THE IRVING MEMORIAL
by D. F. Cheshire
For the last four years the Society has marked the anniversary of the birth of Sir Henry on 6 February 1838 with a ceremony at the foot of his statue on Charing Cross Road, London, incorporating in it an attempt to place a wreath at his feet some nine or ten feet off the ground - not it must be admitted entirely with altruistic intent but as an attempt (recently highly successful) to prevent the wreath being stolen instantly.
Society members know about Irving but what of this statue? Who was responsible for its erection? Who designed it and have its surroundings always been the same?
The statue was erected by the Irving Memorial Committee on
land donated by the City of Westminster. The Committee, formed in December 1906
with Sir John Hare as Chairman and Charles Cruikshanks as Secretary decided
straightaway that a subscription list would be opened - but (as the inscription
on the base puts it) only to ‘English actors and actresses and.... others
connected with the theatre in this country.’
The Committee generally favoured a costume associated with one of his famous parts, the sculptor favoured mufti. In the event the sculptor’s view prevailed - but interestingly enough (even though Brock might not have viewed it as such at the time) Sir Henry is still in costume his D. Litt.(Cantab) gown, for one of the parts he ‘played’ off-stage - the academically-minded actor. Underneath he is wearing a well-cut suit of the type he favoured when making personal appearances at the myriad civic lunches and statue-unveiling ceremonies with which he was regularly involved once he became ‘the leader of the English Stage and he has his right hand on his hip - another very characteristic gesture which either Brock knew from personal experience or which he picked up from the many caricatures and sketches in which it is featured. Sir Henry is hat-less (or rather mortar-board-less) so that his famous mound of long hair may be clearly seen. All in all it is one of the most successful portrait statues in central London and demonstrates clearly why Brock was one of the leading sculptors of his day.
Brock’s first major work was the Prince Consort for the Albert Memorial which he in fact completed following the sudden death of the original designer, John Foley, for whom he was working as an assistant. It was only natural, therefore, that Brock should be made responsible for the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. A commission for such a monument at such a time was obviously fraught with difficulty.
The Queen had died on 22 January 1901. Her son, Edward VII
was due to be crowned on 26 June but due to his perityphlitis the coronation had to be postponed until 9 August. Thereafter he was kept busy with
not only the social occasions with which his image is inextricably woven but
also a whole range of important, very politically-charged, state visits until he
was taken ill suddenly and died on 6 May 1910 - when work on the Victoria
Memorial was reaching its conclusion and the casting of the Irving statue should
Hare then sent a letter to the Editor of The Times on 15 July:
On 5 November the Committee inserted a notice in The Times’ Court Circular:
On 17 November Hare was at last able to give precise details of the ceremony:
The ceremony eventually took place as arranged and was reported at length in both the national and the specialised press with interesting disparities between the transcriptions of the speeches - third person in The Times (6 December) and first person in The Era (10 December) with slight differences between the guest lists. Not unnaturally, however, The Era gives the better pen picture of the occasion.
The ‘chief personage in the memorable ceremony’ was presumably Sir John Hare, who gave a perfect model for such a speech on such an occasion, or it might have been H. B. Irving whose obviously genuinely heartfelt words included the following significant passage on Brock’s work:
The Lyceum Company was well-represented not only by ‘all the foremost actors of the day’ who had been associated with it in their younger days but also by Irving’s manager
Bram Stoker, Mrs Henry Loveday widow of H.J. Loveday the Lyceum stage manager; composers closely associated with the Lyceum e.g.: Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and Edward German; friendly journalists such as A. B. Walkley and Austin Brereton; artists such as Harry Furniss, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema and Sir Philip Burne-Jones; and Irving’s solicitor - the notorious Sir George Lewis. The Prime Minister (H. H. Asquith ) was represented by Mr. R. S. Meiklejohn and the ‘Proceedings were opened by the Mayor of Westminster (E.L. Somers-Cocks) but, somewhat surprisingly, there seems to have been no freemasonic presence. G. B. Shaw was, of course, not there at least not among the official guests but the most noticeable absentee was Ellen Terry who would obviously have taken a prominent position in the gathering had she not, at the age of sixty-three, been on an extensive tour of the USA with her Shakespeare lectures and was on 5 December somewhere en route between Portland, Oregon and Denver, Colorado. Her third husband, James Carew from whom she was judicially separated in 1909 was, however, present.
The statue, which is a marvellous piece of work, stands on a stone plinth. The full inscription on a raised plaque reads: ‘HENRY IRVING. ACTOR. Born 1838. Died 1906.(sic) Knight, B.Litt. Dublin. D.Litt. Cambridge. LL.D Glasgow. Erected by English actors and actresses and by others connected with the theatre in this country.’ This is on the plinth itself.
This site was in 1910 the junction of St. Martin’s Place, Charing Cross Road, Orange Street, and Green Street: named after the bowling greens occupying the area when it was originally developed in the 1670s. In 1938 the Irving Centenary Committee asked Westminster City Council to re-name Green Street as part of its celebrations. But again there was a delay and it was not until just before the outbreak of War in 1939 that the name was eventually changed to Irving Street - the wheels of local government turning as slowly then as now. Ironically, of course, the statue stands opposite, not the Lyceum, but the Garrick Theatre. It is not far from Wyndham’s, with the Gielgud and Olivier within walking distance. But there is now no Irving Theatre.
Intriguingly the ‘Irving’ was the proposed name for the theatre eventually opened as the St. Martins. But between 1951 and 1964 there was an Irving Theatre - a little club theatre just along Irving Street above the City Morgue. The premises are now occupied by Indian and Tibetan restaurants in the former morgue and theatre respectively.
When first unveiled the statue stood on the pavement, not
within railed gardens as it does now. Having survived the German bombing in
situ during the Second World War - Sir John Martin-Harvey paid for it to be
enclosed in a brick box - Westminster City Council (whose City Hall was at the
time just opposite next to the Garrick) decided to surround it with a small
garden inside low railings containing the initials H.I. as one of its
contributions to the Festival of Britain.
The author D.F. Cheshiregratefully acknowledges the
assistance of the British Library in providing copies of source material for