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Sir Henry Irving as Dubosc in 'The Lyons Mail'

16 of 122 portraits of Sir Henry Irving

Sir Henry Irving as Dubosc in 'The Lyons Mail', by James Ferrier Pryde, circa 1906 -NPG 6567 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir Henry Irving as Dubosc in 'The Lyons Mail'

by James Ferrier Pryde
Pencil and gouache drawing on paper laid on board, circa 1906
21 1/2 in. x 14 5/8 in. (545 mm x 373 mm) overall
NPG 6567

Inscriptionback to top

Signed in paint lower right-hand corner: ‘Pryde’.
On old mount lettered: ‘Sir Henry Irving as Dubosc in The Lyons Mail’.
On back of frame, inscr. in pencil at top: ‘12/0360’;
printed label: ‘James Pryde Exhibition / 14 August – 11 October 1992 at / Scottish National Gallery of Modern / Art, Edinburgh / 34. Sir Henry Irving as Dubosc in ‘The Lyons Mail’ / Gouache and chalk on paper / Sir John Gielgud CH’;
and a Sotheby’s paper tag inscr.: ‘H401623/35’.

This portraitback to top

Charles Reade’s play The Lyons Mail, a drama set in revolutionary France, opened at the Lyceum Theatre, London, on 19 May 1877. [1] This spectacular image by James Ferrier Pryde shows Henry Irving in the part of Dubosc, an eighteenth-century highwayman. It was the sort of role Irving excelled in: in a plot based on mistaken identities, a wicked man (Dubosc) is pitted against a similar-looking guileless one (Joseph Lesurques, also played by Irving), with inevitable consequences.

Years later, Ellen Terry wrote about Irving’s reliance on expression rather than on make-up, when needing to switch between characters on stage: ‘In dual parts Irving depended little on make-up. […] He knew its uselessness when not informed by the spirit. […] His Lesurques was different from his Dubosc because of the way he held his shoulders, because of his expression [not face paint].’ [2] And Laurence Irving has described the enduring success of his grandfather’s portrayals of Lesurques and Dubosc: ‘Irving seized upon The Lyons Mail and made it his own; it remained, until the end of his life, one of the most popular pieces in his repertoire. His Lesurques, a blameless and much-loved paterfamilias, baffled by the hideous and meaningless accusation brought against him, was played in the best vein of cumulative tragedy; his Dubosc was a masterpiece of macabre and sardonic humour, a monster of drunken devilry.’ [3]

The macabre is a quality often associated with Pryde’s work also. [4] His father Dr David Pryde brought up the family to worship Irving, and chaired banquets for the actor in Edinburgh in the 1880s. ‘Jimmy’ Pryde slipped into Irving and Terry’s London circle in the 1890s.

NPG 6567 is one of several images by Pryde of Irving in character. These include poster designs, created with William Nicholson and signed ‘Beggarstaffs’, showing Irving as Thomas Becket (1894); as Don Quixote (1895); and as Robespierre (1899); and a profile drawing by Pryde of Irving as Dubosc (c.1897). This would seem to suggest that the undated NPG 6567 belonged to the same period as these 1890s works, particularly as Pryde exhibited a portrait of Irving as Dubosc at the New Gallery in 1902. [5] But in her memoirs Ellen Terry asserts the gouache was posthumous: ‘Mr Pryde has done an admirable portrait of me as Nance Oldfield, and his “Irving as Dubosc” shows the most extraordinary insight. “I have really tried to draw his personality,” [Pryde] wrote to me thanking me for having said I liked the picture (it was done after Henry’s death) … “Irving’s eyes in Dubosc always made my hair stand on end, and I paid great attention to the fact that one couldn’t exactly say whether they were shut or open. Very terrifying….”’ [6] Another undated and presently untraced portrait of Irving by Pryde, a stylized head, again with fathomless eyes, also dates to around 1906 (see ‘All known portraits, II. In stage character, The Lyons Mail, Posthumous’).

In Terry’s view the portrait was a satisfying description of Irving in the part, and she congratulated Pryde: ‘The Dubosc is perfectly splendid, the expression of the whole man in the part is there … the humour … the devilment … the strength.’ [7] Her son Edward Gordon Craig elevated it to the level of James McNeill Whistler’s portrait of Irving as Philip II: ‘Of all the many paintings and drawings of H.I. I know but little – but Whistler’s and Pryde’s are, with this Lepage [see NPG 1560], the three best paintings I know.’ [8]

Derek Hudson, author of the earliest monograph on James Pryde, placed NPG 6567 in the body of his work by drawing parallels with Pryde’s fantastical drawings of rascals and beggars (c.1899–1902), and also with his lithographs of ‘Celebrated Criminals’ (published 1907). Hudson also praised the print by Charles Chenil & Co. Ltd:

All these essays in imaginative portraiture reached their climax in the great memorial water-colour of Sir Henry Irving as Dubosc in The Lyons Mail, on which his claim to pre-eminence in this department can confidently be rested. This painting was reproduced as a two-colour plate, in 1906, the year after Irving’s death, and created something of a sensation. Critic after critic joined in praising it. Thus, the Daily Mail: ‘It is not only the best portrait as such of the great actor, but the artist has caught in it the whole unreal atmosphere of the stage. Even in future days, to a generation that will know the art of Irving by hearsay only, this picture and its reproduction will remain an ideal embodiment of a character created by a great actor’. [9]

Pryde’s habit of hand-finishing some of the prints (which were to scale with the original) in oil, watercolour or gouache, for presentation as gifts, blurred the divide between original and reproductions, and produced sheets to fox cataloguers. [10] But untouched-up prints were also prized, and the Pall Mall Gazette urged readers to acquire copies:

This portrait is a thing that every art lover should secure. It is an unforgettable portrayal of the great actor. In the suggestion of limelight and the chromatic effect that Mr. Pryde has woven about the figure of Irving, we have a marvellous theatrical atmosphere. But it is in the vivid life-like head which seems to give out the very action and voice of the man, in which the haunting manner of the actor’s whole strange artistry is caught, that the painter shows himself a rare master. The head of this Irving is a marvellous piece of work, and makes the portrait the greatest of the many that have been painted of him. [11]

In 1949, when Hudson wrote his monograph on James Pryde, the gouache of Irving as Dubosc was still untraced, and he wrote that ‘search for the original of Irving as Dubosc, which should belong to one of our national collections, has failed’.[12] Then, at a date unknown (but certainly before Guinness’s death, 5 August 2000) it was given by Sir Alec Guinness to Sir John Gielgud. [13] Gielgud, who died on 20 May 2000, bequeathed it in his will – together with a portrait by Pryde of Ellen Terry as Nance Oldfield (NPG 6568) – to the National Portrait Gallery.

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Irving had taken minor roles in The Courier of Lyons (the title of an earlier version of Reade’s play) in the 1860s. In 1877 the play was adapted for the Lyceum, renamed The Lyons Mail and Irving given the starring roles of Dubosc and Lesurques. In 1879 Irving produced as well as acted in the play.
2) Terry 1908, pp.173–4.
3) Irving 1951, p.286.
4) ‘[Pryde] had an uncanny feeling for the macabre’; William Oliphant Hutchison, ‘Notes on Jimmy Pryde’ [1948], Pryde/Hudson Archive, SNGMA, Edinburgh; cited Pryde 1992, p.63.
5) SPP 12th Annual Exhibition, New G., London, 1902: ‘James Pryder [sic]. 91. Sir Henry Irving in The Lyons Mail’.
6) Terry 1908, p.348.
7) Hudson 1949b, pp.44–5.
8) Craig 1957, p.48. And see Craig 1957, p.286: ‘This year [1906] (so the Spectator tells me) James Pryde made his portrait of Irving as “Dubosc”. This and Whistler’s portrait of Irving as “Philip of Spain” are the two best stage portraits of this actor.’
9) Hudson 1949b, p.44.
10) ‘Two colour screen print on paper’, 57 x 38 cm, SNGMA, Edinburgh, GMA 3597; ‘crayon sketch touched with watercolour’ (no dimensions), U. of Bristol Theatre Coll., TCP/C/000479; ‘watercolour and gouache on paper’ (no dimensions), NT, Greys Court, Oxon., 196033; ‘reproduction from an original watercolour’, approx. 60 x 43 cm, V&A, London, S.554-1980; ‘oil on a print base’ dedicated to Hilda Rosenthal, 47 x 34 cm, Sotheby’s, 8 Mar. 1995 (8, ill.); ‘monochrome reproduction print with hand colouring’ dedicated to Mr and Mrs Hippisley-Cox, 47 x 33 cm, Lawrence’s, Crewkerne, 1, 3 and 4 July 2008 (1093, ill.). See also the exhibition, Relics of Sir Henry Irving, London M., 1938, (18): ‘“Irving as Dubosc in The Lyons Mail” Reproduction of James Pryde’s picture [no dimensions], given by the artist to John Sargent, R.A./ Lent by John Gielgud.’
11) Pall Mall Gazette, 29 May 1906 (no further details), cited Powell 2006, p.53.
12) Hudson 1949b, p.46.
13) See letter from Goodman Derrick (Gielgud’s executors) to Charles Saumarez Smith, 24 Oct. 2000, NPG RP 6567–6568. Gielgud, as well as owning the original gouache in 2000, seems to have owned a copy of the print in 1938; see note 10 above.

Physical descriptionback to top

Three-quarter-length slightly to left, standing with hands thrust in pockets of greatcoat, bare-headed, cigarette between lips; cloudy sky and landscape background with man and horse at left and two figures at right.

Provenanceback to top

Sir Alec Guinness; given to Sir John Gielgud; by whom bequeathed to the NPG, 2001.

Exhibitionsback to top

James Pryde 1866–1941, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 1992 (33).

Reproductionsback to top

Reproductions after lithograph after NPG 6567:

BM, London, 1933,1014.642.71.

Hudson 1949, pl.XI.

Irving 1951, facing p.225.

Pryde 1992, p.96.


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