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In the eighteenth century, cities prospered and became major social as well as business centres. New urban places of entertainment were required and one of the first Assembly Rooms in England was built in York in the latest fashionable Palladian style.
Following the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, the nation became the dominant maritime power with the result that overseas trade grew rapidly particularly with colonies in North America and the West Indies. This triggered social change as British manufacturing expanded creating a new wealthy industrial and merchant class; the middle classes grew and, for the privileged, leisure time increased. Cities became fashionable centres where shops stocked the latest goods catering for a discerning clientele. York emerged as the social capital of the North of England. In 1736, the noted antiquarian and surgeon Francis Drake had declared, ‘no place, out of London, so polite and elegant to live in as the City of York’.
Until the eighteenth century, the landed gentry considered their country seats as their principal residence and social gatherings were generally confined to the rooms of stately homes. As society gravitated to urban centres, a new form of accommodation was required in which the upper classes could be entertained. In London, Vauxhall Gardens had been opened in the 1660s to provide a place of entertainment for a wide range of classes. Here they could enjoy music, eat and drink and indulge in more dubious pleasures. In the early eighteenth century, large rooms in guildhalls or inns were created in other cities to accommodate dancing, the serving of refreshments and gambling. Typically, the rooms would be rectangular, suitable for country dancing, with a balcony to house the orchestra and side rooms for eating, drinking, and playing cards. Coinciding with York Races, “assemblies” were held in the King’s Manor in the early eighteenth century but the growing attendance at the races prompted the need for dedicated accommodation.
York pioneered the concept of a purpose-designed building created to house an “assembly” many years in advance of the famous Assembly Rooms in Bath which were not completed until 1771. The prospectus to finance the York Assembly Rooms invited subscribers to offer not less than £25 but no more than £50 and a sufficient number of subscribers was soon found. Twelve directors were appointed who asked for a large dancing room not less than 90 ft long, together with an adjoining room for cards, another for refreshments and several auxiliary rooms. The directors first asked William Wakefield, designer of Duncombe Park, Helmsley, for a design but, on his death, approached Yorkshire-born Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington who agreed to take on the project. Building began in 1730 and the Assembly Rooms were first used in 1732 in time for race week, a high spot of York’s social calendar, although the building was not entirely completed until 1735.
A new style of architecture was adopted for this new type of public building. Following the Restoration of 1660, the Grand Tour became popular amongst the nobility. This involved young aristocrats travelling across Europe for several months or occasionally years to study the art and Classical architecture of Italy. Many would return with a huge haul of paintings and sculpture to adorn their new or refurbished country houses. The work of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio made a huge impact and this style of “Palladian” architecture was championed in the UK by Lord Burlington, the “Architect Earl”.
Although neo-classical architecture had been introduced to England in the seventeenth century, the Assembly Rooms in York was one of the first examples of this new refined style which followed original Italian buildings more closely. Scottish architect Colen Campbell travelled in Italy from 1695 until 1702 and between 1715 and 1725 he published his pioneering work, Vitruvius Brittanicus, which included engravings of neo-classical buildings by Inigo Jones, Christopher Wren, Campbell and other prominent English architects. Lord Burlington took three Grand Tours, in 1714-19, on his travels referring to his copy of Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture), first published in four volumes in Venice in 1570. On his return to England in 1719, he commissioned Campbell to remodel his residence in London, Burlington House – now, much altered, the Royal Academy – in the Palladian style.
To house his art collection including the many items acquired during his Grand Tours, Burlington, in association with his protégé William Kent, designed Chiswick House Villa (1726-9), one of the finest neo-Palladian buildings in Europe. Sources for the design included Palladio’s Villa Capra, La Rotunda, near Vicenza and the Pantheon in Rome. The design of York Assembly Rooms was based on Palladio’s interpretation of the Roman architecture of Vetruvius, specifically his reconstruction of an “Egyptian Hall”. The main assembly room has a grand order of Corinthian columns with entablature above, the columns being made of stone with a plaster skin painted to resemble marble and moulded plaster capitals. The rooms originally consisted of a main hall, a large and small annexe, a rotunda and a cube room. On either side of the vestibule were reception rooms and a kitchen. Alterations were made to the accommodation in the nineteenth century and, in 1828, J.P. Pritchett designed a new façade.
Decline of assemblies
No dividends were declared to shareholders before 1736 and when dividends were subsequently declared they were not always paid out or collected by shareholders. By 1747 directors noticed that assemblies were little frequented and by the 1760s much of the old spirit of the assemblies had gone. Rooms were let for dancing masters and concerts. The lights outside the rooms were only lighted two days a week. The fate of the Assembly Rooms was linked to the decline in popularity of York Races and the polite culture of York’s gentry became undermined by economic, social and political changes. In the 1820s, there were only six assemblies, running from December and ending with the Race Ball in May. The construction of a cockpit adjoining the Assembly Rooms in 1828 briefly stemmed the decline but the aristocracy began to be noticeably absent preferring Doncaster Races with its more generous prize money. During the 1830s, the Festival Concert Rooms were built at the rear of the Assembly Rooms as the number of arts and learned societies in the city began to grow and the building was adapted to meet new uses.
In the 1920s, the rooms were managed by secretary and manager Arthur Anderson who let out the space for dancing and meetings and supplied much of the decorations and furniture himself. Anderson had the second largest share-holding, the County Hospital having acquired all or most of Burlington’s shares from the Duke of Devonshire. In 1925 all shares were acquired by the City of York Council and, in 1939, when the city authority took full control, a programme of repairs was initiated. Work was halted by the Second World War but, fully restored, the building reopened in 1951. York Conservation Trust purchased the Assembly Rooms in 2002. It is currently used as a restaurant but is still open for public viewing and is also available on five days each year for functions held by the council.
An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981)
Mark Hallett and Jane Rendall, Eighteenth Century York: Culture, Space and Society, Vol. 30 of Borthwick Texts and Calenders (York, 2003)
P.M. Tillott (ed.), Victoria County History of Yorkshire, The City of York (London, 1961)
York Conservation Trust: www.yorkconservationtrust.org.
© Pat Hill and Richard Wilcock
Photos: Rachel Semlyen