Above - The Statue of Henry Irving at the rear of the National Portrait Gallery on Irving Street, just off Charing Cross Road, London - Photo M.L. November 2009 - More images here, and more information on the statue can be found here.
Henry Irving's Obituary - The Times October 14, 1905.
We regret to announce that Sir Henry Irving died suddenly at Bradford last night. He had an attack of syncope on returning from the theatre, where he had appeared as “Becket,” and expired in his hotel. His death was entirely unexpected, for he had shown no sign of illness and appeared in his usual health when, only two days ago, he was entertained at luncheon by the Mayor of Bradford, and was presented with an address from his admirers in that town.
Above Right - Poster for Henry Irving's Farewell performance from the Theatre Royal, Bradford for the week of the 9th of October 1905 just days before his death - Courtesy Evonne Randall whose Great Grandfather John Albert Wilson worked there as a Stage Hand and Bill Inspector until his early death in 1928. - Click for details of the Theatre Royal, Bradford.
Henry Irving, whose original name was John Henry Brodribb, was born at Keinton, near Glastonbury, Somerset, on February 6, 1838.
Left - The Church at Keinton Mandeville, Glastonbury, Somerset, the village where Henry Irving was born.
His parents, who were of Cornish extraction, came to London during his boyhood, and sent him to Dr. Pinche’s School in George-yard, Lombard-street, where Creswick saw him play Adrastus in a school performance of Talfourd’s Ion. At the age of 14 he was given a place in the counting-house of Thacker and Co., the East India merchants, of Newgate-street, and he remained there four years, reading a good deal in his spare moments and studying elocution under Henry Thomas in City elocution class at Sussex-hall Leadenhall-street.
Above Right - A Punch Theatre Review for Henry Irving in May 1881 - Click to see review.
In 1856 he gave up his employment in business and joined the stock company at the Theatre Royal, Sunderland, his first part being that of Gaston, Duke of Orleans, in Richelieu. For the next nine years he worked hard in various stock companies in the provinces, principally at Edinburgh and Manchester, playing a great number of different parts in pieces ranging from tragedy to pantomime.
Above - A 35mm medal featuring Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, originally from the Henry Magee Collection - Courtesy the present owner Alan Judd.
In 1859 he made a brief appearance at the Old Surrey Theatre, but returned to the provinces till 1866, when Dion Boucicault offered him the part of Rawdon-Scudamore in Hunted Down, at the St. James’s Theatre. His success there both as actor and as stage-manager was sufficient to keep him in London. From the St. James’s he passed to the old Queen’s Theatre in Long-acre, where in Katherine and Petruchio, the burlesqued version of The Taming of the Shrew, which was then in fashion, he first acted with Miss Ellen Terry, and increased his reputation in a number of parts, among them Bill Sikes and Falkland. After leaving the Queen’s he was out of employment for six months, until his close friend, and in those days his constant benefactor, Mr. J. L. Toole, secured him an engagement at the Gaiety. Here he made a hit as Richard Chevenix in Byron’s Uncle Dick’s Darling, in 1869, and in the following year at the Vaudeville as Digby Grant in Albery’s Two Roses. In 1871 he joined the Bateman management at the Lyceum. The theatre had long been unlucky, and, admirable as it was, Irving’s Jingle in Albery’s version of “The Pickwick Papers” did nothing to restore its fortunes. The management, almost in despair, allowed him to force upon them The Bells, an adaptation by Leopold Lewis of Erckmann-Chatrian’s Le Juif Polonais. It was a desperate measure. The town of that day had no taste for tragedy, for anything, indeed, but farce and opera bouffe of the vulgarest order; the Lyceum Theatre was unpopular and the leading actor in the piece all but unknown. The audience on the first night was scanty, but by the next morning Henry Irving was famous. There is no need to describe here a performance so well known to playgoers of all generations by the very youngest; it is enough to say that it restored the fortunes of the theatre and marked a turning-point in the history of the English drama.
Right - The St James's Theatre in London (Demolished 1957) - Click for details of this Theatre.
Later in the long run of the play the lavish programme of the times included a performance of Jeremy Diddler, in which Irving gave further proof of his powers as a comedian, and The Bells was succeeded by W. G. Wills’s Charles I. The two emotions which this unemotional actor could command were terror and pathos. The Bells had illustrated the former, Charles I was well chosen to exhibit the latter. It may be questioned whether in his youth, Mr. Irving’s Charles I can have been quite so majestic a figure as it was in later years, but its success was great. Then, as later, the figure that the audience saw had stepped straight from Vandyck’s canvas, and gathered up around it all the romantic, pitiful, and tender associations that float about the name of Charles I. Its dignity, its stately melancholy, its tenderness, and its rare bursts of righteous indignation made it one of the most moving parts he ever acted, and entirely concealed the falseness of a one-sided and shallow play. Charles I was followed by Eugene Aram, which repeated the triumph of The Bells, and Eugen Aram by Richelieu. Here for the first time Mr. Irving definitely pitted himself against Macready, and the school which still looked upon Macready as the last word in great acting.
The new methods challenged the old, and the new were championed, not only by the young and ardent Clement Scott, who was then the mouthpiece of the dramatic revival, but by sound and sober critics like John Oxenford, who described Mr. Irving’s Richelieu in The Times as “tragic acting in the grandest style.” On October 31, 1874, Mr. Irving made a bid for the highest honours by appearing as Hamlet.
Left - William Charles Macready as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice.
In spite of the good work he had done, one is tempted to say, and perhaps without much exaggeration, that that evening was as important in the history of the drama as the first night of Hernani. Had Mr. Irving failed, the revival of the stage as a serious factor in the intellectual and social life of the nation might have been put back, though bound to come in time, for many years. There were still people of intelligence—so low had all serious interest in the drama fallen—who were found to ask, “And who is Henry Irving?” For ten years at least people had been content to let Hamlet sleep under the shadow of great names, Charles Kean, Macready, or Fechter. The moment was critical. For the first two acts the audience received the new Hamlet in complete silence. They could not understand what he was at. He made no “points,” he never ranted, he was not lugubrious or idiotic or extravagantly dressed; he was nothing that Hamlets traditionally should be, but only a prince and a gentleman, with an engaging tinge of melancholy and a quiet, almost familiar, demeanour. When he came to his parting with Ophelia the house “rose at him,” for now they understood. Mr. Irving’s Hamlet was not a thing of lightning flashes, but a consistent and reasoned whole; a prince and a gentleman who failed to do the great things demanded of him, not so much from weakness of will as from excess of tenderness. His reading of the character was hotly contested. A war of pamphlets was waged between the supporters of this or that among the Hamlets of the past and the new Hamlet, and, generally, between two champions of tradition and of the young actor who had dispensed so completely with the conventions and thought out an entirely independent reading of his own. That war was renewed over all the Shakespearian productions that followed, more hotly than ever, perhaps, over his Macbeth. It seems a little surprising now, in a generation which accepts Macbeth as a poet, “a man of letters manqué,” that such fierce storms should have been raised by the view that he was a moral coward. It is possible that Mr. Irving’s lack of “weight” injured his representation of the character, as it certainly ruined his first performance of Othello in 1876, and again, though to a less extent, in 1881, when he and the American actor, Booth, played Othello and Iago alternately. To continue the story of his Shakespearian productions, in 1877 he revived King Richard III; in 1879 The Merchant of Venice; in 1882 Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing; in 1884 Twelfth Night; in 1892 King Henry VIII and King Lear; in 1896 Cymbeline; and in 1901 Coriolanus.
Right - A Sketch of Harry Irving, Henry Irving's son, by Sir Bernard Partridge, and signed by Harry Irving - Courtesy Evonne Randall whose Great Grandfather John Albert Wilson worked at the Theatre Royal, Bradford as a Stage Hand and Bill Inspector until his early death in 1928.
In no single case was his own performance universally accepted as even good. Long after the days had passed when he was a bone of contention between coteries, there were still large numbers of people to whom his acting did not appeal. Some found his marked mannerisms insuperable obstacles to enjoyment or sympathy; some, and these possibly the least thoughtful portion of the audience, objected to an actor who, whatever he did or did not, always insisted upon having his own reading of every part and every play; a determined innovator who went back invariably to his author and himself for guidance. But, whether people liked him or not, they all crowded to see him and discussed him eagerly afterwards. He appealed to their own minds; he interested rather than excited them; and he gave them the opportunity of seeing, what possibly had never been seen in England before, a play of Shakespeare’s presented, not as series of opportunities for a “star” actor, but as a single and artistic whole. In the words used by Lord Lytton on the 100th night of Romeo and Juliet, “he threw the whole force of his mind creatively into every detail of a great play, giving to the vital spirit of it an adequately complete, appropriate, and yet original embodiment.” But this is to anticipate a little. We can do no more than mention the production, under the Bateman management, of Tennyson’s Queen Mary, The Lyons Mail, which introduced his astonishing performance of the two characters of Lesurques and Dubose, Louis XI, which is too well known to need comment, and The Flying Dutchman, an unsuccessful play in which his performance of the part of Vanderdecken was yet held by some to be almost his finest achievement.
In 1878 Mr. Irving became manager of the Lyceum. One of his first steps was to engage Miss Ellen Terry as his leading lady, and not the least of his triumphs was the making of a tragic actress out of a born comedian. Miss Terry remained in his company until the end of his American tour of 1901-2, and played Portia in the last performance on the stage of the Lyceum Theatre in July, 1902. The names of actor and actress are inseparably connected in the mind, and each owed to the other a great part of the success and fame that rewarded them. It was thus, too, that Mr. Irving first had the opportunity of bringing the arts of the scene-painter, the musician, the designer, and others to reinforce the work of his own mind. It is noteworthy that in his original performance of Hamlet the scenery was scanty and shabby, much of it having been used in the preceding plays. Henceforth, there was to be no scantiness nor shabbiness. Recollections of the splendour of Charles Kean’s productions were eclipsed by the artistic beauty of Mr. Irving’s; and in spite of all the criticisms that were passed on the amount of attention lavished on accessories, it cannot justly be claimed that the mounting was allowed to supersede the acting, so long as the Lyceum was the scene of the Irving productions. Those productions were not very many in points of number. Without reckoning the Shakespeare plays already mentioned, the chief of them were as follows;—1879, The Lady of Lyons, Daisy’s Escape, by A. W. Pinero, and The Iron Chest, by George Colman; 1880, The Corsican Brothers; 1881, The Cup, by Tennyson, and The Two Roses; 1885 Olivia, originally produced by Mr. Hare at the Court Theatre, and W. G. Wills’s Faust; 1887, Byron’s Werner (at a special matinée in aid of a testimonial to Westland Marston); 1889, The Dead Heart, rewritten from Walter Phillips’s drama by Walter Herries Pollock; 1890, Ravenswood, adapted by Hermann Merivale from “The Bride of Lammermoor”; 1893, Tennyson’s Becket; 1895, King Arthur, by J. Comyns Carr, A Story of Waterloo, by A. Conan Doyle, and Don Quixote, a condensation of a play written by W. G. Wills on the favourite hero of Sir Henry Irving’s boyhood; 1896, Madame Sans-Gêne, by Sardou; 1898, Peter the Great, by Lawrence Irving, Sir Henry’s second son, and The Medicine Man, by Robert Hichens and H. D. Traill; and 1899, Robespierre, by Sardou. In 1899 Sir Henry nominally gave up management, and in 1902, after a revival of Faust and a final performance of The Merchant of Venice, his tenancy of the Lyceum Theatre expired, and his only subsequent production in London was Sardou’s Dante in 1903, a vast spectacular drama, staged at Drury Lane and irresistibly suggestive of pantomime, which did neither author nor actor any credit. Sir Henry Irving was always an indefatigable worker, and the intervals between his seasons in London were filled with provincial tours and long visits to America and Canada, where his popularity and success were enormous.
Whether Sir Henry Irving was or was not a great actor was a question hotly discussed in his lifetime and one which his lamented death will doubtless revive. There is only one possible answer. A great actor he was, but his greatness sprang from a different source than that of any other actor that can be mentioned. The success of his famous predecessors lay in their power to affect the emotions of their audience through the strength of their own emotions. They watched for opportunities of emotion, and tore the heart-strings of their hearers, without much regard for the cohesion or the general humanity of the characters they represented.
Right - Programme for Henry Irving's Farewell performance from the Theatre Royal, Bradford for the week of the 9th of October 1905 just days before his death - Courtesy Evonne Randall whose Great Grandfather John Albert Wilson worked there as a Stage Hand and Bill Inspector until his early death in 1928. - Click for details of the Theatre Royal, Bradford.
Sir Henry Irving was not an emotional actor, or one who touched the emotions. His greatness lay in his brain, not in his feelings; his appeal was to the brain, and not to the feelings. His first care was to read the part and the play, to find out what the author intended, and to build up for himself a conception (and it must be admitted that he preferred a totally new conception, wherever possible) of the character he was to represent. He played not for moments, but for general effects; he was willing to be tedious through half a play rather than sacrifice the unity of his intellectual apprehension. The novelty of idea was an unfailing source of interest, and another was his magnetic personality. His tall figure, his beautiful, intense, ascetic face, threw a spell over his audience—a spell not so much of sympathy as of interest. But a strong personality necessarily implies limitations. Sir Henry Irving’s mannerisms, his peculiar pronunciation, his halting gait, the intonations of his never very powerful or melodious voice, the often excessive slowness that grew upon him with the years, were welcome to some as the result and expression of his personality; others they inspired with a feeling that might be described as a desire to laugh if they dared. His personality, again, while in Charles I, Hamlet, Richard III, Mathias, Becket, and a number of other parts, it gave him extraordinary and impressive power, made him ill-suited to play such characters as Romeo, Claude Melnotte, or even Benedick, the last of whom in his hands became too little merry a person for the gay and witty bachelor. Wherever there was room for his brain to work he was at home; anything approaching the commonplace, this full-blooded, or the sentimental left his peculiar gifts unemployed.
But there was always occupation for those gifts in the play, if not in the part, and they were unsparingly exercised on every new production. His friends used to say that for weeks before a first night at the Lyceum it was impossible to get Sir Henry to answer the commonest question without a reference to his new play. His mind was absorbed in it, its period, its atmosphere, its clothes. The result aimed at, and almost invariably achieved, was just that unity of impression that was a new thing. He regarded a play as a single whole; as a whole, no doubt, of which he himself should be the central point; but still neither merely as a field for the exhibition of his own powers nor as an excuse for beautiful scenery and dresses. Himself and his painters, designers, and musicians were all to be subsidiary to the author’s intentions; and a Lyceum production could be counted on to reveal not only ingenuity of invention nor artistic beauty, but propriety and proportion. It was to that end that he swept into his service the revival of interest in art that was contemporary with the revival of interest in the stage. Like most exceptional men, he was partly a product and partly a creator of the progress achieved in his day. He came into prominence at a time when comedy was already beginning to be regenerated, socially, morally, and artistically, by Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft at the Haymarket. Tragedy was waiting for her champion, and found it in Mr. Irving. It will be seen from the list of his productions that he did little for the original work of contemporary English playwrights. His services to the stage came from another source, that of his own brain. By the unsparing use of his intellect he succeeded in recalling to the theatre the intelligent public which had deserted it for ten years, in making play-going fashionable among all classes, and in accustoming the thousands of new and old playgoers, whom he attracted, to look to the theatre for more than empty amusement. To scholars he appealed by his reverent and often acute treatment of the text of Shakespeare, to people of fashion by having become the fashion, and to all classes by the force his personality.
His career was a career of almost unbroken triumph, not only for himself, but for the English stage. It was in recognition of these services that in 1895 Queen Victoria conferred on him the first knighthood that was ever won by an actor; and among other honours he held the degrees of D.Litt. Dublin, Litt. D. Cambridge, and Ll.D. Glasgow. Of the many lectures he was asked to deliver, we may mention those at Edinburgh in 1881 and 1891, at Harvard in 1885, and at Oxford, by the invitation of Dr. Jowett, then Vice-Chancellor, in 1886. These lectures have since been printed, and the Irving edition of Shakespeare, in which he was interested, is widely known.
Sir Henry was married and leaves two sons; Mr. H. B. Irving, the actor, and Mr. Lawrence Irving, who is also on the stage.
Source: The Times
Also see The Strand Magazine article on Irving by Harry Furniss 1906 here...
And this site for a great deal of information on Henry Irving in the form of his personal correspondence.
France Times, November 2, 1905
Sir Henry Irving's Funeral
(From our own correspondent)
"The Dean of Westminster, having received a request signed by leading members of the dramatic profession, and by other persons of distinction has consented to the interment of the late Sir Henry Irving in Westminster Abbey" Such was the formal intimation. It was further announced that all enquiries and applications for tickets should be addressed to the Hon: secretaries, Mr George Alexander and Mr Norman Forbes Robertson.
By Tuesday night 50,000 applications had been made, and the committee had only 1,200 seats to dispose of. I was therefore truly grateful when I received a card of admittance to the South Transept, close to Poets Corner.
On Wednesday the body was cremated at Golders Green, Hendon. The casket containing the ashes, was placed in a coffin, and brought back to the residence, of Baroness Burdett Coutts where one of the principle rooms was turned into a Chapelle Ardente, and on Thursday, from ten till four, those friends anxious to pay a last tribute were admitted. Hundreds of people must have signed their names, and taken this last farewell of the great actor. The room was a dream of beauty, every imaginable device in the most lovely flowers surrounded the coffin, which had a single cross on it, made of lilies of the valley; it bore the inscription "In most loving remembrance of a lifelong friendship" and was from J. L. Toole.
But I must not attempt to describe the floral tributes; Next day they filled the nave of the Abbey, though I did not see there all I had seen in Stratton Street. I believe they numbered about six hundred.
Friday the 20th saw many, I amongst the number, at too early an hour, outside Westminster Abbey. I had been misinformed as to the hour of opening of the doors, which opened at eleven o'clock; this gave me the opportunity of seeing the crowds that were gathering in hopes of getting one of the five hundred seats the Dean had reserved for the general public.
The weather was cold, but remarkably fine. Inside the Abbey rays of sunshine came like shafts of gold to lighten the shadows that lurk among those beautiful arches. Here again, I must not attempt any list of names, almost every face you saw, was that of some celebrity. Despite the vast concourse of people everything was so admirably managed that there was no crush, no unseemly pushing. Under the guidance of the stewards (all professional gentlemen) every one found their seat in an orderly and comfortable manner. I among the favoured ones, and Henry Irving's personal friends, found myself halfway between the High Alter and the grave.
Left - The Statue of Henry Irving at the rear of the National Portrait Gallery on Irving Street, just off Charing Cross Road, London - Photo M.L. November 2009 - More information on the statue can be found here.
At a quarter past eleven Sir Frederick Bridge played Chopin's Funeral March on the organ, I have never heard a more magnificent and impressive rendering of that grand music. Purcell's funeral music for trumpets and trombones came next, followed by Schubert's Marche Solennelle. Just before noon when everyone had taken their seat, there were some appreciable minutes of silence, real absolute silence, such as one seldom meets with. Then far away in the distance came the faint sound of a pure voice, like a bird singing; it became more distinct, and every one seemed to hold their breath in wrapt attention. The voice rose clearer and more powerful, swelled into many voices, until it filled the building with melody and harmony.
This was the procession and the choir, the body being carried through the cloisters from the chapel of St. Faith where it had rested since the previous night. The Hymn was Brief life is here our portion.
The coffin was placed on a raised pedestal in front of the High Alter where the first part of the service was gone through, It was covered by the gift of an anonymus admirer, one with the mind and heart of a poet, for it was a pall made entirely of bay laurel leaves. Lord thou hast been our refuge, was sung to Purcell's music, and after the lesson read impressively by Canon Duckworth, came the anthem Crossing the Bar, Tennyson's words set to music by Frederick Bridge, and Sullivan's, Weep not for the dead.
Right - The Inscription on the memorial Statue of Henry Irving reads: HENRY IRVING. ACTOR. Born 1838. Died 1905 Knight Litt D Dublin D Litt Cambridge LLD Glasgow Erected by English Actors and Actresses and by others connected with the theatre in this country - Photo M.L. November 2009 - More information on the statue can be found here.
As the body was being born in procession to the grave the Marche funebre composed by Sir Alexander Mackenzie for Irving's Coriolanus was played. The pall bearers were Sir Squire Bancroft and Lord Aberdeen, Lord Tennyson and Sir Charles Wyndham, Mr John Hare and Lord Burnham, Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Mr George Alexander. Mr Beerbohm Tree and Sir L. Alma Tadema, R. A. Prof. Sir James Dewar and Mr Forbes Robinson, Mr A. N. Pinero, and Mr Burdett Coutts, M. P., Mr Arthur Collins.
The family and the pall bearers alone moved to the grave, after the Dean and Canons, the congregation being requested to keep their seats. During the concluding part of the service I heard a voice (Goss) and Praise to the Holiest in the height were sung. The Dean had left a bed of sickness, that he might pronounce the Benediction, and the Dead March in Saul, was played whilst the clergy and choir left the Abbey.
The king was represented by General Sir Dighton Probyn. The Queen by Earl Howe, and the Prince of Wales by Sir William Carrington.
Irving's last resting place could not have been more aptly chosen, close to David Garrick and at the foot of Shakespeare's statue, and here at the end of the ceremony was placed Queen Alexandra's tribute, a cross of white lilies with the following inscription For Sir Henry Irving with deepest regrets. From the Queen. Into thy hands, O' Lord, into thy hands.
Besides those of the family and Toole's the other floral souvenirs placed near the grave were those of Princess Louise and the Duke of Fife, and of the Baroness Burdett Couts. A wreath of scarlet geraniums from German Actors, and a magnificent wreath of violets, tied with tricoloured ribbons,from the Comedie Francaise.
MM. Georges Baillot and Albert Lambert knelt by the grave, and as it is not an English custom to have orations at a funeral they shortly after, privately read to Mr H. B. Irving what would have been Jules Clareties discours.
The Americans sent an equally beautiful wreath made of mauve orchids and lilies of the valley and tributes came from every part of the world.
All connected with the funeral contributed to make it a thing of beauty. It was an occasion of mourning and of sadness, but not of gloom, rather like an apotheosis; the final excelsior of a votary of art.
Let me say it in all reverence, and with no thought of ill timed pleasantry, it was like another Irving production, perfect in inspiration and in achievement.
I will conclude with the words I wrote on my humble tribute of bay leaves and immortelles. "The Sun has set in all his glory, But on the firmament of memory, a Star has risen that will shine on through all eternity", Marie De Mensiaux.
This report should have appeared last week but owing to a postal delay of two days it did not reach us until after we had gone to press. Ed.
The Boulogne And North Of France Times, November 16, 1905. - Courtesy Trevor J. Dudley.
Also see: The Strand Magazine article on Irving by Harry Furniss 1906 here...
And this site for a great deal of information on Henry Irving in the form of his personal correspondence.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: