The Strand Magazine
- An Article on Henry Irving
AN ARTIST'S SKETCH OF AN ACTOR.
WRITTEN AND ILLUSTRATED BY HARRY FURNISS.
SOMETHING of an apology is, perhaps, expected from me for adding my little stock of reminiscences of our greatest actor to the huge list of those already published. I think I may say, however, that 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. Let me begin my recollections with a quotation from a letter which I sent to the Daily, Telegraph just after his death: "I have been rather surprised that, so far as I have seen, no artist's name appears in all the appreciations of Irving published since his death. Yet Irving, to my mind, was essentially the artist-actor. A deaf man, if artistic, could enjoy and understand the subtlety of Sir Henry Irving's wonderful performances, simply through watching his artistic manner.
"In 1887, when I removed my 'Artistic joke' from the Gainsborough Gallery, in Bond Street, and re-opened it in Manchester shortly afterwards, I found that Irving happened to be playing in that city in 'Faust.' The Manchester Art and Literary Club gave a supper in his honour, and, hearing that I was in the city, they very kindly invited me. To my surprise and embarrassment I found myself placed at the table at the left of the chairman, and regarded as the second guest of the evening.
"After supper Irving delivered, in his easy manner, one of those graceful speeches in which no one surpassed him. I was then called upon to follow upon 'Art,' and, unprepared, I was somewhat at a loss to connect 'Art' and 'The Drama.' However, I advanced a favourite point of mine which is that artists derive much benefit from the theatre, whither they go to learn. I reminded my listeners that a hundred years ago Royal Academicians used to meet at their Royal Academy, where a model was placed in front of them, in order that they might discuss the different attitudes and movements of figures and their drapery. This their successors no longer meet to do, and I pointed out that among the reasons which have led them to discontinue the practice was the fact that 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."
In fact, no actor ever came nearer to the combination of the artist and the actor than Sir Henry Irving.
It struck me as I was making the remarks noted above that Irving was probably thinking of the caricatures I had perpetrated of him. But although there is no denying the fact that he was very sensitive to caricature, he knew that I was a genuine admirer of his genius, and that in common with all artists I knew him to be a true artist also, and his poses and the management of his hands and drapery were well worth studying by the brethren of the pencil and the brush.
He was as much a friend to the workers in the studio as he was to those on the stage, and it is therefore sad to think that he fared so badly in the hands of the artists - both painters and sculptors. The late Edwin Long painted a very poor picture of Irving as Hamlet. Millais' portrait exhibited in the Academy, and since then hanging over the fireplace in the strangers' room in the Garrick Club, gives one no idea of strength, and Irving had a strong face. And as he frequently sat under this portrait it was easy to contrast the original with the picture.
A caricaturist is one who emphasizes all the bad qualities in the sitter and avoids the better ones. Is it libellous to say that a certain R.A.'s portraits are clever simply for the reason that he is most uncompromising? He paints the Jew picture-dealer, cunning, leery; the turn of the thumb, the whole attitude, is that of a Jew in burlesque. Yet who can say it is not true to life? The wife of the vulgar City man, as he depicts her, with diamonds in her hair, on every finger, round each wrist, is true to nature. Yet the nature seems more vulgar on canvas than in real life. The artist who can paint the truth and "show up" his sitter, as caricatures do, is daring; but he is, in his art, essentially a caricaturist. Still, when he paints a portrait of a great artist, and not merely of a successful man or woman in trade, he ought to bring out the best points of his sitter. His portrait of Irving, a greater artist himself than all the Academicians-English, Dutch, or Yankee-- ought to have been the tribute of one artist to another--such a portrait, for instance, as that of Mrs. Siddons by Reynolds. But what was that portrait? The head of a drunken, fifth-rate, broken-down mummer. I caricatured it, mercifully, in Punch as our own Irving with a bad cold in his head. Anyway, it was certainly quite unworthy of the artistPainter or of the artist-actor. This Irving himself felt, and felt bitterly. He made no secret of the fate of this portrait. For one evening, at a dinner of distinguished people, he informed the guests what had befallen it.
"I have been asking my friend next to me," he said, indicating the President of the Royal Academy, and addressing the company in general, " whether any man has a right to destroy the work of a great artist, should that artist produce a portrait which may be regarded as a libel. Some of you have seen a portrait of me by X--, who I believe is a great painter, exhibited in the Academy a few seasons ago. That portrait I looked upon with indignation. To-day-this very morning-in the process of packing (I am leaving my old rooms off Bond Street) I came across it. I called in my old servant-man and asked him what he thought of it. Would he have it? No; he declined. So I took a long, sharp knife and I cut that portrait into long strips, and my man threw them into the fire. Now, was I justified in that act? That is what I want to know."
It is a thousand pities that this clever artist did riot rise to the occasion and hand down to posterity a really fine portrait of Irving. This unfortunate one was only a head. He could have painted the head again, and some model could have sat for the figure. Irving knew all about such studio matters, as the following anecdote shows.
It so happened I sat at supper next to Irving on the night of the greatest prize-fight of our time. Strange to say, it was a supper at the Garrick Club given by an artist to those who supported his election to the club. The fight I had been to was that famous encounter at the National Sporting Club between Slavin and the black pugilist, Jackson Irving was deeply interested in my an count of the fight I had just seen. I told him of the fine effort of the defeated but plucky white man, Slavin. As an artist I could not but admire the grand physique of the ebony - skinned gladiator.
" Yes," said Irving, "he must be a splendid fellow. You know, we actors have taken credit for a physique not our own, witness the pictures of the last generation and those before. Then the actor sat only for the head; a prize-fighter posed for the figure, and, strange to say, the favourite model of the last generation was a coloured fighter."
With the exception of Hamlet, no part has ever been the making of an actor. An actor must make the part, and the part must suit his personality. No one would ever select Sir Henry Irving to play Falstaff, but everyone selected him to play Don Quixote. The part was written for him, and he looked the character to perfection. But one great difficulty that presented itself was the finding of Don Quixote's horse-sufficiently quaint, starved, and aged. Irving had not himself thought much about it, but as the time for the production drew near he realized with anxiety that he had to appear, attired in armour, astride his charger. He consulted his trustworthy lieutenant, Mr. Bram Stoker.
" Bram, what about the horse, eh ?
The rehearsals went on. Irving bestrode a common or prompter's chair, and waved his umbrella in place of his spear. But horse-riding-particularly in front of the footlights-is a feat not to be performed without practice.
"Bram, where is that Horse?"
No horsee arrived. Irving was geting more and more uneasy.
" Bram, where is that horse ? I had better hire one somewhere
Bram rushed from the stage, and nearly upset a messenger rushing on
with a telegram. The Telegram ran:
Mr. Bram Stoker handed the telegram to his chief. Mr. Loveday called
out Act II.
Stoker, where is that horse?"
The painstaking Mr. Stoker's trouble was therefore lost, and stage realism suffered a blow. The substitute was a cab-horse, which, strange to relate, had to be made up for every performance to look a "bag of bones" : ribs painted and hollow flanks artistically suggested.
This little incident recalls another that happened a few years afterwards, when Irving produced Sardou's " Robespierre." It was then necessary to have a horse to pull on a cart crowded with country folk, in the beautiful rustic scene with which the play opens.
This time Irving did not trust to wasters from the north or risks with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He discovered that the white hone ridden by another celebrated actor in a popular play which had just completed its run was, in technical phraseology, "resting"; so it was brought on to the stage of the Lyceum at rehearsal for Irving's inspection. The following conversation took place between Sir Henry and the man with the horse:
" My good man, is this horse docile ?
Sir Henry never forgot an old friend ; and many and many a kindly act of princely generosity is known, but not recorded. Perhaps one is worth telling, as it is not only a fair specimen of hundreds of Sir Henry's acts of munificence, but it also throws a side-light on to the peculiar weakness of members of " the profession."
Shortly after Irving went into management at the Lyceum he was walking down the Strand, when he was accosted by an out-of-elbow, broken - down tragedian:
" What ? Harry, my hearty! How is my old pal Harry? Why, the boys
tell me, Irving, that you are now an actor-manager; running the Lyceum.
Who ever would have thought of this, in the old stock days at Edinburgh
and Liverpool eh ? "
Stoker, allow me to introduce Mr. Thompson-' Dressingbag Thompson.'
Is our company full? We'll put him on the list and chance a suitable
part turning up." Then, turning to Thompson, he said :
The next play was read in due course. "Dressing-bag Thompson"
sat with the rest of the company while the characters were distributed,
but no part fell to him.
the time came round for another reading-this time a revival of Shakespeare.
Thompson rose and asked once more where his part was. Irving approached
him kindly but Dressing-bag Thompson " greeted him with "
No, no, Harry ; no excuse this time, old chap. The immortal bard is
no new author; he's legitimate. Where is my part ? "
I was once sketching Irving in a new piece at a dress rehearsal for one of the illustrated papers, At the same time an artist hailing from the Emerald Isle, with the strongest brogue I ever heard, appealed to me as a friend of Irving to allow him to see that actor in his dressing-room for the purpose of getting more detail of the costume. This Irving kindly assented to; and after some time the Irish artist returned full of admiration.
" Begorrah, sorr, Irving's a wonderful man intoirly. Oi hadn't bin spakin' foive minuets whin he axes me, 'Whin, thin, did you lave Oircland ?' Begorrah, he's a wonderful insoight into cha-rac-ter to till Oi was Oirish afther only foive minuets' talk! "
Irving appreciated any little attention or compliment. I came across this letter from him in acknowledging one of my books: (See image above right) Perhaps no one in our time lent himself more to caricature than Irving. He was as easy to burlesque with the voice as with the pencil. The man who succeeded best with both was Fred Barnard. He had an advantage in being as thin as Irving, and something of the same type of face and tone of voice. I have drawn more caricatures of Irving and have given more imitations, but, being as unlike the actor as any man could be, I had to depend on voice alone. So much so that, once at a garden -party at a house in the country, a young lady-afterwards famous as a singer-gave an imitation of Miss Ellen Terry as Juliet in the Balcony Scene; I was Irving as Romeo, but wisely hid myself in a laurel bush so as not to destroy the illusion.
One of Irving's company at the Lyceum, of the name of Lewis, in years gone by gave a marvellous and original imitation of Irving playing a game of billiards. The idea was as simple as it was ingenious, and had one merit over other "sketches " of Irving it might have happened. Of course it never did, but it was possible. Irving is asked by a stranger to play a game-a hundred up.
" Eh ? Yes, yes. I don't mind. Play even, eh? No points-ah! "
The "business" was then simple and delightfully comic, Irving taking off his coat as if he was removing a coat-of-mail, which he bangs up on a peg with the manner of hanging it up on a castle wall. Then follows the selection of the cue, as if choosing a double-banded sword for a combat with Macduff.
"Ah! too heavy. Eh! too-o-o light. Eh! ah! too-o-o long "; and so on.
The cue selected, then the business of "the chalk" (chalking the cue ) gave scope to the mannerisms familiar to all imitations.
"Shall I break, eh? Ha, ha!" Then came the stab at the ball, the anxious watching of its progress up the table, the despair at missing the spot-ball.
" Ha, ha! That's one to you." And Irving marks. And to the end he does nothing else, for his opponent makes his hundred in one break.
The whole " business " is Irving's increasing tragic despair, until at the end he throws up his arms and cries, " Heavens! And I have not had one stroke at all! "
Irving was a born practical joker and enjoyed fun. He was always at his best after supper, enjoying a good long and strong cigar. His great friend Toole does not smoke. Everyone who saw Toole in "Walker, London" (and who did not ?), may not be aware of the sacrifice which that conscientious comedian made at every performance in the interests of art. He actually smoked a cigarette, whilst nicotine in any form is obnoxious to him. However, to ease the minds of his friends, who I am sure could not have enjoyed this most popular actor's performance had they known he was suffering for their pleasure, I had better say that the cigarettes were specially made, and Toole puffed the innocent flower of camomile.
Mentioning Toole and his cigarette reminds me of his great friend Irving and the cigarette which the latter smoked in the first act of ... "The Corsican Brothers." Every cigarette-smoker envied the way in which (apparently) Irving rolled that cigarette. He placed the paper in the palm of his left hand, threw some tobacco into it, and instantly, with one quick movement, the cigarette was perfect and between his teeth. It was pure sleight-of-hand what is known to conjurers as "palming" a readymade cigarette, which was substituted for the paper and tobacco.
Irving was very liberal in his invitations to " go behind." Few are aware that Mr. Gladstone once appeared on the Lyceum stage happened thus. It is well known that the Premier and Sir Henry Irving had a great admiration for each other, and when Mr. Gladstone attended the theatre he always went round to Sir Henry's room to have a chat. He took quite as much interest in the mechanism of the arrangements as he did in the intricacies of the Home Rule Bill. One night, when "The Corsican Brothers " was on the Lyceum stage, Mr. Gladstone was missed from his box. He was behind the scenes, having everything explained to him by Mr. Loveday. The music stopped, the players were in their places, and the curtain was about to be rung up, but Mr. Gladstone was still standing in the middle of the stage holding an argument with his guide about some detail, or recounting to him some theatrical reminiscence of days gone by. Mr. Gladstone wanted to see the scene through, and had no inclination to return to his own box. It was the bal masque scene, in which boxes are arranged round the stage with people in them. Into one of these Mr. Gladstone was hurried; and although the audience saw that he was not in his former seat, few, if any, noticed him upon the stage. So he in his time played many parts, even to that of a super at the Lyceum.
According to Colour-Sergeant Barry, who had for seven-and-twenty years been doorkeeper at the Lyceum in Irving's time, Mr. Gladstone, when he visited the theatre, occupied a little wooden seat which had been let into the proscenium wall, whence he obtained an excellent view of the stage without himself being seen by the audience.
I have never yet been able to analyze the mind that invents and circulates lies about public men. Malicious inventions may be not uncommon among 'Arrys and bounders, but that the educated man of the world should deliberately lie passes all understanding.
I was entertained at dinner in a large provincial town by its leading and most important citizen-a man of the world and a really good fellow at heart. The conversation, of course, drifted into the most general of all social topics of the last ten years - the stage, when to my utter astonishrnent our host seriously informed myself and his friends that he considered mummer-worship overdone, and gave it as his opinion that our actors and actresses were an overrated, self-advertised lot, and illustrated this wild assertion by a scene he had himself, he said, witnessed in London. He assured us that Sir Henry Irving was in the habit of driving every morning to the front entrance of the Lyceum Theatre and, remaining in his well-appointed cab, of calling loudly for his letters, which were brought to him, there to be opened and read in public. Sir Henry amused himself by throwing the envelopes into the gutter, to be fought for and picked up by his worshippers and street boys who were daily attracted to the spot by this familiar scene of London life, which my host declared he had himself witnessed. This of Sir Henry Irving, the greatest and most modest of all his profession!
The other and true side of the picture could at that time have been seen at the other side of the building. A cab draws up, out of which steps the well-known figure of Sir Henry, clothed in the most ordinary attire. He wears a low-crowned hat, rather in want of a brush; his private key opens a little private door, situated in a street deserted and practically private, into his private room; he finds his private secretary awaiting him to open his private letters. And should my informant of the front-door incident happen to call, I doubt if he would be granted a peep into the privacy of Sir Henry's sanctum.
Now, a perfectly true story of an actor-manager in front of his theatre happened in the old days of the Haymarket. Buckstone, passing under the portico in front of the house late one night, after the theatre had been closed, observed an intoxicated man vainly endeavouring to light a match, or rather several matches, on one of the pillars. It so happened Buckstone had just gone to the expense of having the front of the theatre painted; he could not restrain remonstrating with the destructive inebriate.
" My good man, why do that ? I have just had those pillars repainted, and I really cannot allow my property to be utilized for striking matches."
With that hopelessly contemptuous look peculiar to gentlemen in an intoxicated condition, the stranger deliberately replied: "Oo are you? What d'ye mean? Go away. I tell you what y'are-you're an infernally bad imitation of that old fool B-B-Buckstone!"
FURNISS, HARRY (1854 ), British caricaturist and illustrator, was born at Wexford, Ireland, of English and Scottish parents. He was educated in Dublin, and in his schooldays edited a Schoolboys Punch in close imitation of the original. He came to London when he was nineteen, and began to draw for the illustrated papers, being for some years a regular contributor to the Illustrated London News. His first drawing in Punch appeared in 1880, and he joined its staff In 1884. He illustrated Lucys Diary of Toby, M.P., in Punch, where his political caricatures became a popular feature. Among his other successes were a series of Puzzle Heads, and his annual Royal Academy guyd. In Royal Academy Antics (1890) he published a volume of caricatures of the work of leading artists. He resigned from the staff of Punch in 1894, produced for a short time a weekly comic paper Lika Joko, and in 1898 began a humorous monthly, Fair Game; but these were short-lived. Among the numerous books he illustrated were James Payns Talk of the Town, Lewis Carrolls Sylvie and Bruno, Gilbert a Becketts Comic Blackstone, G. E. Farrows Wally pug Book, and his own novel, Poverty Bay (1905). Our Joe, his great Fight (1903), was a collection of original cartoons. His volume of reminiscences, Confessions of a Caricaturist (1901), was followed by Harry Furniss at Home (1904). In 1905 he published How to draw in Pen and Ink, and produced the first number of Harry Furnisss Christmas Annual.
Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 edition.
Harry Furniss died Jan. 14, 1925, Hastings, England.