The Irving Society Newsletter No 74

The Irvingite



Luckily October 4th was a fine autumn day so there was no depositing of umbrellas and soggy raincoats when we arrived at the Garrick Club for our Annual Dinner.

On this occasion our genial host was Garrick Club member Nick Bromley, well known to many of us as Master of the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund, a charity established in 1766 by David Garrick for the relief and support of retired and disabled performers belonging to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Nick Bromley
Our Host, Nick Bromley

We, two dozen or so Irving Society members and guests, assembled in the Milne Room which now contains the fine Sir John Everett Millais portrait of Irving as well as a striking portrait of Ellen Terry as Portia by American artist Grace Baldry.  Whilst all enjoying a pre-prandial glass of wine our Chair, Frances, took the opportunity of a fifteen-minute slot, before cheese soufflés were ready to be served, to give a knowledgeable background talk on the paintings lining the walls.

With named place-cards at the tables and a linked guide to individual chosen menus the service of food, after an appropriate Grace by Hilary Phillips, was speedy, efficient and unobtrusive.  A very satisfying meal concluded with coffee and light-hearted reminiscences by Nick of Irving’s links with Drury Lane.

Irving was not a member of the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund, the length of his appearances at Drury Lane being insufficient to make him eligible.  Other than a couple of Benefit performances in which he participated, he appeared in three seasons only – in 1869 he played for 117 nights in Dion Boucicault’s “Formosa” and in  1903 he gave 82 performances in “Dante” by Victorian Sardou and Emile Moreau.  It was, however, at Drury Lane that Irving gave, with the exception of a benefit performance of “Waterloo” at His Majesty’s Theatre, his last performances in London, ending on June 15th 1905.  Over a period of six weeks his repertoire consisted of “Becket,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Waterloo,” and finally “Louis XI.”  Nick recalled reports of the last night when the enthusiasm of the audience brought curtain call after curtain call with shouts of “No! Not good-bye” until finally Irving came forward and simply said “Well, good-night then.”  The tragic events of October 13th in Bradford were but four months later.

The redoubtable Frank Barrie rounded off the dinner by his reading, in fine 19thC dramatic style, from a document in Jennie Bisset’s collection, one of the multitude of long stanzas of an address in verse form written by C.S. [was this Clement Scott?] It was originally given at the grand farewell dinner held in the St James’s Hall prior to the Lyceum company’s departure on their first American tour in 1883.  All glasses were raised in a toast to Sir Henry and the assembled company slowly said their various farewells before departing into the hurly-burly of 21stC London.

– Alex Bisset


Members will soon receive their membership renewal forms for the 2017 membership year.  Regarding these renewals the Committee is pleased to announce that, despite an increase in annual dues having been approved at last year’s AGM, the Society’s finances are presently in a healthy state and this has enabled fees to be frozen for the coming year.

Members are also asked to please save the date for the Society’s 21st Annual General Meeting in celebration of Sir Henry Irving’s Birthday.  This year’s festivities will take place on the afternoon of Sunday 12 February, 2017.  Members asked to assemble at the Irving Statue on Charing Cross Road at 2.30pm.  Further details including a programme of the day’s event will follow shortly.

ALAN WILSON – (1923 – 2016)

Alan Wilson
Alan Wilson

It is with sadness that we have learnt of the recent death of our long-standing member Alan Wilson in Wales.

In recent years ill health has prevented him from attending meetings but his interest in the Society was not diminished.  An actor by profession he had a deep interest in the theatre of the 19th century; Henry Irving was certainly of importance to him but it was Miss Kelly, the great Fanny Kelly [1790-1882] who meant most to him and who occupied his theatrical research activities for many years.  When research was no longer an option his treasury of assembled material, including a draft biography, was passed to the Lamb Society for safekeeping.  The June 1999 issue of First Knight contained one of the articles he wrote and many members will certainly remember how, at a meeting in November of that year, he gave an electrifying rendition of The Dream of Eugene Aram, the Thomas Hood poem so greatly favoured by Henry Irving as a ‘party piece’ at benefit performances.

Our sympathies go to his widow Rosemarie and to all his family both here and abroad.



On Monday 6 February from 6.30pm – 8.00pm our Chair, Frances Hughes, will give an illustrated talk about Ellen Terry & The Aesthetes.  The discussion, which will take place at Westminster Reference Library, is free to attend however places must be confirmed in advance by visiting the booking page, emailing or telephoning (0)207 641 6200 extension 2.


1830 – 1890


Only recently, as a result of my being asked about a grave in Brompton Cemetery in London, a book by our fellow-member Virginia Surtees, published in 1997, came to notice.  Somehow it appears to have slipped under the radar in the intervening years.

It comprises two vignettes, studies in the social mobility of two young women in the 19th century.  The first of these, “The Actress”, is of particular relevance in that it covers the life and career of the actress Miss Herbert (née Louisa Ruth Maynard).  Regularly discussed in reviews and reports as having ‘grace, delicacy and power’ and as being ‘a perfect model of gentility and grace’ her golden-haired beauty attracted the attention of the Pre Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and today her features are best known from an examination of his work.

Her career as an actress developed successfully and she became, for some years, the manager of the St James’s Theatre in London.  It was in this capacity that we take especial interest, for it was she who invited Henry Irving   to join her company to perform initially the role of Rawdon Scudamore, which he had done with great success in Manchester. Success was his again, which erased the memory of his unsuccessful London venture at he Princess’s Theatre in 1859 – the rest is history.

Virginia Surtees, a distinguished author and authority on the work of D. G. Rossetti, is none other than a great grand daughter of Miss Herbert and is well placed to bring this story to life.  The grave in Brompton Cemetery which brought this book to notice is that of Louisa Ruth Herbert – 1830 -1890.

Scour the Internet or your local second-hand and charity bookshops to find a copy – it is well worth the effort.

– Alex Bisset


With the approach of the pantomime season it is interesting to note that, at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh, the first important production of the 1858-59 season was the pantomime The Sleeping Beauty – made more interesting by the fact that Venoma, the spiteful fairy, was played by twenty-year-old Henry Irving.  A review of the performance in The Scotsman observed that “Mr Irving as Venoma was a model of a disagreeable and spiteful genius.”

Irving as Shak


On 31 October – Hallowe’en – Horatio Blood’s Corinthian Theatre; or, The British Stage in Miniature presented, at the historic 18th century Stone House, Deptford, a single toy theatre performance of J. R. Planché’s The VAMPIRE! or, the Bride of the Isles.  The play was first performed at the Royal English Opera House [now the Lyceum Theatre] on 9 August 1820 with T. P. Cooke in the title role.  The toy theatre version was also published in 1820.

The cast of ten characters, voiced by seven players, was supported by four musicians and two manipulators of the characters and scenery.  Featured in two major roles was our veteran member and former actor, David Drummond, who gave dramatic voice to Ruthven, Earl of Marsden – the Vampire – and to the character of McSwill, henchman to Ronald, Baron of the Isles.

The playbill for the second English Opera House performance on 10 August 1820 declared that “it were vain to attempt a description of the magic effect produced on a crowded Audience by the Performance of THE VAMPIRE last night….” This declaration can truly be applied to the toy theatre production seen almost two centuries later.

– Alex Bisset


A Theatrical Family of the Regency Era
By Alan Stockwell
ISBN 978-0-9565013-6-3
Vesper Hawk Publishing

As Society’s title has recently been extended to include all the years and interests of the nineteenth century theatre as well as Sir Henry, it is a pleasure that one of our long-standing members, Alan Stockwell, has written a four hundred-page book about the Jonas & Penley Company of Comedians who acted during the first four decades of the nineteenth century and handed on the torch to later generations.

In the late eighteenth century Mary Penley married John Jonas, a puppeteer and actor who performed at Bartholomew Fair for nearly a decade and probably appeared also at Astley’s Amphitheatre.  Mary’s other two brothers joined the newly wed couple to form a Company when the Licensing Act of 1788 allowed local magistrates to open licensed theatre for sixty days a year.  The new acting group had generally successful limited seasons in Tenterden, Eastbourne, Rye and Battle.  In time William Penley left taking his three children with him.  By then the Jonas’ family had seven children and the Sampson Penleys five.  They were educated by their strolling parents, as was Ellen Terry four decades later.  The author gives us detailed stories of how, when ‘Master Betty’, the Young Roscius, flooded both Drury Lane and Covent Garden in 1804 with huge audiences, the country player Sampson Jr., aged twelve, was, in the same period playing the same hit roles – Young Norval in “Douglas” and Frederick in “Lovers’ Vows.”  Master Betty was earning £75 a night but the young stroller did not!

The book contains excellent reproductions of many playbills and includes a number of black and white drawings of the theatre of the time.

Interesting events are the Jonas & Penley Company performances in London at the minor, but well-attended theatres.  Mrs Jordan acted with them in Lewes for a few nights towards the end of the Napoleonic War as Violante in “The Wonder.”  When the war ended the author records how Sampson Penley made ‘an astonishing decision’ and took the Jonas & Penley Company to Amsterdam in a Dutch ship with a cargo of treacle.  In 1822 they played “Othello” in Paris without much success.

After the death of the elders in his ‘Act Four’ Alan Stockwell gives a detailed ‘eye-opening’ story of the young women in the family, especially Rosina Penley who had played Lady Teazle with Charles Kemble in the Theatre Royal Cheltenham and later played Gertrude to his Hamlet when he was now pensionable.

There is much to learn and much to read – a good accompaniment for lengthening winter evenings.

– Frances Hughes

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