The Sunday School of the Horbury Chapel was erected in 1851, and began life as a school. The architect was John Tarring, who also designed the chapel. It was subsequently used as a church hall (“Horbury Hall”), and then briefly in the early 1920s the “Horbury Rooms” were occupied by the Kensington Local Pensions Committee. In the second half of the 1920s, the building was the studio of the Russian-Canadian sculptor Abrasha Lozoff (1887-1936), whose woodcarving Venus and Adonis, now in the Tate Collection, was almost certainly created there.
In 1927, Horbury Hall was purchased by Ashley Dukes, a successful West End playwright and theatrical impresario and the husband of Marie Rambert (later Dame Marie). The Russo-Polish ballerina had run a ballet school in Notting Hill Gate
since 1919, and the hall was first used as studios for the school.
In 1930 Rambert founded the “Ballet Club” to give performances to the public, forming a dance troupe from her own pupils. It was the first classical ballet company in Britain. The company first performed at the Lyric, Hammersmith, but in 1931 started putting on performances at Horbury Hall, which remained its home for the next 23 years. Ashley Dukes remodelled the building to meet the needs of both the Ballet Club and the ballet school.
As there was no room for an orchestra, a pianist provided the music from a corner in front of the stage, sometimes accompanied by a harp, oboe or bassoon. People could dance on the stage following the performance. There were parking problems. One programme in the 1930s apologizes “for the joint activities of the Metropolitan
Water Board and the Borough Council which have momentarily made Ladbroke Road
a devastated area. You will shortly be able to put your car outside as before”. In fact, the council seem soon afterwards to have insisted that patrons should park down the middle of Kensington Park Road
By 1938, Ashley Dukes had acquired numbers 1-7 Ladbroke Road
opposite, together with the land behind (now Bulmer Mews
) and patrons were instructed to park there. When war broke out the following year and an air raid shelter was erected in Bulmer Mews
, patrons were directed to a garage opposite the end of Horbury Crescent
Despite its modest premises and facilities, the Ballet Club attracted some major guest artists to supplement the Club’s own company. Alicia Markova, the star British ballerina of her age, gave her support and danced there regularly in the early days. The company also included the young dancer Frederick Ashton, subsequently Britain’s foremost choreographer. Others who appeared there included Robert Helpmann (in 1934 and 1939) and Margot Fonteyn (in 1936).
In the beginning, only members and their guests could attend performances. The Ballet Club depended largely on subscriptions from its members (as well as subsidies from Ashley Dukes, who had made a lot of money from his West End successes). By the end of its first year, it had 1150 members, each paying a subscription of 12s.6d. Club status was a legal necessity both because until 1933 the theatre had no public performing licence, and to by-pass the restrictions in Britain on Sunday performances.
At first, the theatre had no name and was known simply as the Ballet Club. In 1933, Ashley Dukes, who was never afraid of experimentation, decided that it should become “The Nameless Theatre”. This name did not take off, however, and by the end of 1933 it was renamed the Mercury.
In 1936, Ashley Dukes bought the two houses next door to the theatre, numbers 2 and 4 Ladbroke Road
. This enabled the facilities at the theatre to be considerably improved. A new entrance was created through No. 2 Ladbroke Road
and proper bar facilities installed. The bar was decorated with an excellent collection of ballet and theatrical prints and drawings.
On the outbreak of war in September 1939, London theatres closed. But the Mercury quickly reopened (one of the first London theatres to do so) with a season of ballet in November 1939. The following year, however, the Ballet Cub merged with the Arts Theatre Club and moved to the Arts Theatre. Marie Rambert nevertheless remained very much a presence at the Mercury.
Although the Ballet Club had moved out of the Mercury, Ashley Dukes continued to put on plays almost throughout the war, including more Plays by Poets.
After the war, the Ballet Rambert (as it had become) had outgrown the Mercury and needed a larger stage. It became largely a touring company, making Sadlers Wells its London base and giving only occasional performances at the Mercury (it moved finally to its current headquarters in Chiswick in 1971).
In 1951, Marie Rambert’s daughter and son-in-law, Angela and David Ellis, set up a “Ballet Workshop” at the Mercury for new and experimental ballet productions. The Ballet Workshop continued until 1955 and Ashley Dukes also continued to put on short seasons of plays at the theatre until his death in 1959, although less and less frequently. Other companies also took the theatre for short periods.
It was hired out for events whenever possible. In 1968, it was one of the locations for a Beatles photo-shoot by the veteran photographer Don McCullin. The Beatles had decided that they wanted some new “photographs with a difference” for the media and asked Paul McCartney’s then girlfriend to choose five “random” locations in London, one of which was the Mercury. The Theatre also appeared in the film Red Shoes, where it was used to portray the venue at which the young ballerina played by Moira Shearer was discovered.
In 1987, the Ballet Rambert decided to sell the theatre. There were no takers for it as a theatre, and it was reluctantly agreed that it could be converted into a private house. The building was by then in a bad state. It was purchased by a developer, who completely rebuilt the façade on Ladbroke Grove
and transformed the entire building into an impressive and idiosyncratic dwelling.