Henry Irving, who was the leading force in the English theatre during the second half of the nineteenth century, was born John Henry Brodribb at Keinton, near Glastonbury, on 6 February 1838, the son of Samuel and Mary Brodribb. He received some early schooling at the City Commercial School in Lombard Street, London, where he took elocution lessons to overcome a stutter. His first professional stage appearances were at Sunderland in 1856, and he first performed in London in 1859. After some more years in the provinces he returned to London, where on 6 October 1866 he played Doricourt in “The Belle’s Stratagem” and Rawdon Scudamore in “Hunted Down” at the St James’s Theatre. Over the next five years he performed at several London venues, until, on 25 November 1871 at the Lyceum, he scored his first great success as Matthias in “The Bells” (G0326), an adaptation by Leopold Lewis of Erckmann-Chatrian’s “Le Juif polonais”; that role became one of his signature parts for the rest of his life. Irving was associated with the Lyceum some 30 years, 21 as lessee. Under his management, which began on 30 December 1878 with Hamlet, he produced many of Shakespeare’s plays with magnificence and archeological accuracy in costumes and scenery. His acting in these productions won him accolades and immense prestige. ‘To Irving acting was movement. He drew a character in sharp, sudden, delicate, superb movements, each guided by a craftsmanship on which he had worked with what seemed to his associates almost inhuman concentration’ (OCT). The notable productions included “The Lady of Lyons”, “The Merchant of Venice”, “The Corsican Brothers”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Henry VIII” (G0327), “Faust” (G0318), “King Lear” (324), “Beckett” and “Cymbeline”. He first appeared in America in 1883 and often returned there.
His lease at the Lyceum expired in 1901; that year he acted Coriolanus, and in 1902 he made his last appearance there, as Shylock. Thereafter he toured America, Canada and the English provinces. While at Bradford playing Becket he died on 13 October 1905.
Irving was the first British actor to be knighted, in 1895. Many other distinctions came to him, including honorary degrees from Dublin, Cambridge and Glasgow. He served as President of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, the Actors’ Association and the Managers’ Association of Great Britain. Irving was a member of the Athenaeum, the Marlborough, the Reform and the Beefsteak clubs, but it was at the Garrick Club, of which he became a member in 1874, where he was most often seen, holding court at the head of the long table at after-theatre suppers. His chair still occupies that venerable place in the Coffee Room. In the Garrick Club Library are some 22 volumes of materials on the life and works of Irving, collected by Percy Fitzgerald.
Irving’s marriage to Florence O’Callaghan in 1869 was not a happy one, and they separated in 1879. They had two sons, both of whom became actors. (OCT, Garrick Club Library)