The Irving Society Newsletter No 69

In Memory of Sir Donald Sinden

Donald Sinden
(Photo Credit: Rex)

On 14 September 2014, Sir Donald Sinden, the much beloved Patron of The Irving Society and an Honorary Life Member of the Society for Theatre Research, passed away aged 90.  The formidable actor, renowned for his ease in playing both tragedy and farce, was an active and long-time member of the Society whose absence will be keenly felt by all those who knew him.

A particularly fond memory will undoubtedly be the celebration of his 89th Birthday at the Garrick Club in November 2012.  The Society extends its most sincere condolences to Sir Donald’s family at this time.  A celebration of his extraordinary life is being planned for next year.



The Irving Society Bristol Visit: 22-23 September, 2014

The Irving Society Bristol Visit: 22-23 September, 2014
(Photo, from left to right:  Mary Greenslade, Frances Hughes, Paul Campion and Michael Read.  Credit: Tony Taylor.)

Mary Greenslade writes:  Exploring Bristol in warm autumnal sunshine is always pleasurable but the Irving Society group were to have an added bonus. Frances Hughes, Alex Bisset and Michael Gaunt had made an earlier reconnaissance and now Frances shared their enthusiasm leading us to  places associated with  Henry Irving’s childhood.
Our party of six on Monday 22nd (increased to twelve on Tuesday 23rd) certainly appreciated a new view of a great city. Monday afternoon we walked in the Cathedral area finishing at the Bristol Old Vic to enjoy a tapas supper before seeing Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.   Niamh Cusack played Juno with sensitivity in a production balancing tragedy with gentle humour. The critics’ accolades were well-deserved. We had seats in the Upper Circle where the original 1766 boxes had been.

Next morning  outside Temple Meads station we all boarded a city bus to Stokes Croft and Picton Street where a plaque on the house records where the little boy Irving stayed with his parents when he came by boat from his Aunt’s home in Cornwall in the  early 1840s.  Young Johnnie Brodribb saw Prince Albert about to launch the ‘S.S.Great Britain’ in 1843 – the vessel is now a tourist attraction in dry dock in Bristol – and later saw the American animal trainer Van Amburgh  (1811 – 1865) driving his chariot down Park Street. Picton Street, the scene of race riots in the 1980s, is now smothered with sub ‘Banksy’ paintings but the area has elegant early  buildings and a quirky charm. (The charm was very noticeable at our lunch at the Bristollian Bistro where we were individually welcomed and well fed and watered.)

Reluctantly leaving we walked downhill to the Brunswick Congregational Chapel Chapel and Cemetery where Henry’s father, Samuel (d.1876) and uncle Thomas, are buried in graves still to be identified.  We walked on to 21, Portland Square where the distinguished architect/designer Edward William Godwin (1833 – 1886) lived with his wife, Sarah, in 1862. It is an elegant five floor 18C house now marked with a plaque. Three doors away is St.Paul’s Church which the Godwin’s attended on Sundays.  It is now an Art & Drama centre! We imagined  Ellen Terry visiting Godwin – in the event, her future partner – for Shakespeare readings and costume advice as an adolescent.

Minutes later we were walking through Bristol’s huge modern shopping centre to find the oldest Wesleyan Chapel (1739) with a fine equestrian statue of John Wesley (1703 – 1791) outside. It is very possible that the young Irving worshipped here with his parents.  A talk was in progress so we settled into side benches able to appreciate the original surroundings. Tip-toeing out 15 minutes later we went by bus to Queen Square. This was where the teen-age Terry girls ran around the magnificent statue of William III –still shining in the sun despite being a favoured perch for the local gulls.  Alex Bisset produced a list of the house numbers where the actors of the mid-19 C.  lived,  during the theatre seasons. Following a final look at the exterior of the Bristol Old Vic, with its street still cobbled, we enjoyed a leisurely tea and cake out in the open.

Many of us also found time  to visit the superb church of St Mary, Redcliffe, now over 800 years old.  G. F. Handel (1685 – 1759) played the organ there and, amongst the many monuments is one to the tragic Bristol-born poet Thomas Chatterton (1752 – 1770) who, as a possible suicide, was buried in an unmarked grave in the now-lost Shoe-lane Workhouse Cemetery in London.  A memorial plaque records the death and burial in 1819 of Arabella Schaw, a niece of the actor David Garrick.  Some of us saw the edifice by night – high-steepled, floodlit with a south porch restored by E. W. Godwin.  As Oscar Wilde wrote on Godwin’s death:

‘His dream’s were visions of art’s golden age’

I think we all had that vision, too, on our Bristol tour.


Michael KilgarriffFarewell and Thanks to Our Former Editor

The Society wishes to thank its outgoing Editor, Michael Kilgarriff, for his 12 dedicated years’ service to The Irvingite and First Knight, as well as to the Society’s webpage.

During his time in post, Michael’s commitment to his duties as Editor has been greatly valued, and his publications have been both informative and entertaining to read.  He is wished all the very best for his future endeavours, and the Society looks forward to his continued and active involvement as a member.



Members’ News and Updates

The golden age of pantomimeOn Wednesday October 15 Dr Michael Read delivered the opening lecture in the 2014-2015 series for the Society for Theatre Research.  The subject was “Toole among the Americans” covering his 1874 visit.  Dr Read is in the process of writing a biography of J. L. Toole who was a trusted friend and mentor for Henry Irving.

The latest book by Professor Jeffrey Richards – The Golden Age of Pantomime – has just been published with the promise that it is “a treat as rich as turkey and Christmas pudding.” – Alex Bisset


Statue of Henry IrvingThe Committee has been contacted by the Manchester Art Gallery regarding their plans to restore a particularly striking statue of Henry Irving as Hamlet by the artist Edward Onslow Ford.

Of the statue, the Gallery says:  “This statue of the great Victorian Shakespearean actor Henry Irving was given to Manchester City Galleries in 1908, seven years after the death of its sculptor, Edward Onslow Ford. Ford, a Londoner trained in Munich, had achieved great fame in the Victorian art world. The Shelley memorial in Oxford (1892) is usually considered to be his masterpiece, but Mancunians are more familiar with his Queen Victoria (1901) in Piccadilly Gardens.”

“In giving Henry Irving to Manchester, Ford’s family declared: It gives us much pleasure to know what a splendid home this work will have for all time, and nowhere could it be more appreciated, both from the artistic point of view and that of the love Manchester felt for our great actor. ”

“Sadly, our Henry Irving has a great deal of chipping and layers of dirt, and a missing finger. Therefore the treatment plan is to first carry out a full surface clean. The ‘bronzing’ is bronze paint, which will never be shiny, but with a thorough clean will reveal much more of the interesting and important texture of the sculpture. Secondly, consolidation and structural repairs to the plaster work are necessary. With the permission of the Guildhall Art Gallery, we would be able to cast a new finger from the marble version of the work. Other losses to the plaster include a section of cloak that has clearly broken off and been less than seamlessly reglued. Finally, the recast and filled sections will require toning-in.”

“As we have no object conservator on our staff, we would be offering the conservation work to a qualified freelance object conservator. Amanda Wallace, our Head of Asset Management, a former objects conservator, is of the opinion that a potential conservation treatment will be spectacular, with an impressive difference between the ‘before’ and ‘after’.”

The Society has agreed to make a small donation in support of this restoration.  The Chair, Frances Hughes, also plans to give a lecture at the Gallery in the spring of 2015, the proceeds from which will be donated to the good cause.  Members wishing to make individual contributions are encouraged to be in touch with the Gallery directly.

Frances Hughes and Frank BarrieWitty and incisive, entertaining but also politically radical and thought-provoking, Bernard Shaw wrote more than 60 plays during his long lifetime. Through next month, the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park will present Shaw at the Park, four evenings of rehearsed readings celebrating the playwright’s works and providing an opportunity to enjoy the variety and exuberance of a master dramatist

The Society’s own Chair, Frances Hughes will direct two evenings of performances: O’Flaherty VC on 17 November starring member Frank Barrie as the General, and Lies, Spies and Crocodiles- A Triple Bill of Shavian Farce on 8 December.  Performance times are  at 7.30pm, and tickets are £10/ £8 Concessions.

For more information or to book, please visit: or call 020 7870 6876.


The occasion of the September visit to Bristol brought to notice a recent piece of work by our Somerset member, actress and writer Angela Barlow.  She has produced a fascinating slim volume on the dancing career of her former ballet teacher, Madame Nalda Murilova.  As with Henry Irving, this was a stage name and one of several she used through her working life.  She was born in London in 1906 Muriel Louisa Lawrence Barnett, the great-grand-daughter of Russian/Polish migrants.

Her great love from childhood was to dance and by the mid 1920s was involved with the Serge Diaghilev company and by 1926 had achieved a place in the Anna Pavlova company.  Her subsequent career as a dancer and eventually as a much loved and respected teacher is followed to her death in Bournemouth in 1990.
For anyone interested in dance this volume tells with affection the story of a life in dance at  a time of new beginnings for ballet in this country.  It is understood that a version will be available on-line in the near future.- Alex Bisset

Members wishing to submit items for inclusion in the February edition of The Irvingite are encouraged to be in touch with the Honorary Secretary at


Gustavus Vaughan BrookeAGM- Save The Date

This year’s AGM, scheduled for Sunday 8 February 2015, will once again be held at the Club for Acts and Actors in Covent Garden.  Following the ceremonial wreath laying at the statue to Henry Irving, The Chair will deliver a keynote speech entitled The Message In The Bottle: Gustavus Vaughan Brooke (1818 – 1867) and the young Henry Irving.

Formal notifications of the AGM will be distributed to members in due course.

The Committee wishes to note that nominations for additional members of the Committee are gratefully received.  All current Committee members and officers have expressed an interest in serving for another term, and this will be put forward to the members on 8 February.

The AGM will also allow members an opportunity to meet the Society’s new Editor of First Knight, Piers Henderson, and to vote on his nomination for membership of the Committee.


General Notices

  • Following on from last year’s AGM, the Society’s name has now been changed to ‘The Irving Society & the 19th Century Theatre’.  This will reflect the broadening scope of the Society to include the whole of the 19th Century theatre as well as the work of Irving’s contemporaries.
  • The Committee wishes to inform members that a long overdue refresh of the Society’s website is currently underway.  The new site will be launched to members before the new year and members will be informed of this.  The Honorary Secretary has also requested that members provide her with up-to-date contact information- including email addresses- as this will ensure that they receive all notifications in a timely manner.  She can be reached at  N.B. Members without email addresses will continue to receive their correspondence by post.
  • The Honorary Treasurer updates that the new membership year for the Society will run from 1 January – 31 December 2015.  She requests that all membership subscriptions and renewals be received before Christmas.
  • Should any members no longer wish to retain single or multiple back issues of First Knight, the Editorial Committee would be pleased to receive such copies to meet the needs of those seeking to fill gaps in their collection – lost or mislaid – or for the benefit of newer members seeking to add to their collection.



Irving HouseAnd finally, it is with regret that we report that Honorary Members George Leslie Mason and Roger Lewis Mason of Irving House have sadly passed away.  The Messrs Mason were the owners of Irving House in Keinton Mandeville  which is the house in which Sir Henry Irving was born.

Members may recall the Society’s visit to the house In February 2011, during which Dickie Briers unveiled a blue plaque to commemorate the site.  The Mason family also kindly allowed us to visit the small ground floor room where HI was born.  Their grandson has informed the former Editor that the house will eventually be going on the market.  Any interested members should contact the Honorary Secretary to be put in touch directly.



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