The Irving Society Newsletter No 60

The Irvingite


In October, 2010, I received an email from Shaun Garner, Collections Development Manager of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum in Bournemouth, part of which read:

‘I wondered if the Irving Society could provide an assessment and statement of significance for the Irving Collection at the R ussell-Cotes please ? I am currently working on a Conservation Management Plan for the Museum and from there we hope to apply for Designation Status, and for the CMP I need first to establish significant elements of the collection.

Designation is a status assigned to a collection in a non-national museum that is seen of national  standing, which gives access to funding. If I can provide evidence that we have collections of at least national importance then we can not only secure their future but make them more accessible.’

Shaun Garner 1964-2012
Shaun Garner 1964-2012

In the event the application for Designation Status was unsuccessful, but I felt members would wish to see my response to Shaun’s request, reproduced below. This is also in memory of an affable and devoted archivist w ho contributed so much to the Irving Centenary exhibition at the Russell-Cotes in 2005.

He was a great Irving enthusiast and very conscious of the importance of the collections under his care. He died, alas, on 4 January last aged only 47. He had worked for the Museum for thirty years. We have lost a good friend.

Michael Kilgarriff 



Henry Irving would have snorted with derision at being described as a National Treasure, but such he undoubtedly was. In his day he was the most renowned celebrity of the age, both nationally and internationally, inspiring awe, respect and devotion. He was universally acknowledged as a man of probity and generosity, and as an actor-producer an innovator of unparalleled vision and integrity. His fierce devotion to his art and ceaseless proselytising of the drama as an educative and edifying force resulted in his knighthood, the first for an actor, and for the acceptance of the theatre into the pantheon of the arts. Not for nothing was he known as The Elevator of the Stage. Irving was a grand, distinguished compelling personality, a gracious, courteous, honourable man whom even Bernard Shaw, artistically his arch-foe, described as ‘a good egg’. The following quotations give some slight idea of the actor’s stature:

‘It can hardly be possible to convey with mere words to anyone w ho had never seen Sir Henry Irving, the power of his extraordinary appeal… He had magnetism: one could hardly take one’s eyes off him.’ O. B. Clarence (actor) c1942.

‘It is impossible for the present generation of playgoers to understand the affection and reverence in which Henry Irving was held.’ Austin Brereton (Irving’s press-agent and biographer) c1920.

‘Irving was the most mesmeric actor I have ever seen. In any assembly, and much more in any theatrical company, he stood out as an unique personality.’ Robert Hitchens (playwright) c1905.

It was said that Irving would have been great in whatever profession he had chosen; when he died something went out of the life of the nation. The entire country felt they had lost a friend, for Irving’s appeal crossed all class boundaries and whose life’s work engendered the universal respect with which British theatre is held to this very day.

The Russell-Cotes Irving Collection, founded by a man who had the honour of personal friendship with the actor, is an important repository of artefacts and papers relati ng to Irving’s career. It is vital that the archive should be preserved and made readily available to current and future generations of researchers and theatre-lovers.

Sir Henry Irving was not just a great actor but a great man, and we should be proud to have such a towering figure as part of our heritage.



Written and directed by Adrian Drew
Monday, 15 October, 2012, at 7.30pm.
Seats £12 including wine & light refreshments.
Venue: The Fan Museum, 12 Crooms Hill,
Greenwich, London SE10 8ER
To book: tel Jacob Moss, Curator, on 020 8305 1441 or email

This rehearsed reading of Adrian Drew’s latest play is given in aid of The Fan Museum, one of London’s most historic and beautiful buildings. A cast of six will chart the life of Ellen Terry, featuring more than fifty celebrities of the age, including Irving, Terriss, Tennyson, Browning, Virginia Woolf, Isadora Duncan, Bram Stoker, Lillie Langtry, and of course her two remarkable children, Edward Gordon Craig and Edy Craig.

Michael Sharvell-Martin
Michael Sharvell-Martin


The Linen Yard, South Street
Crewkerne, Somserset TA18 8AB

For many years our late Founder-Chair Michael Sharvell-Martin ran an Irving stall at the twice-yearly Performing Arts Book Fair in London. Now Linda, his widow, has decided to dis pose of the remaining stock. On 2 November from 11.00am Lawrences of Crewke rne will be auctioning this fine trove of Irvingiana, a full catalogue of which will be listed on their website from mid- October. Bids may be made by phone on
014 607 3041 or visit



Henry Irving Shipboard

These photos are from Bram Stoker’s Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, published in 1906, the year after HI’s death. They show HI outward bound for his sixth North American tour, and homeward bound seven months later. Is the burly bearded figure on the right in each picture Bram himself? It certainly looks like him. I know of only one other photo of the two together (see page 22 of the next edition of First Knight), which is no t a lot to show for an association of twenty-seven years. Do you know of any others?


LENA ASHWELL Actress, Patriot, Pioneer

by Margaret Leask. Pubs: The Society for Theatre Research.

Lena Ashwell 1899
Lena Ashwell 1899

Considered by some to be the greatest actress of her generation, Lena Ashwell was catapulted to stardom at the age of 31 in Henry Arthur Jones’ Mrs Dane’s Defence. Of the opening night in 1900 Charles W Wyndham said ‘the applause when the curtain fell was the most tremendous he had ever known’, and the Morning Post declared ‘Her Mrs Dane w as from first to last one of the finest, deepest and truest impersonations that one has ever seen… the whole performance was exquisite and an honour to the English stage’.

Lena Ashwell acted for Irving at the Lyceum in King Arthur (1895), in Richard III (1896) , and in Dante at Drury Lane (190 3). After his death she always carried his portrait: ‘I can never forget the noble, big-souled artist who gave me such generous inspiration.’ Some found the modernity of her technique unacceptable but she revered Irving’s memory, devoting much of her career to perpetuating his mission to enhance standards of performance and audience perception.

She also worked tirelessly for women’s rights and during the Great War threw herself into the provision of entertainment for the Forces overseas. Never robust, she largely gave up acting in 1915, and was often bedridden by the stresses of management. In 1919 she proselytised for municipal theatre and founded the Lena Ashwell Players for the encouragement of new British playwrights. After ten years, disenchanted by lack of sustained public interest, she wound up the company to concentrate on writing and lobbying on behalf of the British Drama League. She died in 1957 aged 87, late enough to see the establishment of Civic Reps but with her dream of a National Theatre unrealised .

Lena’s off-stage personality remains elusive in the author’s thesis-heavy prose and there are some odd omissions, including her affair with the American actor Robert Taber, the intervention of the King’s Proctor which threatened to scupper her divorce from Arthur Playfair, and her second husband’s underwriting of the LAP debts. But the book is a welcome tribute to the woman who gave Laurence Olivier an early engagement, and who sacked him for corpsing. No ex-Lyceumite could forgive such lack of respect for the sacred calling.



This year’s Annual Dinner, held in conjunction with the Society for Theatre Resarch, will be at the Garrick Club on Friday, 2 November. To mark his 90th year our Patron, Sir Donald Sinden, will be Guest of honour. As seats are strictly limited it is advisable to let the Hon Sec know as soon as possible whether you wish to attend. Full details will be circulated nearer the time.



I first indicated my wish to retire as Hon Sec at the 2011 AGM. As yet no-one has offered to take over, so if there is still no volunteer by the 201 3 AGM next February, the future of the Society as it currently exists
will be in doubt. If you have any ideas or suggestions please contact:

Michael Kilgarriff tel: 020 8566 8301
10 Kings Ave, London W5 2SH

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