13 May 2017

H.B. Irving

H.B. Irving (1870-1919) was a British stage actor and actor-manager. He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Irving. Despite his many roles on stage and in the silent cinema, Irving is now best known for A Book of Remarkable Criminals (1918), which he wrote as a legal expert.

H.B. Irving in The Lyons Mail
British postcard by Rotary Photo EC., no 1114 P. Photos: Foulsham and Banfield. Publicity stills of H.B. Irving as Lesurques and as Dubosq in The Lyons Mail.

H.B. Irving in The Bells
British postcard by Rotary Photo, no. 1114 S. Photo: Foulsham & Banfield. Publicity still for the stage production of The Bells (ca. 1905) with Irving as Matthias.

Barrister or actor?

Harry Brodribb Irving was born in Bayswater, London, in 1870. His parents were the famous actor Sir Henry Irving and his wife Florence née O'Callaghan.

Although, as a child, he appeared a couple of times in his father's productions, it was intended that he would become a lawyer. He attended Marlborough College and New College, Oxford where he studied law and appeared in some student productions.

At 21, he made his stage debut at the Garrick Theatre, London, in School. Afterwards, in 1894, he was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, but instead of pursuing a career as a barrister he decided to become an actor. He took the stage name H.B. Irving to distinguish himself from his father whose birth-name he shared.

Inevitably, his early years as an actor were spent in the shadow of his father, especially as, at first, he was a member of Sir Henry Irving's Company. In 1896, he married Dorothea Baird, who, after playing the part of Trilby the year before, was, at that time, the best known actress in Britain. H.B. and Dorothea had a son Laurence, who became a well-known Hollywood art director, and a daughter Elizabeth, who would become an actress.

H.B. continued to be part of his father's company, but soon felt the need to branch out. In 1898, he joined George Alexander at the St James's Theatre where he played Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, and appeared in the surprise hit The Ambassador, a play written by Pearl Mary Teresa Craigie.

Henry Irving
Henry Irving. British postcard by Rotary Photo, no. 101 B. Photo: Histed, London.

H.B. Irving
British postcard by J. Beagles & Co., London, no. G 273 C. Photo: Doyer St. Studios.

H.B. Irving and Dorothea Baird in The Lyons Mail (1905)
British postcard by J. Beagles & Co., London, no. 747 E. Photo: Ellis and Walery. Publicity still for the stage production of The Lyons Mail (1905) with Dorothea Baird.

Replaying his father's best remembered performances

For the following seven years, H.B. Irving and Dorothea Baird, selected the parts that appealed to them, and moved between companies, sometimes together and sometimes separately. In 1900, they both appeared in Herbert Beerbohm Tree's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that ran for 153 performances at Her Majesty's Theatre.

In 1904, only a year before his father's death, Irving played Hamlet for the first time. The production, which was a popular success, was presented at the Adelphi Theatre.

After his father's sudden death on 13 October 1905, he established his own company, that included his wife. They toured most provincial cities, playing mainly repeats of Sir Henry Irving's best remembered performances. For the opening night of the new King's Theatre in Southsea he presented Charles I, The Bells and The Lyons Mail.

Occasionally, other plays were presented including, most successfully, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Queen's Theatre, London. That year he gave a lecture, largely autobiographical, to the Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

In 1906 he toured with success throughout the United States, appearing in plays made memorable by his father, again The Lyons Mail, Charles I, and The Bells. In 1911, Irving, Baird and their London Company toured Australia, again presenting Hamlet.

He also started to appear in the cinema and played the leading role in the silent film Princess Clementina (William Barker, 1911). Two years later, Baird retired from the stage, while Irving kept on performing. In 1913 he visited South Africa, and a photograph records his dinner with the Owl Club in Cape Town.

H.B. Irving in The Lyons Mail (1905)
British postcard by The Daily Mirror. Photo: publicity still for the stage production of The Lyons Mail (1905).

H.B. Irving in The Lyons Mail (1905)
British postcard by J. Beagles & Co., no. 276 N. Photo: The Daily Mirror Studios. Photo: publicity still for the stage production of The Lyons Mail (1905) with Irving as Robert Macaire.

H.B. Irving
British postcard by J. Beagles & Co., no. 273 L. Photo: Ellis & Walery. Photo: publicity still for the stage production of The Lyons Mail (1905) with Irving as Lesurques.

The London Murder Club

In 1914, H.B. Irving appeared with Basil Rathbone in The Sin of David at the Savoy Theatre.

He also appeared in the British silent film The Lyons Mail (Fred Paul, 1916), based on the 1854 play The Courier of Lyons by Charles Reade, a very popular stage work of the Victorian era. A respectable French gentleman is mistaken for his doppelganger, a notorious highwaymen. It was made by the Ideal Film Company, one of the leading British silent film studios.

During World War I, H.B. Irving withdrew from the theatre and returned to the law, writing the study for which he is now most famous, A Book of Remarkable Criminals, originally published in 1918, which examined the lives, motivations and crimes of some infamous murderers, Life of Judge Jeffreys, French Criminals of the 19th Century and other papers on the subject.

Wikipedia: “After spending twenty years of his life dedicated to the theatre, his greatest success came from being what it was intended he should be, a legal expert.”

H.B. Irving was also a founding member of Our Society with a.o. Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Diosy, J.B. Atlay, and the Coroner Ingleby Oddie. Our Society is the still flourishing ‘Murder’ Club in London, where old crimes are discussed at regularly held dinners.

In 1919, Harry Brodribb Irving died in London. He was only 49.

H.B. Irving
British postcard by Rotary, no. 1114 L. Photo: Foulsham and Banfield. Publicity still for the stage production of Markheim (1905) with Irving in the title role.

H.B. Irving
British postcard by Rotary Photo EC., no. 11. Photo: Johnston and Hoffmann.

Sources: Sydney Higgins (The Golden Age of British Theatre), Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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