The Carpet Quarrel-suffering for great art: Gilbert and Sullivan

We don’t get time on my Classical Composers of the West End tour to delve into the reason behind this seemingly silly but famous quarrel but it is worth exploring in a bit more detail.

Studio Ellis & Walery:[1] Alfred Ellis (1854-1930)[2] & Walery (Stanislas Julian, Count Ostrorog, either senior (1830 – 1890) or junior (1863 – 1935).)[3], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, Public Domain, via wiki comms

Despite not liking each other very much Gilbert and Sullivan introduced innovations that directly influenced the development of musical theatre throughout the 20th century. 

William Svenke Gilbert 1836-1911 and Arthur Seymour Sullivan 1842- 1900 joined forces with the concert agent and impresario Richard D’Oyley Carte in 1875 to create the Savoy Operas, largely produced at the Savoy Theatre.

Savoy Hotel – Savoy theatre next door – photo by Barbara Wright

By 1890 when the quarrel broke out, Gilbert and Sullivan had already produced 11 operettas. They have been described as a dynamic a duo as Lennon and McCartney but were funny, poking fun at the establishment and indeed anyone who got above their station.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s difficult relationship was immortalised in Mike Leigh’s excellent 1999 film Topsy Turvey. The only reason they worked together was the wonderful fit between Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music. 

Though Sullivan started by genuinely enjoying the work, after a while it became tedious and the quarrel in 1890 was the ‘almost inevitable culmination of (15) years of strain and tension in the partnership’. Sullivan was hailed in his youth as a budding English Mozart and by the time he started working with Gilbert and Carte in 1875 he was established in the top rank of English classical Composers He resented being pulled down by silly operettas which were led by Gilbert who by then was in almost complete artistic control at the Savoy Theatre.

In 1890 Gilbert wrote to Sullivan saying that £500 for a new carpet for front-of-house had been found in the accounts for the Gondoliers operetta, although it had been agreed with Carte that all expenses for repairs etc would be deducted from the profits and then the remainder would be split between the three of them. This was one of several items Gilbert was unhappy about.

Sullivan was hesitant to get involved. He was anxious to keep on good terms with Carte for whom he was about to write his grand opera Ivanhoe but he also wanted to stay in Gilbert’s good books. Sullivan also seemed to be particularly burdened by their contract with Carte whereby they had to provide a new opera at six months’ notice.

During the row, at one point frustrated by Sullivan’s indifference, Gilbert wrote again to his long-standing partner: ‘The time for putting an end to our collaboration has at last arrived’. The case against Richard D’Oyely Carte went to court and was settled the same day and the duo’s partnership as well came to an end. They came together to produce an opera in 1893 Utopia Limited and in 1896 The Grand Duke but these failed to match the success of their former works. Sullivan died four years later.

Whether you are a Gilbert and Sullivan fan or not, you are most likely to have seen an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical at the West End and Gilbert and Sullivan are the true forefathers of the home grown West End musicals. Artistic partnerships – Morecambe and Wise, Laurel and Hardy, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Gerry Goffin and Carole King – exist because they produce great artistic endeavours but they are like a marriage in many ways! 

If you like a good story about people’s trials and tribulations, aspirations and ambitions, musical or otherwise the Classical Composers of the West End walk is a good one to come on!

Come on the Composers in the West End Walk to find out more!




Sources: WS Gilbert Society, the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive; Classic Music magazine August 2020; Independent 2010


Related Posts

Scroll to Top
Open chat
Scan the code
Hello 👋
We provide guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.
Can we help you?