Exhibit of the Week: Scarborough, Interior of the Aquarium painting

Scarborough, Interior of the Aquarium painting is part of the Scarborough Collections.
Scarborough, Interior of the Aquarium painting is part of the Scarborough Collections.

Maybe we’re biased, but it seems to us that Scarborough rather punches above its weight in terms of its fascinating history – an awful lot seems to have happened in this relatively small town.

One of the more eccentric episodes concerns the area just below the Rotunda Museum, known to many locals still as ‘Aquarium Top’. What’s now a roundabout above, and an underpass and underground car park below, was once a remarkable ‘people’s palace’, complete with alligators, seals and spectacular Indian-style brick- and tile-work.

Our painting today, oils on canvas and unattributed other than that it’s ‘English school’, shows it in its heyday in the late 1800s.

Bulmer’s History and Directory of North Yorkshire for 1890 tells us that the Aquarium was designed by the celebrated pier designer and engineer Eugenius Birch, who also created a similar (but above-ground) structure for Brighton, as well as our own North Bay pleasure pier on the Marine Drive, which was washed away in a storm in 1905.

Our Aquarium was constructed at the bottom of what was then called Ramsdale Valley, now Valley Road, and stood on a three-acre plot formerly known as Mill Beck.

“The pool of stagnant water and the horse and carriage sheds, which constituted a great eye-sore, have been swept away, and the wide and convenient road leading to the sands and the external parts of the Aquarium occupies their place,” Bulmer’s tells us.

The Aquarium was opened in 1875 at a cost of £100,000 – the equivalent of over £10m today. And to give a real flavour of its exoticism, we can’t improve on Bulmer’s 1890 description:

“Its length is 500 feet, and width 250 feet. The external appearance of this original and magnificent marine temple is quite unworthy of the splendour of the interior. The building is of Mahomedan-Indian architecture, which gives it the appearance of a vast subterranean palace. The entrance hall, which will eventually be used as a conservatory, is 70 feet long by 32 feet wide, and is designed in the style of the Hindoo temple at Bindrabund, as is also the vestibule leading into the reading-room. The rooms devoted to concerts and refreshments are of the style of the Palace at Futupoor, while the general character of the woodwork is similar to the Palace of Akbar, at Agra.

“The corridors are formed of picturesque brick arches in the Eastern style, whilst the tile flooring justifies a close inspection. Several caves and grottoes, containing choice specimens of ferns and other plants, are arranged in the building. The scene, when the Aquarium is lighted in the evening, in this part of the building, is particularly effective, the gas light displaying to advantage the formation of the roof. The large tank is placed in the cave of Elephanta, and contains over 75,000 gallons of water. It is 36 feet square. In summer the most celebrated swimmers are engaged by the management to give exhibitions in this tank several times daily. Since the present company purchased the building, extensive alterations and additions have been made, including a large and magnificent monkey house and aviary. There are also seal and alligator ponds, shooting galleries, and numerous other attractions, which bear out the name of the ‘People’s Palace’, in which during the season a ten hours’ varied programme is provided for sixpence. On Sundays sacred concerts are given afternoon and evening.”

The building was only to be a ‘people’s palace’ in its original format for around 50 years; it was taken over in the 1920s by Scarborough Corporation who turned it into an amusement park called Gala Land, which itself was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the current roundabout and underground car park.

Scarborough, Interior of the Aquarium is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.