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A Straight Line Walk Across London
by Paul K Lyons
47 - Contrapuntal portraits, plus Sir Henry in mufti and the notorious Mrs Ebbsmith
I nip into the National Portrait Gallery, but have no time to visit the current exhibition 'Portraits of Cecil Beaton' or dally for more than a minute to two. Upstairs above the entrance hall I find a room of royal portraits. There's a meek-looking youthful Diana seated in one, and, by her side, a matronly queen standing in another. Downstairs, along a hallway are two fabulous cartoon portraits - Oscar Wilde and George Orwell - by Gerald Scarfe. One of them is fat and pink and decadent; the other is thin and grey and spiky.
The National Portrait Gallery was formally established in December 1856 to focus on history not art, on the status of the sitter not the quality or character of a particular image. For 40 years, it moved from home to home, and only in 1896 did the present building open. This was made possible by a bequest from William Henry Alexander (who chose the architect Ewan Christian) and the allocation of a government-owned site (the old St Martin's workhouse behind the National Gallery). The Gallery has been added to several times over the years, most recently with the addition of the Ondaatje Wing, thanks to Christopher Ondaatje, a publisher and philanthropist (who has also contributed much money to the Labour Party). The Gallery owns only three portraits of Edith Cavell (two photographs and one watercolour), but 41 of Henry Irving.
The great actor and theatre manager, Sir Henry Irving, large and noble, stands, on a spot donated by the City of Westminster, just north of the Gallery buildings. This is another work by Brock dating from 1910. An inscription says the statue was 'erected by English actors and actresses and by others connected with the theatre in this country'. In fact subscriptions were collected by an Irving Memorial Committee which fell into dispute with Brock over how Sir Henry should be dressed. According to The Irving Society, the committee had wanted him to wear a costume associated with one of his famous parts, while the sculptor wanted to carve him in mufti. The latter's view prevailed. However, today, the Society claims that Sir Henry, dressed in a university robe, is still in costume, i.e. for one of the parts he 'played' off-stage - the academically-minded actor. Irving - whose real name was John Henry Brodribb - died in 1905 and was given a public funeral in Westminster Abbey. In 1939, the nearby Green Street was renamed Irving Street; and, in 1951, the 'Irving Memorial Garden' around the statue was opened by Sir Laurence Olivier.
The statue's position conveniently signals my entry into theatre land. Close by, on the other side of Charing Cross Road, is the Garrick Theatre. But Irving was famous as a tragedian, in Shakespearian roles such as Hamlet, while the Garrick is best known for comedies, not least the long-running 'No Sex Please, We're British', and the less well remembered 'When Did You Last See Your Trousers?'. The Theatre building was especially designed for William Schwenk Gilbert (who had fallen out with Arthur Sullivan), by Walter Emden and C. J. Phipps. It opened in 1889. In recent years, the building has undergone various refurbishments and improvements. However, as I pass, it is dark, so I imagine the ghost of Arthur Bouchier, rumoured to haunt the place, is not having much fun. Bouchier, who managed the theatre in the early 1900s, is said to have refused entry to a Times drama critic! A more sombre story about the theatre, in the 1890s, predating Bouchier's time, tells of a woman called Ebbsmith who was found drowned in the Thames. A ticket stub, in her pocket, showed that she had just seen a play at the Garrick. It was called 'The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith'!
Buildings next to the theatre include: the Charing Cross Library, a block
called the Garrick Mansions (with a gold coin exchange and euro snack bar
at street level), Faraday House and Burleigh Mansions. On the west side
of the road is an odd little triangular traffic island, inhabited by an
octagonal glass travel agent cubicle, an old and richly decorated iron lamp
post with three lamps, and a set of railings guarding steps to a basement
(presumably once a men's toilet) which seems to be full of fan outlets.
I make a slight detour from here to Westminster Central Library, housed
in Martin's Street, behind the National Gallery, on a site where Sir Isaac
Newton once lived. This library stocks the many volumes of the National
Survey of London - which detain me for a while.
A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting
by Paul K Lyons
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