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Dead Famous Londoners: Richard D’Oyly Carte

Last updated on February 18th, 2021 at 12:13 pm

A Victorian heavyweight, Richard D’Oyly Carte was hotelier extraordinaire, a composer, talent agent (he managed Oscar Wilde) and music impresario. His management prowess led to the birth of the Palace Theatre, the Savoy Theatre and the Savoy Hotel, one of London’s greatest and most famous hotels. He also bought and refurbished Claridge’s, Simpsons-in-the-Strand and The Berkeley Hotel. Today, he may not be on the tip of every Londoner’s tongue, but Richard D’Oyly Carte was one of London’s great celebrities and without him, there may very well have never been a Gilbert and Sullivan.

Richard D’Oyly Carte

Richard D’Oyly Carte

Richard D’Oyly Carte was born in Soho on 3 May 1844. Initially, he worked for his father whose company made musical instruments. He composed for a while before going solo in 1870, organising lecture and concert tours. By 1875, Carte was producing an Offenbach production at the now defunct Royalty Theatre in Soho. During this time, Gilbert and Sullivan walked into his life, a fruitful partnership which would go on to transform London’s architectural and musical landscape.

Talent Agent

Carte ran a talent agency, counting Charles Gounod, Jacques Offenbach, Adelina Patti and Clara Schumann as clients. Wilde was Carte’s most famous, and infamous, client.  In 1881, Carte organised and managed Wilde’s America tour which would make both men a pretty sum.

James McNeill Whistler, London

On February 20, 1885, Carte organised James McNeill Whistler’s Ten O’Clock, an hour-long lecture given at the Prince’s Hall. Oscar Wilde was in the audience as reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette.

Gilbert and Sullivan – and Carte

When William Gilbert (librettist), Arthur Sullivan (composer) and Carte (manager) met, little did they know they would go on to become one of the most successful partnerships in musical history: the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Gilbert and Sullivan history

Richard D’Oyly Carte, ‘Men of the Day. No. 498, Vanity Fair. (National Gallery)

The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado  and HMS Pinafore  were only a few of the operas Carte managed for Gilbert and Sullivan. Two decades of working together produced a huge body of work and a substantial amount of coin for all three. The capital fruits of this association would pave the way for the Savoy Theatre, built to stage their operas, as well as the Savoy Hotel.

Palace Theatre

Palace Theatre London history

One of Carte’s babies, the Royal English Opera House opened in 1887 with Sullivan’s  Ivanhoe. The opera house is now known as the Palace Theatre, musical home to Les Miserables  and to Harry Potter: the Cursed Child.

The Savoy Theatre

Richard D’Oyly Carte, Savoy Theatre

Carte’s new Savoy Theatre opened on 10 October 1881, built specifically to stage Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera comedies. It was the first theatre in the world to be electrically-lit. The theatre would go on to host the first performances of Oscar Wilde’s Salome  in 1931 and Blithe Spirit  in 1941.

The Savoy Hotel

With groaning pockets, Richard D’Oyly Carte turned his head to the hotel business. He was envious of the grand hotels on the continent and wanted to bring some of that glitz and glamour to London. And what better place to open a hotel than next door to his successful Savoy theatre?

In 1889, the Savoy Hotel opened its chichi doors to the Victorian public. The seven-storey hotel had 268 rooms, of which 70 were en-suite with a new and luxurious innovation: hot and cold running water. The guests could also enjoy such sumptuous amenities as 24-hour room service (ordered via a speaking tube) and electric lifts (known as ascending rooms).

Carte prompty hired two Frenchmen: César Ritz as hotel manager and Auguste Escoffier as head of the deluxe kitchen. Guests included the Prince of Wales, Lillie Langtry (who had her own apartment at the Savoy), Sarah Bernhardt and Dame Nellie Melba. Chef Escoffier would create Fraises à la Sarah Bernhardt as well as Melba Toast and Peach Melba for the two stage stars. Oscar Wilde conducted his affair with Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas at the hotel, staying for over a month. Here, he would enjoy “clear, turtle soup” and “heavy amber-coloured, indeed almost amber-scented champagne.”

Claude Monet came to stay at the Savoy when it opened. Here, he churned out his famous paintings of Charing Cross and Waterloo Bridge, together with his Houses of Parliament series. Whistler also stayed here in 1896, holing up on the hotel’s sixth floor with his wife. He worked on a series of river view lithographs from his room.

Richard D’Oyly Carte

Richard D’Oyly Carte, ‘Men of the Day. No. 498, Vanity Fair. (National Gallery)

The Richard D’Oyly Carte hotel empire

In 1893, Carte bought Claridge’s Hotel and hired C W Stephens (the designer behind Harrods) to refurbish the pleasure palace. It re-opened in 1898 with electric lifts and en-suite bathrooms. He also purchased The Berkeley in 1900.

Personal Life

Carte married twice (his first wife died) and had two sons. He lived in a magnificent apartment in the Aldwych area of London, hiring James McNeill Whistler to decorate some of the rooms. He also bought a private island near Weybridge called Folly Eyot and re-named it D’Oyly Carte Island.

Carte died in 1901 at the age of 57 and with a net worth of £250,000 (equivalent to £30 million today). He is buried in St Andrew’s church in Fairlight, East Sussex.

A London arts and culture blog featuring articles about art, theatre, opera, dance, music and design.

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