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.

Henry Irving StatueSociety 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.’

Sir Thomas Brock R.A. was prevailed upon to take the commission but work was delayed for some time as the Committee and the sculptor differed in their views of how Sir Henry should be dressed.

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 have begun.

The Times published a series of letters and reports on the subject. Charles Cruikshanks wrote to the Editor (3 March 1910) ‘The work in connection with the above [i.e. the memorial] is nearing completion and it is anticipated the statue will be erected towards the end of June or the beginning of July.’ But by then The Times had had to report (11 June 1910) that ‘The sculptor finished the plaster model for the statue some months ago, but the casting of the figure in bronze has taken more time than was expected’.

Hare then sent a letter to the Editor of The Times on 15 July:

‘I have received a communication from Mr. Thomas Brock, R.A. to the effect that he finds it impossible to satisfactorily complete the Irving statue until August. As it would be most undesirable that the unveiling should take place at a season of the year when the majority of subscribers will be absent from London, the committee have decided not to fix the actual date for the ceremony until after the holidays.’

On 5 November the Committee inserted a notice in The Times’ Court Circular:

‘Sir John Hare will unveil the Irving Memorial … towards the end of the present month. The work of erecting the statue will be completed on November 16’.

On 17 November Hare was at last able to give precise details of the ceremony:

‘May I ask you kindly to let it be known to those interested in the unveiling of the statue of the late Sir Henry Irving, to be erected at the rear of the National Portrait Gallery, in the Charing Cross-road that the ceremony will take place on Monday, December 5, at 11.30 a.m. Accommodation for subscribers to the memorial fund and the Press will be provided; and in addition the committee have reserved a certain number of seats for special allotment.’ ( The Times 18 November.)

Sir John Hare
Sir John Hare

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 scene was one without parallel. On the platform, which had been erected under an awning, stood all the foremost actors of the day, many of whom had risen to fame under the standard of the great actor. Within the enclosure were faces familiar at the footlights, while beyond in the broad road at midday a cheering multitude throbbed in sympathy and responded enthusiastically to the noble words which fell from the lips of the chief personage in the memorable ceremony.’

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:

‘There is one quality in my father’s character, known best perhaps to those closest to him in life which it seems to me the noble poise and grave dignity of this statue seem to me to finely express. I mean his steadfast courage, his calm continual self-control. He was fond of repeating Goethe’s saying that “self-possession is the art of life.” Certainly my father had, in a rare degree, that great quality of possessing his soul in patience and meeting fate with calmness and resolution.(Applause.) He had his share, especially in the last few years of his life, of the difficulties and anxieties, as well as the glories, of his art. And he bore all, storm or sunshine, fair weather or foul, with unflinching courage, steadfast endurance and faith in the truth of the cause he served. if ever a man was “master of his fate and captain of his soul,” it was my father. (Applause) And it seems to me that it is as “master of his fate and captain of his soul”, that the sculptor has graven his image today. (Hear, Hear.)’

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

HB Irving
HB Irving

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 ‘Irving Memorial Garden’ was opened on 19 July 1951 by Sir Laurence Olivier who was then appearing at the St. James’ Theatre in a play in which I feel Irving would have been even better – Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. ‘In a tribute to Irving, Sir Laurence said that he brought dignity to the theatre and integrity to the actor. He insisted on discipline at work and decent accommodation for it; above all he was the actor’s friend’ (The Times. 20 July 1951) A very fitting epitaph indeed for Sir Henry’s life and career.

DF Cheshire
DF Cheshire

The author D.F. Cheshiregratefully acknowledges the assistance of the British Library in providing copies of source material for this feature.
Seen here at the Wreath laying at the Irving Memorial Febuary 2000


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