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Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree

3 of 171 portraits matching these criteria:

- subject matching 'The Great War: Made in 1918'

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, by Sir George James Frampton, 1918 -NPG 2392 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree

by Sir George James Frampton
Plaster cast of death mask, on integral rectangular plaster support, painted bronze, 1918
9 1/2 in. (241 mm) high
NPG 2392

Inscriptionback to top

Incised with initials and date on support, lower left: ‘GF / 1918’.
On reverse, fragment of label: ‘25/10/29’.

This portraitback to top

Herbert Beerbohm Tree died suddenly: in June 1917 he was operated on for a ruptured tendon and two weeks later he was dead of a blood clot. The following day Max Beerbohm visited and was struck by the rapid, subtle changes to his features, writing:

I am grateful, for his sake, that [Herbert] died in the fullness of health and vigour. I am glad that but two moments before his death he was talking and laughing, paring a peach for his dessert. When I saw him early next morning, he lay surrounded already with the flowers he had been fondest of. His face was both familiar and strange. Death, that preserves only what is essential, had taken away whatever it is that is peculiar to the face of an actor. Extreme strength of character and purpose was all that remained and outstood now. But at the corners of the lips there was the hint of an almost whimsical, an entirely happy smile. [1]

Frampton’s death mask is actually dated 1918, which is also when Maud Tree began a campaign to get a copy accepted by the National Portrait Gallery. First she approached a National Gallery trustee:

Sir George Frampton has made a beautiful Death-Mask of my dear Herbert. I have four of them. Naturally I want to send two of them to public Galleries – one in London one elsewhere. Sir George Frampton & I both want, intensely, the National Portrait Gallery – for the London one. Is it possible that you could arrange it for us? [2]

The mask elicited little enthusiasm when shown to the National Portrait Gallery Trustees, with Sir Charles Harding Firth an outspoken opponent: ‘With regard to Sir H. Beerbohm Tree as it is only a year since his death, I should oppose the relaxation of the ten years rule, especially as I dislike death masks.’ [3]

Eleven years later, in October 1929, Maud tried again:

Lady Tree presents her compliments to the Directors of the National Portrait Gallery & begs to remind them that some twelve years ago she asked if they would accept a Death-Mask by Sir George Frampton of the late Sir Herbert Tree. The answer was that nothing was accepted until ten years after the death of the subject. The Death-Mask of Sir Herbert is still in the studio of the late Sir George Frampton properly & fittingly encased: & Lady Tree begs as a great, great honour to her Husband & favour to herself, that the Directors will accept the work for the National Portrait Gallery. [4]

This time the mask was accepted, though not for display (‘The Trustees do not now favour the permanent exhibition of death masks’). [5]

George Frampton was a leading figure in the ‘New Sculpture’ movement. In 1905 he had been engaged to make Sir Henry Irving’s mask when that actor-manager, once Tree’s rival, died unexpectedly on tour. This precedent might account for Frampton’s execution of Tree’s mask in 1917; it was not a branch of sculpture he worked in otherwise. Irving and Tree were both in their sixties when the masks were taken: while Irving looks gaunt and worn Tree looks fresh and merely asleep. The surface quality of NPG 2392 is good; as mentioned above, this copy was still in Frampton’s studio in October 1929, a year after the sculptor’s death.

It is not known how many impressions were made. Maud Tree claimed to own four in 1918 (see above), and she gave one to Sir Merton Russell-Cotes, now in the collection of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth (RC1136, bronze painted). Another copy once in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art collection is untraced; [6] and there are presumably still one or more copies with Tree’s descendants. An unpainted copy, with no provenance attached, is in the Gallery collection, see NPG 2392a.


Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) M. Beerbohm, ‘From a Brother’s Standpoint’, in Beerbohm [1920], p.202.
2) Letter from M. Tree to Lord Ribblesdale, 8 Aug. [1918], NPG NoS (Tree).
3) Letter from C.H. Firth to J.D. Milner, 16 Oct. 1918, NPG NoS (Tree).
4) Letter from M. Tree to NPG, 6 Oct. 1929, NPG RP 2392. NPG 2392 remains ‘properly and fittingly encased’, stored in a fine ebonised wood and glass case (height 460 x width 395 x depth 210 mm).
5) Letter from H.M. Hake to M. Tree, 7 Oct. 1929, NPG RP 2392.
6) Information from NPG Archive.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head, facing.

Provenanceback to top

Given by the sitter's widow, 1929.

Reproductionsback to top

Pearson 1956, facing p.227.

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