The Irving Society Newsletter No 52


An Illustrated Talk by Catherine Leonard
Westminster Reference Library, Wednesday, 19 May, at 6.00pm

The RSC’s costume collection has never been comprehensively catalogued – until now. A capacity audience hugely enjoyed Catherine Leonard’s generously illustrated talk on the collection, shortly to be moved from the Museum of London, who have housed it since 1956, to the V&A. Since the speaker has kindly made her text available to the Society for publication in First Knight I will not elaborate on her researches here, other to say her allotted hour flew past as we saw dozens of pictures of costumes worn by Phelps, Fechter, HI, HBI, and Frank and Constance Benson.

Catherine’s immense knowledge of materials, styles, fashions, and of the Victorian Theatre in general made for an exceptionally illuminating address. And how fascinating to learn that over a century after their wearer died HI’s tights still smell of feet! Editor.

London Stage in the Nineteenth Century by Robert Tanitch

Carnegie Publishing in association with Westminster Archives
345 pp. ISBN 978-1-85936-208-2. £24.99.

This is a reference boo k that no theatre lover should be without. Together with its companion, London Stage in the Twentieth Century, it is a comprehensive account of the Century’s ‘major new plays, revivals, performances and productions’. To these are added profuse illustrations and snippets from reviews good, bad, amusing and acerbic. Of particular interest are the references to Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. The Ape cartoon takes pride of place opposite t he author’s Introduction and he nominates Irving’s performance in The Bells as the defining performance of the century, with which no one in the Society would disagree. The only glitch found, so far, is that the author has allowed George Frederick Cooke to die in both 1811 and 1812 but this is forgivable because as the blurb states ‘no other book conveys the essence of the age with such authenticity and wit’. Reviewed by Richard Morley.


Tour of Kensal Green Cemetery , 19 June, 2010 . Report by Alex Bisset.

The summer event took the form of a joint visit, together with members of the Society for Theatre Research, to London’s Kensal Green Cemetery. This was the first of the six major cemeteries created in the 1830s to overcome the appalling condition of churchyards unable to cope with burials in the rapidly developing population of the time. Nearly forty members of the two societies took advantage of the opportunity to visit many of the notable resting places of actors, writers, dancers, managers and others directly or indirectly connected with the theatre. I specifically say ‘resting places’ for not all are actually interred; we saw that several of the coffins deposited in the loculi of the catacombs beneath the Anglican chapel were for theatrical members and their families. The greatest interest was aroused by the sight of the coffin of William Charles Macready and that of poor Clara Webster, who died as a result of her ballet costume catching alight in a performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

With a group of so many people it was necessary to split into three, each with a well-informed guide. While none was a theatrical specialist they, and we, were armed with a very informative booklet specially prepared for the occasion by the splendidly enthusiastic Henry Vivian-Neal, Chief Guide of the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery, to whom an enormous debt of gratitude is owed as the linchpin of the whole enterprise. Guides found some fascinating links with graves, not apparently theatrical but of great interest through association. One of the great benefits of the afternoon was the sharing of knowledge between group members and guides so that all of us came away better informed. We, of necessity, touched little more than the surface of the theatrical connections with Kensal Green but it is to be hoped that the tour will have inspired some further interest in members of both Societies. Feedback suggests that a good afternoon was had by all and we, as in old children’s stories, returned home tired but happy after welcome refreshments.

* I am adapting a line by W B Yeats to say to visitors to the cemetery: ‘Tread softly because you tread on my bones.’


Sylvia Starshine

In 1938 a temporary exhibition was set up at the London Museum in St James’s Court, SW1, to celebrate the centenary of HI’s birth. Among several items lent by the actor Robert Donat, one is described as: ‘Irving’s brandy flask, given by his sons to his biographer Austin Brereton’. Measuring approximately 180mm the leather-clad flask is of a battered appearance with a decidedly tatty cork s topp er. The hallmarked silver cap is a later additio n. Inscribed on the band is ‘ Sir Henry Irving’s Pocket Flask’, and on the top ‘This flask which was Sir Henry’s Constant Companion was given by Harry & Laurence after their father’s death in 1905 to Austin Brereton who presented it in 1918 to A. E. Hanford’. The story behind this inscription, is that HI, fond of a nip or two, was never without the flask being near at hand or inside his greatcoat. So much so that when he lost the original cap the cork sufficed as he could not bear to be parted from it long enough to have a new one fitted! Cheers!


The Olivier Exhibition Space, National Theatre, 26 May – 27 June, 2010

Though this exhib ition had already been open for two weeks, the official launch was on Wednesday, 9 June, with many familiar faces from the STR and our Society to be seen examining the dozens of prints, photographs and posters on display, all most informatively captioned. We were welcomed by David Ruse, Director of Libraries and Culture for Westminster City Council, who, despite his imposing title, is not an impressive speaker. Even with a microphone his underpowered delivery prompted cries of ‘Can’t hear you!’. A lift in volume, however, only underlined Mr Ruse’s poor articulation and did not significantly increase comprehension. And when he handed the microphone to author Robert Tanitch, who was signing copies of his latest book West End in the Nineteenth Century, things did not markedly improve, for Mr Tanitch resolutely held the mic down by his side. ‘What d id he think it was for?’ I asked myself, reflecting, not for the first time, that so often writers and academics seem to know all about the theatre and nothing about theatricality. The exhibition’ s principal item of interest was the cardinal’s robe designed by Seymour Lucas RA and worn by HI as Wolsey in the 1892 Lyceum Henry VIII. Stained an d threadb are it may have been, but a thrilling sight nonetheless. Editor


Friday, 22 October
New Cavendish Club
44 Great Cumberland Place
London W1H 7BS
Annual Dinner £40
Speaker: Prof Jeffrey Richards


Visit for a ten-minute tour of the principal West End theatres , conducted by one of our Patrons, Sir Donald Sinden. Others luminaries chip ping in their twopennorths include Sir Ian McKellen, Sam West, Simon Callow, and Gillian Lind. The film was produced by Sir Donald’s son, Marc, who can be seen with his parents in a 1959 Pathé Gazette piece in which Sir Donald shows off his theatrical treasures, including items which belonged to Charles Kean, Irving and Martin Harvey. To see it Google “British Pathé Donald Sinden at Home”.


An ad in the Wanted section of The Times classifieds on 26 June stated simply:

‘ELLEN TERRY/HENRY IRVING. Devoted fan seeks memorabilia. Email:’

Investigations showed that the ad was placed by member Ann Rachlin, who has sent TI the following:

‘My collection is already quite good but I am always interested in new things to add to it. I bought five receipts all stamped as they were in the old days and issued the week Ellen died.  They were all made out to Dame Ellen Terry. One came from the chemist with all the things they had to buy to make her comfortable, another was for laundry and the last was really sad as it came from the doctor who charged her Executors for attendance and for signing the affidavit for her cremation. They were all on sale individually on ebay and I got them for a song, some for less than £3 and all five were less than £20. It is amazing what memorabilia is out there if you can only find it !!’

If, therefore any member has any items for disposal contact Mrs Rachlin on or contact the Editor. Mrs Rachlin is the owner of Edy Craig’s unpublished memoirs, and we look forward with keen anticipation next year to details of their contents .


‘After our actor’s visit to America, his performance [as Digby Grant in Two Roses] was noticed to be more elaborate and laboured – overdone in fact – it had lost some of its spontaneousness – a result which, it has been noted, is too often the result of playing to American audiences, who are pleased with broad effects.’ From Sir Henry Irving by Percy Fitzgerald (1906).

Grotesque oil paintings of HI in the Guildhall by Sir Matthew Smith (1879-1959) may be seen by googling “Sir Henry Irving” Matthew Smith and then clicking on I’m Feeling Lucky. Discovered by Colin Hague.


All Communications to:

Michael Kilgarriff, Editor & Hon Sec
The Irving Society
tel & fax: 020 8566 8301
10 Kings Avenue, London W5 2SH

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