Art Deco was an international movement that had a variety of influences, innovative and decorative. There were several drivers behind the movement. The post WWI generation, the invention of new and improved materials as well as the advances in providing an electricity infrastructure. It was a dominant force in urban construction providing a new city or townscape. The modular form allowed for large buildings that went upwards and outwards (e.g., the Empire State building of 1931 in New York and the Hoover Building of 1932 in London).
Art Deco was not an exclusive art and architecture of the elite. It also belonged to those who could not afford to stay in the hotels of Miami beach, modular mansions, or have a Poirot-like lifestyle. Ordinary folk could experience the glamour of the art and architecture in the new monuments of the age – cinemas.
It must have seemed so glamourous when the Gaumont Palace gala opening on the 11th of July 1932. The film shown was Sunshine Susie, a 1931 British musical comedy starting Renate Muller, Jack Hulbert, and Owen Nares. It was the voted the best British film of 1932. This was the ‘talkies’ coming to Taunton! The grand opening was performed by the Taunton Mayor – Councillor WE Maynard JP. He was assisted by the glamourous musical star of the day – actress, singer and dancer, Miss Jessie Matthews.
The Art Deco movement was not developed by famous architects stamping their own form of style. The centre stage is taken by the buildings themselves. Often the size of the buildings lends themselves to the talents of engineers. The architect of Taunton cinema was Mr William T. Benslyn of Birmingham. He also designed the Gaumont Palace in Chester, Birmingham, and Smethwick (Staffs.).
The Taunton cinema has steel-girder frame with a brick cladding. The brick bond is English garden wall. Benslyn was aware of the local Ham hill stone and used it for stone columns. Travertine and Ancaster limestones have also been employed as stone dressings at the entrance.
There is a covered part to the side entrance for people to queue for the cheaper seats. The cinema capacity was built for 1476 people.
Foyer has a coffered ceiling and frieze incorporating relief panels of golden nymphs. These nymphs represent land and sea. They were designed by A. Hinton. The other panels are different forms of a quatrefoil design. The cornice has a repeating swirling overlapping scroll pattern. Possibly based on the Vitruvian scroll.
In the auditorium towers of fountain ornaments, decreasing in scale going upwards. The number of fountain heads also reduces the further back in the auditorium the blocks go. There is a scroll motif at the base. The balcony has a frieze of fountain heads and alternating scroll motif. The columns holding up the balcony and forming an ambulatory have lotus-leaf capitals. The ambulatory frieze is also of a lotus-leaf relief.
The ceiling of the auditorium is highly ornate and coloured. It is reminiscent of the elaborate plasterwork decoration of a grand room in a 19th C country house. The colours are bright and varied. They are somewhat reminiscent of the Miami beach colours of Art Deco, although much more vibrant.
EXTERNAL – SIDES & REAR
Bayer, Patricia, Art Deco Architecture: Design, Decoration and Detail from the Twenties and Thirties (London: Thames & Hudson, 1992)
‘Top Rank Bingo Club, Corporation Street’, Historic England List Entry 1116707, (1995), https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1116707 [accessed 11 Dec 21]