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Dan Leno

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Dan Leno

by Dan Leno
Pen and ink
2 1/4 in. x 6 1/4 in. (57 mm x 159 mm)
NPG 2750

Inscriptionback to top

Inscr. at right: ‘Yours truly / Dan Leno’.

This portraitback to top

As well as being a stage performer, Leno exhibited comic skill with self-caricatures, often added to autograph signatures and typically showing him in costume. [1] This fragment, inscribed ‘Yours truly Dan Leno’, appears to have been done for such an autograph request, with a thumbnail self-image alongside. It can be compared with the similar caricature inscribed ‘My word you surprise me’ reproduced as a postcard: see NPG Ax160024. Other known self-images include ‘I am the Captain of the 40’ from The Forty Thieves and ‘Yours Mrs Dan Leno Twankey’ (see ‘All known portraits, In stage character, Self-portraits’). [2]

In the present image, Leno wears a stiff collar and an overlarge top hat, a costume seen in photographic portraits dating from around 1900 and associated with performances at the London Pavilion variety theatre; see for example NPG x160524. By this date Leno had developed a number of ‘characters’, each with its own monologue and songs; the figure portrayed here has not yet been identified by name, but appears to have been one of the ‘little guys’ that inspired Charlie Chaplin’s trademark persona. The caricature shows Leno ‘with a quizzical, straight-lipped expression. His eyes are shaded by his trademark top hat, his neck disappearing into an oversize collar.’ [3]

The sketch was initially offered to the National Portrait Gallery by Rathmell Wilson in 1934. It was part of ‘a collection of small cards framed together’, [4] comprising sketches of different figures from the arts and entertainment worlds. Included were four portraits (of Leno, Phil May, Enrico Caruso and Bransby Williams) by various artists. In 1935 the collection was broken up and the drawings separately mounted to allow the Gallery to accept three of the portraits, those of Leno, Williams (NPG 2750a) and May (NPG 2751).

Offering his collection to the Gallery, Wilson wrote: ‘My sole aim was to get the great little Dan Leno represented.’ [5] After its accession, he added: ‘I was very pleased to see “Little Dan” so well displayed … in the Gallery – also the reproduction in the “Evening Standard”, [6] which prompted the Director to reply: ‘The Dan Leno has been a great success and I am very glad’. [7]

Edward Archibald Rathmell Wilson (1875–1955) was an actor and author. [8] His novel When Woman Loves was adapted for the film Love (1916); his other works include Stage Sketches (1909), All Sorts: A Literary ‘Revue’ (1924) and The Wandering Gentile’s Log Book, 1929–31 (1931). In his autobiographical reminiscences Pre-War: A Journey to My Youth (1937) he briefly mentions both seeing Leno perform and acquiring the present work, in an account of boyhood visits to his maternal family in London:

Uncle Willy … took me about most for he enjoyed going to shows just as much as I did – the German Read’s Entertainment (with Corney Grain), the Moore and Burgess Minstrels at St James’s Hall, the Egyptian Hall almost opposite, for the conjuring, Drury Lane to see Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell, that superb couple, in pantomime (I was delighted recently to be able to present a portrait of Dan by himself, which I discovered in Paris, to the National Portrait Gallery) .[9]

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) In his autobiography, Leno describes landscape sketching in watercolour as one of his pastimes (Leno 1899, p.49).
2) A signature and sketch very similar to the present image, offered on eBay in 2015, was drawn on Leno’s headed notepaper, indicating that this was a way he responded to autograph requests.
3) Anthony 2010, p.181.
4) Letter from E.A.R. Wilson to the Secretary, NPG, 30 June 1934, NPG RP 2750. See also the inscription cut in 1934 from the paper at the back of the present work (now in Primary Collection Associated Items plan chest, NPG Archive): ‘Caruso – drawn by himself. / Phil May – drawn by Arthur Collins. / Bransby Williams – drawn by himself. / Sketch by Charles A Buchel. / Dan Leno drawn by himself. / Sketch by Walter Crane. / Sketch by Mortimer Menpes. / Sketch by Hassall / Sketch by Dudley Hardy.’
5) Letter from E.A.R. Wilson to H.M. Hake, 6 Nov. 1934, NPG RP 2750.
6) Letter from E.A.R. Wilson to H.M. Hake, 10 Jan. 1935, NPG RP 2750.
7) Letter from H.M. Hake to E.A.R. Wilson, 11 Jan. 1935, NPG RP 2750.
8) Born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, he appears to have no immediate connection with other Rathmell Wilsons from Delaware, USA.
9) Wilson 1937, p.52.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head, wearing battered top hat.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 2006.

Provenanceback to top

Acquired in Paris in early 1930s by E.A.R. Wilson, who gifted it to the Gallery.

Reproductionsback to top

Evening Standard, January 1935 (no further details).

View all known portraits for Dan Leno (George Wild Galvin)