Henry Irving (1838-1905) is a name we spot frequently in our theatre collection at City of Westminster Archives. A star of the Victorian stage, he gained both national and international acclaim during his long career spanning 50 years. He received a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1895 for his services to the stage.
Irving worked hard, juggling paid work as a clerk to a merchants in London, to follow his acting dream. Despite opposition from his salesman father and strict Methodist mother, he made his London stage debut in the 1860s. He rose to fame with his portrayal of the character Mathias in the English gothic melodrama “The Bells” which ran for 151 performances from 1871 at the Lyceum Theatre.
Irving’s involvement with The Lyceum Theatre carried on for many years and he took over as actor-manager in 1878 where he remained until 1902. In 1878 he hired Ellen Terry (1847-1928), another Shakespearean actor like himself, as the company’s leading lady. In 1875, prior to her employment at the Lyceum, she performed the role of Portia from “The Merchant Of Venice” at the Prince of Wales’ Theatre. Oscar Wilde saw her in the role and was so impressed by Terry’s performance he was compelled to write a sonnet called Portia (To Ellen Terry).
Irving and Terry were known for their stage chemistry and one of their many memorable performances was Irving’s own production of “Macbeth” in 1888 at The Lyceum where Terry played Lady Macbeth opposite Irving’s Macbeth. Their working partnership was a great success both artistically and financially and included an America Tour in 1893.
Henry Irving developed a lifelong friendship and working relationship with author Bram Stoker who Irving employed from 1878 to 1898 as his Acting and Business Manager at The Lyceum. The pair met after Stoker saw Irving perform in Dublin in around 1877. After a rave review by Bram Stoker regarding Irving’s portrayal of “Hamlet”, Irving invited Bram Stoker to a dinner party where they cemented their friendship. Bram Stoker began writing his novel Dracula in 1890 while working for Irving and it has been suggested that Stoker took inspiration for the description of Count Dracula’s character and physical appearance from Irving.
Irving died suddenly on 13 October 1905. His death shocked and saddened the nation. Having carried out many stage tours through his lifetime there were international stage tributes paid when he died. The Times reported “telegrams of sympathy have also been received from distinguished people of every position and degree at home and abroad”. His ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.
Henry Irving’s acting legacy continued long after his death. He was succeeded by his children including his eldest son, Henry Brodribb Irving (1870-1919), who followed in his father’s footsteps as a stage actor and actor-manager. His credits included some re-stagings of his father’s best performances including “The Bells”.
For more images from our collection featuring Henry Irving then please visit our City of Westminster Flickr page.