Why did Gilbert and Sullivan quarrel over a carpet?

Did an argument over a carpet really cause Gilbert and Sullivan to go their different ways?

When did Gilbert and Sullivan split up

Early in 1890, Arthur Sullivan, while taking a much needed holiday in the south of France, received a letter from WS Gilbert. It read: ‘I was appalled to learn from [the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte] that the preliminary expenses of The Gondoliers amounted to the stupendous total of £4,500!! This seemed so utterly unaccountable that I asked to see the details, and last night I received a resumé of them… But the most surprising item was £500 for new carpets for the front of the house!’ Gilbert had protested at this expense whereupon, he reported, Carte replied, ‘“Very well, then; you write no more for the Savoy – that’s understood” – or words to that effect. I left him with the remark that it was a mistake to kick down the ladder by which he had risen…’

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So began the so-called ‘carpet quarrel’ which placed Sullivan in an embarrassing position. Successful though their past 15 years collaboration had been, with HMS Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado among their 11 operettas, Sullivan had become increasingly frustrated with the genre, even telling Gilbert of his wish to venture into grand opera. While Gilbert had bridled at Sullivan’s claim that in their operettas he was obliged to subordinate his music to the words, Carte fully supported Sullivan’s ambitions; indeed, Carte was having the Palace Theatre built specifically as a home for English grand opera, to be launched by Sullivan’s first opera in prospect, Ivanhoe. Sullivan, in any case in ill health and wanting to avoid strife, turned down Gilbert’s invitation to sift through the Savoy’s accounts.

When did Gilbert and Sullivan split up?

Frustrated by Sullivan’s indifference, on 5 May Gilbert wrote again to his long-standing partner: ‘The time for putting an end to our collaboration has at last arrived… I am writing a letter to Carte (of which I enclose a copy) giving him notice that he is not to produce or perform any of my libretti after Christmas 1890. In point of fact, after the withdrawal of The Gondoliers, our united work will be heard in public no more.’

Carte made several attempts to break the impasse, inviting Gilbert and Sullivan to talk things over face-to-face. During a ‘peace conference’ at the Savoy Theatre, Gilbert’s temper got the better of him: he roared that Carte was exploiting and robbing both himself and Sullivan, turned on Carte and Sullivan, called them blackguards, then stormed out of the meeting.

On 1 September 1890 the case of WS Gilbert v. Richard D’Oyly Carte was heard in the High Court of Justice. Gilbert demanded full accounts for The Gondoliers and for his full share of the net profits for the second quarter; furthermore, that a Receiver should be appointed at the Savoy Theatre to protect his future earnings. D’Oyly Carte agreed to pay Gilbert an extra £1,000 for the last quarter, and to render up-to-date accounts within three weeks. However, the judge ruled it was not necessary to appoint a Receiver, Carte having argued that such interference with the theatre’s management would not be in the interest of any party. To reinforce this, Sullivan swore an affidavit claiming there was outstanding legal expenses. When Gilbert’s solicitors subsequently discovered that those alleged legal expenses had been paid some time earlier, he wrote directly to Sullivan asking for a retraction; this the composer refused to do, so breaking their long-term friendship, if not their professional partnership.

What was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last work?

Some years later Gilbert and Sullivan were shakily reunited through the efforts of Tom Chappell, the Savoy operas’ music publisher. Their last two operettas, Utopia Ltd (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896) failed to match the success of their former triumphs.

Top image by Getty Images

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