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Sir Henry Irving

3 of 121 portraits of Sir Henry Irving

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Sir Henry Irving

by Jules Bastien-Lepage
oil on canvas, 1880
18 1/8 in. x 18 3/4 in. (460 mm x 475 mm) overall
Given by Dame Ellen Alice Terry, 1910
Primary Collection
NPG 1560

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

This portrait was conceived at a supper party at the Lyceum on 3 July 1880, when Irving and Ellen Terry entertained Bastien Lepage and Sarah Bernhardt. It was abandoned after only one or two sittings, at Irving's rooms in Grafton Street, presumably because Irving intensely disliked Bastien's informal depiction of him.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 30
  • Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 30
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 32 Read entry

    Henry Irving (1838-1905) dominated the London stage for the last thirty years of Victoria’s reign. He established his reputation as a tragic actor with his Hamlet at the Lyceum Theatre in 1874. His style was individual and controversial, but its power and intensity held audiences spellbound. A great manager as well as an actor, Irving organised several American and Canadian tours, received many honours and was the first actor to be knighted. This portrait was conceived at a supper party at the Lyceum Theatre on 3 July 1880, when Irving and Ellen Terry entertained the artist Bastien-Lepage and the actress Sarah Bernhardt. It was abandoned after only one or two sittings, presumably because Irving intensely disliked the informal depiction of him. A more heroic image of Irving is Onslow Ford’s bust, a version of his life-size marble showing him in the role of Hamlet. Other portraits and memorabilia relating to Irving can be found at Grey’s Court in Oxfordshire, owned by the National Trust.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 327
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 159 Read entry

    The actor Henry Irving apparently disliked this unfinished portrait by French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–84) and nearly destroyed it. It was rescued by Ellen Terry, Irving’s stage partner and close friend, who hung it on the walls of her Chelsea home. The idea came from the artist who met Irving in the spring of 1880, whilst on a visit to London. At this time he was in his forties and at the height of his career, earning critical acclaim for his productions at the Lyceum Theatre and performances on stage. Initial sittings took place in Irving’s study at 15A Grafton Street in London’s Mayfair. Yet Irving soon tired of the process and this sensitive likeness, showing the actor in private dress, remained unfinished except for the head. When Terry presented it to the National Portrait Gallery in 1909, she asked to keep the fragment of a note from Irving pasted on the reverse, which read: ‘I’m expecting Bastien-Lepage every moment. I’d cut up the nasty thing, but think you like it’.

Placesback to top

Events of 1880back to top

Current affairs

The Liberals defeat the Conservatives, and Gladstone becomes Prime Minister for the second time, taking over from Disraeli, who retires from politics.
The MP for Northampton and atheist Charles Bradlaugh, refuses to swear on the Bible and so forfeits his right to take his seat. Despite having the support of Gladstone and J.S Mill, it takes six years before he can take his seat, after which he pushes through a new Oaths Act (1888).

Art and science

Thomas Huxley delivers his address 'Science and Culture' at the opening of Josiah Mason's science college in Birmingham (published the following year). Huxley argues that the study of modern literature, combined with knowledge of science, should be promoted in education above classical literature, echoing the claim made by the poet and critic Matthew Arnold. Huxley, an early advocate of 'Darwinism', did much to popularise evolutionary theory.


Buenos Aires finally becomes the permanent capital of Argentina, following sixty years of political debates around the issue. The city was federalised, politically separated from the Buenos Aires Province, and placed under direct control of the national government.
Despite allegations of vote buying, Cecil Rhodes is elected member of parliament for Barkly West in the Cape Colony, marking the start of his political career in South Africa.

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