The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
Home > On-line Edition > Biography

Henry Irving, 1838-1905

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 1838.02.06
Place of Birth: Keinton Mandeville, Somerset
Date of Death: 1905.10.13
Place of Death: Bradford


John Henry Brodribb, alias Henry Irving, was an actor who became Director and Manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London. He was the first actor to be knighted. Irving made an unhappy marriage, soon separating from his wife. His sons both became actors; his eldest, Henry Brodribb Irving, was born in London on August 5, 1870. His younger son, Lawrence (b. 1872), wrote a biography of his father and died in 1914, along with his mother, when the Empress of Ireland sank in the St Lawrence River en route to Montreal.


Irving appeared as Philip II of Spain in Tennyson's unsuccessful historical drama Queen Mary Tudor, which ran for twenty-three performances at the Lyceum Theatre from 18 April to 13 May 1876. JW asked Irving to pose for him after seeing him in this role, according to Pennell, in 1874. However, Alan Cole saw Arrangement in Black, No. 3: Sir Henry Irving as Philip II of Spain (YMSM 187) in an early state on 1 May 1876. The work was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877. Oscar Wilde described it at this date as follows: 'out of black smudgy clouds comes looming the gaunt figure of Mr. Henry Irving... his legs are stuck wide apart, a queer stiff position that Mr Irving often adopts preparatory to one of his long wolf-like strides across the stage. The figure... though apparently one-armed, is so ridiculously like the original that one cannot help almost laughing when one sees it.' A photograph of Irving at this time was reproduced in Theatre (1878). According to the actress Ellen Terry, 'the sitter never cared much about the portrait. Henry had a strange affection for the wrong pictures of himself... Whistler's Philip probably seemed to him not nearly showy enough.'

However, Irving admired JW's work sufficiently to later purchase Sea (M.885), Green and silver - Parc Monceau, Paris (M.1013) and Harmony in Blue and Pearl: The Sands, Dieppe (YMSM 327), which he then passed on to Ellen Terry. JW also made two etchings of Irving as Philip II, Irving as Philip of Spain, No.1 (K.170) and Irving as Philip of Spain, No.2 (K.171).

Irving also posed for Onslow Ford and McLure Hamilton. Like JW, he was a member of the Arts Club, in hia case from 1877 until 1905. He was knighted in 1895.


Records of The Arts Club, London; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908; Hamilton, John McLure, Men I Have Painted, London, 1921; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995.