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Sir Henry Irving

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- subject matching 'In Character'

Sir Henry Irving, by Harry Furniss, circa 1881 -NPG 6251(29) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir Henry Irving

by Harry Furniss
Pen and black ink, with grey wash and white highlights, circa 1881
11 in. x 8 1/4 in. (279 mm x 210 mm)
NPG 6251(29)

Inscriptionback to top

Signed in ink lower left-hand corner: ‘Hy.F’.
On reverse:
(a) Furniss studio stamp: ‘For publishing 2691’.
(b) NPG ownership stamp, dated 1948, corrected by hand to 1947.

This portraitback to top

At Henry Irving’s request, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote The Cup, a short tragedy destined for the Lyceum Theatre. The first night was 3 January 1881. Irving was responsible for the lavish production (‘it almost seemed as if stage decoration could go no further’); [1] and he also played the part of the tyrant Synorix. Ellen Terry wrote that as he ‘was not able to look like the full-blooded Roman such as we see in long lines in marble at the British Museum, he conceived his own type of the blend of Roman intellect and sensuality with barbarian cruelty and lust. With a pale, pale face, bright red hair, gold armour and a tiger skin, a diabolical expression and very thin crimson lips, Henry Irving looked handsome and sickening at the same time.’ [2]

In Furniss’s opinion, artists had everything to gain from watching actors perform on stage. He wrote that ‘artists derive much benefit from the theatre, whither they go to learn […] they can now sit in the stalls of the Lyceum theatre and get a lesson in motion, attitude, and the movement of drapery, from such a master of those arts as Irving’. [3] Irving’s animated pose in NPG 6251(29) proves this point. Furniss used to sketch Irving at dress rehearsals; [4] as he wrote, ‘I had exceptional opportunities of knowing him. He and I were very old friends, and I made a careful study of him in fifty of his best-known characters. Every one of these sketches he approved of.’ [5]

In this highly finished drawing, the incense-laden atmosphere of The Cup is conveyed by use of the ‘Aërograph’, a tool Furniss described as ‘a machine brush in which the air is pumped through a many-pointed, fine-tubed pen, and throws a spray of ink over the paper, with very soft and wonderful effects’. [6]

NPG 6251(29) is one of two known drawings by Furniss of Irving as Synorix; a less-finished version dated 1882 is at the Museum of London, 56.44/13. Two drawings of Irving as Synorix are listed in Furniss’s register of drawings, no.2659 (probably the Museum of London sheet) and no.2691, which certainly refers to NPG 6251(29). [7]

See NPG Portrait Set ‘Drawings by Harry Furniss, late 19th–early 20th century’, transferred from the Reference Collection in 1994. See also NPG 6251(28).

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Irving 1951, pp.366–7.
2) Quoted in Irving 1951, p.366.
3) Furniss 1906, p.41.
4) Furniss 1906, p.45.
5) Furniss 1906, p.41.
6) Furniss 1914, pp.36–7 describes a type of airbrush.
7) Harry Furniss register of drawings, c.1885–1917, NPG MS116, pp.89 and 90.

Physical descriptionback to top

Whole-length slightly to right, head turned to left, standing with left hand on sword hilt, wearing a leopard skin flung over classical armour.

Provenanceback to top

The artist; his sons, from whom purchased (through Theodore Cluse), April 1947; transferred to Main collection, 1994.

View all known portraits for Harry Furniss