Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905), the remarkable Victorian thespian, was renowned during his lifetime as the greatest actor in England. In 1878, in partnership with actress Ellen Terry, he re-opened the financially strapped Lyceum theatre under his own management and revived its fortunes with a critically acclaimed run of Hamlet, reprising the role which had established his reputation four years earlier.
Edward Onslow Ford had seen Irving performing Hamlet and was keen to capture him in a characteristic attitude. He made life sketches and a clay model, which, with the intervention of Bram Stoker, manager and close friend of the actor, he persuaded Irving to sit. On completion of the life-size marble in 1883, Ford proposed sending it to Irving; but he declined the pleasure, saying neither his stairs nor the floor of his room would stand for it and instead directing the sculptor to present it to the Guildhall Gallery. This was finally done in 1890 and the statue has remained in the Gallery to this day. Of the marble, Spielmann later commented: "The statue is realistic, romantic, picturesque; it was certainly original; and this, with the excellence of the likeness and flesh-and-blood vitality of the figure as a whole, delighted the public, and proclaimed that Mr Onslow Ford had achieved his first striking success" (op. cit., p. 51). A bust-length bronze version of the final life-size marble, dated 1883, is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Dated 1880 and almost certainly a unique cast, the present bronze is proof that Ford's association with Sir Henry Irving and his attempts to execute a life-size portrait of the actor in the role of Hamlet began earlier than has been considered previously. In this original model, the turn and incline of the sitter is more exaggerated, whilst more detailing - allowed by the lost wax method of casting - has been given to the costume, chair and larger base. Ford was to portray Irving once again in 1892, when he produced a bronze statuette of the actor in the role of Mathias from The Bells (sold Christie's, London, 14 February 1991, lot 72), which was presented to Irving on the 21st anniversary of his first appearance in the play. The present bronze remained in Irving's own collection until his death in October 1905, whereupon it was sold, along with the remaining contents of his Stratton Street home, at Christie's two months later. Untraced for the next 75 years, the bronze re-appeared at Christie's in 1980, where it was acquired by the current owner.