IRVING, Sir Henry (1838-1905)
Plaque erected in 1950 by London County Council at 15a Grafton Street, Mayfair, London, W1S 4ET, City of Westminster
Theatre and Film
SIR HENRY IRVING 1838-1905 ACTOR lived here 1872-1899
Sir Henry Irving was one of the greatest stage actors of the Victorian age and the first actor to be knighted. He is commemorated with a blue plaque at 15A Grafton Street in Mayfair, where he lived from December 1872 to June 1899.
Born John Henry Brodribb in Somerset, he found fame after joining the company at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1871. While living at number 15A, he triumphed in roles such as Hamlet and Shylock, and in 1878 he took over management of the Lyceum.
Under Irving’s guidance, the theatre became famous worldwide. His productions were noted for their high-quality design, and he was the first to darken an auditorium in order to focus attention on the stage. In 1895 he became the first actor to be knighted – the result of his long crusade to see the theatre recognised as an art form. He remained associated with the Lyceum until its closure in 1902.
While at the Lyceum, Irving formed an acting partnership with Ellen Terry. Her spontaneity and expressiveness proved an excellent foil for his brooding performances, and their professional partnership lasted for almost 25 years.
A less obvious creative association was that between Irving and his business manager, Bram Stoker. Irving’s performance as Mephistopheles in Faust was the inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula. Irving, however, turned down the chance to play the vampire on stage.
Irving spent the most successful years of his career in Grafton Street, where he lived a bachelor existence in rooms on the first and second floors. A contemporary commented that ‘Nowhere could be found a more perfect example of the confusion and neglect of order in which the artistic mind delights’.
The rooms included a cigar room, a drawing room and a study, where the actor planned his performances. Irving’s dining room, which overlooked Bond Street, featured busts of John Philip Kemble and Dante.
The presence of stained glass windows made the rooms dark and sombre and Irving was advised by his doctors to move to sunnier quarters. In 1899 he took up residence at a flat in nearby 17 Stratton Street, which remained his home until his death.