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Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson

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- subject matching 'In Character'

Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, by Baron Adolph de Meyer, 1898 -NPG P217 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson

by Baron Adolph de Meyer
Platinotype photographic print mounted on dark grey card, 1898
13 3/4 in. x 6 1/4 in. (350 mm x 158 mm)
NPG P217

Inscriptionback to top

On mount photographer’s signature lower left: ‘A von Meyer/W’.

This portraitback to top

This is one of several poses of Forbes-Robertson as Macbeth, taken when he played the role at the Lyceum Theatre, London in autumn 1898. This followed a spring season in Prussia, where in Berlin the performance was admired by Wilhelm II and may have been seen by de Meyer.

According to the Times correspondent in Berlin,

The Macbeth of Mr Forbes Robertson was really superb. He was a Celt in every fibre of his nature, full of the passionate fire of his race, yet ever and anon the thrall of the moody, mystic temperament which sees visions and dreams dreams. The dark red hair, the knitted brows, the hawk’s nose and those gray [sic] eyes that were ever fixed in intense gaze upon some present vision of horror or upon some object of ambition in the future – all these features were Celtic and only a Celt could render or conceive them upon the stage. It may be doubted whether Shakespeare’s conception of Macbeth was ever so elaborate as Forbes Robertson’s. But it is beyond question that the actor’s elaboration of detail in the part was invariably in artistic harmony with its general scope and character. It was in this sense a really great creation, materially greater than the actor’s Hamlet because incomparably more his own. [1]

The Lyceum production opened on 17 September and ran for fifty-eight performances, with Mrs Patrick Campbell in the role of Lady Macbeth. The Sketch published two other de Meyer images of Forbes-Robertson, on 21 (cover) and 28 September 1898 (p.439), and it seems likely that all three were commissioned by the newspaper. Its reviewer wrote:

The first thing that strikes one about the actor is his make-up, which to some suggested pictures of Judas and to others the commonly accepted portrait of his Master. Certainly Mr Robertson presented a picturesque, manly appearance, very different from that of Garrick, Kean, Macklin or Barry … the avoidance of ‘points’ is carried to excess by the principal characters, and Mr Robertson’s sincere and able effort to render Macbeth psychologically interesting rather than physically effective imperils the success of some of the scenes, and on the other hand, gives great force to others. The memory of his presentation of horror, disgust and terror after the crime will not readily pass away.

The review concluded that it was ‘an admirable and very interesting presentation of what may fairly be called the most difficult character in drama’. [2]

In Celebrities of the Stage, a part-work issued in 1899, the anonymous author’s assessment was judiciously critical: ‘His Macbeth was a careful and interesting reading of the character, but uninspired – more, in direct contravention of [Shakespeare’s] concept as expressed in his lines. Mr Robertson is temperamentally unfitted for the part; he is the embodiment of the dreamer, the student, not the man of action.’ [3]

Forbes-Robertson’s father had been born in Aberdeen, and a plaid worn by Prince Charles Edward Stuart was a family heirloom, so Scottish identity was part of Johnston’s inheritance. His direct relationship with Macbeth went back to his thirteenth year, when he proposed a performance for family entertainment, with himself in the lead. As he recalled:

The play came off, and was remarkable mainly for comic interludes, such as the uncertain behaviour of my brother Norman, aged six, one of the guests at the banquet, rolling off the hassock on which he was seated at the entrance of the ghost of Banquo. We anticipated the whole question of simple decoration, so much desired and sought after in these days, for the stage was draped in folds with long curtains, there being only three entrances, right and left and in the centre, through which some of us would bounce abruptly on to the stage at the cue. The Scottish and English armies entered in this way, composed respectively of my two brothers, Ian and Norman. A fearsome fight ensured, and then two pairs of little legs prone appeared from under the curtains, the bodies ‘off’. All this goes to show that the playing of a great tragedy may easily be made into a most diverting Christmas entertainment when done in grave earnest by children. [4]

His autobiographical account of the 1898 production was similarly self-deprecating. After listing the main supporting actors, he wrote:

This revival was attended by some ill-luck, for the scenic artist who was to have painted many of the scenes fell sick in the midst of his work, and much of his scenery had to be finished by his assistants. The musical composer to whom I had given a commission many months before to write an overture and incidental music failed me at the eleventh hour. As there were no less than sixteen scenes, the absence of appropriate music for the many changes was a great loss. In spite of the quality of scenery and heavy properties, my brother Ian had taken such pains in rehearsing the changes that the play was over by a few minutes after eleven o’clock, having begun at eight o’clock, a record yet unbeaten, for a first night’s performance of this play. [5]

The six currently known poses indicate that Macbeth’s costume included a knee-length belted tunic beneath the cloak visible here, and that the unkempt wig was a major feature of his appearance (see ‘All known portraits, In stage character, Macbeth, Photographs’). In all de Meyer’s images, emphasis is on the figure’s staring, sideways gaze and melodramatic expression and gesture. The dramatic lighting of this photograph suggests that of the stage, but this and the other poses were probably taken in a studio, with suitably contrived effects. One of the variant poses was chosen by the sitter for inclusion in a portfolio of photographs mounted to mark his retirement from the London stage in 1913; there the caption on the mount cites the original performances: ‘Lyceum Theatre London September 1898 / Berlin 1898’.

Baron Adolph de Meyer (as he styled himself [6]) joined the Royal Photographic Society in 1893 and the photo-secessionist group the Linked Ring in 1898, the year of this photograph. The character of Macbeth may have appealed to the photographer owing to his Scottish mother. Later, de Meyer took memorable photographs of Ballets Russes dancers, and in 1914 he was hired by Condé Nast to work on Vogue and Vanity Fair in New York. The National Portrait Gallery Collection holds fourteen examples of his portrait work in Britain.

An identical print, similarly inscribed, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Theatre Collection (THM 288 folder 2).

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) The Times, 15 Mar. 1898.
2) ‘Shakspere in Nineteen Tableaux’, Sketch, 21 Sept. 1898, p.368.
3) Celebrities of the Stage, 1899, p.12; Forbes-Robertson’s portrayal of Hamlet clearly eclipsed audience reaction to another classic role.
4) Forbes-Robertson 1925, pp.41–2. His autobiography also includes a photographic illustration of the novelist George MacDonald, a close family friend, in costume as Macbeth (Forbes-Robertson 1925, facing p.20), which is not referenced in the text. The MacDonald family were famous for theatrical entertainments at home.
5) Forbes-Robertson 1925, p.183.
6) From 1898, Meyer added his mother’s birth name, Watson, to his own; the signature on the mount, and the photographer’s credit when published in the Sketch (‘the Baron A. von Meyer W.’), include a final initial in allusion to this. He also adopted the prefix ‘de’, styling himself Baron Adolph de Meyer-Watson. Meyer claimed that the title had been conferred in 1897 on himself and on a German cousin by the elector of Saxony; see [Whitaker] 1910, p.530. Born in Paris, Meyer had a German father and was brought up in Dresden (where the family perhaps re-located following the Franco-Prussian War).

Physical descriptionback to top

Whole-length standing, right hand to chin, in costume as Macbeth.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1982; 1994.

Provenanceback to top

Mander & Mitchenson Theatre Collection, from where purchased 1982.

View all known portraits for Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson