SIR HENRY IRVING PORTRAIT MYSTERY – Bastien-Lepage, William Nicholson, or artist unknown? Might you be able to help Dreweatts shed light on the provenance of this mystery picture, to be offered in our Modern & Contemporary Art auction on 16 October 2019?
The picture is the subject of a 15 minute podcast commissioned by Dreweatts and produced and hosted by BAFTA award winning sound recordist Adam Scourfield.
Consigned to Dreweatts directly from the Irving Estate, in whose possession it has been in since June 1953, the picture in question is a direct copy of the well-known portrait of Irving by the artist Jules Bastien-Lepage which was donated to the National Portrait Gallery in London by Sir Henry Irving’s friend and stage partner Dame Ellen Terry back in 1909. Yet for years, nothing was known of this second version and copy, soon to be offered for sale, until it came to auction at Sotheby’s in 1951.
However, if this second version is indeed a contemporary copy of the National Portrait Gallery picture, then where on earth had it been hiding until it emerged in 1951, and can its earlier journey ever be reliably traced or discovered? With no signature linking it to a known artist, or any paperwork to confirm an attribution, this irksome Irving portrait mystery has yet to be solved...
Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) was arguably the greatest English stage actor of the Victorian era and became the first actor to receive a knighthood in1895 having established an illustrious career in the theatre business as well as on stage. With his long-time acting partner Dame Ellen Terry no doubt playing an important role in such success, Irving also had the dedicated support and admiration of Irish author Bram Stoker, who was not only his personal assistant, but the business manager of Irving’s own London theatre, The Lyceum. Stoker so admired Irving, he even gave his only child ‘Irving’ as a first name in tribute (and it is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Irving is also widely acknowledged as being the inspiration for Stoker’s infamous character Count Dracula). Needless to say, Sir Henry Irving was a superstar of the Victorian times, and as such, many artists depicted him as their subject.
So, what do we know about the version currently housed in the National Portrait Gallery, that is confidently attributed to Jules Bastien-Lepage? In the spring of 1880, Lepage was in London exhibiting at the Royal Academy and enjoying some critical success. During this time, the artist Lawrence Alama-Tadema wrote to Henry Irving on behalf of Jules Bastien-Lepage, requesting tickets to see Irving’s latest performance, The Merchant of Venice. It is believed that the original portrait was painted around this time, in one or two sittings which Lepage managed to get at Irving’s residence at 15A Grafton Street. As a rather serious individual who always maintained an air of professionalism, the unexpected intimate composition of the portrait displeased Irving, who promptly refused to attend any further sittings, leaving the work unfinished. Dame Ellen Terry attests to Irving’s strange dislike for those portraits of him that most others admired, and curious admiration for those portraits whom others thought inferior:
‘Henry had a strange affection for the wrong pictures of himself. He disliked the Bastien Lepage, the Whistler, and the Sargent, which never even saw the light. He adored the weak, handsome picture by Millais...’ Dame Ellen Terry, 1908
In December 1909, Dame Ellen - to whom Irving had previously gifted the work - donated the picture to The National Portrait Gallery in London. To celebrate this new acquisition, a full-page plate appeared in the Burlington Magazine in 1910.
It isn’t until 1951 that the second version of the picture appears when it’s consigned to sale at Sotheby’s in London. Three years later the picture was sold again, this time by Christie’s. The successful buyer contacted Henry Irving’s son, Lawrence Irving, soon after the sale offering to swap the portrait for some letters by George Bernard Shaw. The portrait has been in the possession of the Irving family ever since. However, when and how did it first come into existence, and can it ever be given reliable attribution?
As is clear, an attribution for the second portrait has never been established. However, it is generally accepted that it is not the hand of Bastien-Lepage. In fact there has been some suggestion that the portrait could be an early work by the perhaps better known artist, William Nicholson. As well as being a good friend of Ellen Terry, Nicholson also lived for a short period with Terry’s son and his wife during the 1890s so it is absolutely possible that he would have seen the portrait and had chance to copy it during this time. In addition, recently discovered records indicate that a Miss Nora Robbins was the owner of the painting in 1945. Little is known about Robbins although it is believed she was the owner of Robbins Gallery on Southampton Row in London. Another possible connection to Nicholson is that in 1925-6, Miss Nora Robbins was the subject of a bust by Barbara Hepworth and Barbara Hepworth’s second husband was Ben Nicholson - son of William Nicholson – whom she married in 1938. Of course, this is all highly speculative. However, it’s not implausible that if Hepworth was still friends with Robbins in later years, that the Robbins could have acquired the portrait through either Barbara or Ben, giving the picture a possible link back to William Nicholson.
One further strand to the mystery is that during the 1930s, William Nicholson is also supposed to have tutored a group of amateur painters in his studio and elsewhere, collectively known as The Sunday Painters. Could the painting have been executed, perhaps later than thought, by one of these artists, under Nicholson’s supervision? Taking an even greater flight of fancy, could it even be by one of Nicholson’s most famous tutees, Sir Winston Churchill? With the most eminent expert on William Nicholson currently unavailable to consult, it is unlikely we will be able to find as valid an opinion as to whether or not this picture might be painted by the hand of William Nicholson.
AUCTION DETAILS & LOCATION
Wednesday 16 October | 10.30am
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire, RG14 2JE
VIEWING IN LONDON (highlights only):
16-17 Pall Mall, St James's, London SW1Y 5LU
Tuesday 8 October: 10am - 5pm
Tuesday 8 October: 6pm - 8pm
Wednesday 9 October: 10am - 5pm
VIEWING AT DONNINGTON PRIORY:
Friday 11 October: 10am-4pm
Sunday 13 October: 10am-2pm
Monday 14 October: 9am-5.30pm
Tuesday 15 October: 9am-4.30pm
Day of sale: from 8.30am
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