’s father sold musical instruments at Rudall, Rose & Co on the Charing Cross Road. Though Carte would become a partner in the firm, it was tacitly understood that his wife Eliza (a clergyman’s daughter) had married beneath her. Carte’s education at University College, London, was cut short when he was co-opted to assist his father in the firm now called Rudall, Rose, Carte & Co.
Carte’s theatrical ambitions began with him writing and publishing his own music but the young man conceded that his talents lay elsewhere. So in 1874 he established a talent agency representing 200 artists and composers including Adelina Patti, Matthew Arnold, James McNeill Whistler, Oscar Wilde and Jacques Offenbach. In the same year Carte leased the Opera Comique on the Strand and declared ‘my desire to establish in London a permanent abode for light opera’.
Carte instinctively knew that there was a distinctly English alternative to racy French operetta: light, lyrical entertainment that The Times later classified as ‘a combination of good taste and good fun’. As The Observer said of him, ‘Carte took what other people thought were risks but he felt were certainties. He knew everyone worth knowing and his practical judgement was as sure as his sense of artistry’.
In 1875 Richard D’Oyly Carte was managing the Royalty theatre and introduced Gilbert and Sullivan suggesting the latter write the music for W. S. Gilbert’s libretto Trial by Jury as a short programme filler to accompany Offenbach’s La Périchola. Ironically, Trial by Jury was a hit and La Périchola sank without trace. Recognising a winning team, Carte found investors to bankroll the Comedy Opera Company. The latter produced Gilbert and Sullivan’s forthcoming collaborations including The Sorcerer (1877) and HMS Pinafore (1878).
Such was the success of the partnership that Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte each put up £1000 to form a new company christened the Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Opera Company and oust the investors. The split was acrimonious as the two warring sides fought for the rights to HMS Pinafore but the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company eventually broke away and the impresario built his ‘permanent abode for light opera’ in 1881 christening it the Savoy Theatre.
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a string of operatic pearls for the Savoy stage including Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeoman of the Guard (1888) and The Gondoliers (1889). With his wealth, Carte built his magnificent Savoy hotel next to the theatre in 1889. Under the guidance of Cézar Ritz and Auguste Escoffier, the Savoy became the most fashionable hotel in London if not the world attracting royals, aristocrats and theatrical luminaries such as Nellie Melba, Sarah Bernhardt and Adelina Patti. The Savoy’s success would underwrite Carte’s opera company.
The relationship between Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan soured in 1890 when Gilbert took exception to Savoy theatre renovations – specifically a new carpet – being charged to the partnership rather than Carte’s account. Gilbert ‘left him with the remark that it was a mistake to kick down the ladder by which he had risen’. Sadly, the rift came a year before Queen Victoria requested a command performance of the duo’s last major success The Gondoliers at Windsor Castle. Gilbert and Sullivan’s last light opera, The Grand Duke, was staged in 1896 but flopped spectacularly.
Undeterred, Carte constructed the Royal English Opera in 1891 now known as the Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus. In the same year, a Spy cartoon of Carte appeared in Vanity Fair depicting him dressed like a swell with top hat, cane, spats and an overcoat not only lined with sable but also trimmed with an extravagant fur collar and cuffs. Like Gilbert, Carte had been tailored by Henry Poole & Co since the mid-1880s. Being a Poole’s man complimented Carte’s sybaritic lifestyle. He lived in a palatial apartment in the Adelphi building behind the Savoy with a games room painted baize green by Whistler. He also owned an island in the Thames called Folly Eyot now known as D’Oyly Carte Island.
Carte’s hotel empire grew throughout the 1890s. He bought Claridge’s in 1893, the Grand Hotel in Rome in 1896 and The Berkeley in 1900 just so he could poach the general manager George Reeves-Smith to replace Ritz at the Savoy. As Carte’s health declined, he groomed his son by first wife Blanche, Rupert, to take-over his hotel empire while second wife Helen continued to co-direct the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.
Richard D’Oyly Carte died from heart disease in 1901 aged fifty-six. A memorial window was created for him that can still be seen in the Savoy chapel. George Bernard Shaw wrote of him, ‘Mr D’Oyly Carte founded a new school of English comic opera’ and the Times obituary read ‘by his refined taste, he raised the reputation of the mise-en-scene of the Savoy operas to a very high pitch. He set a high standard’.