Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905) an important relic of the legendary Victorian actor, being his velvet court dress uniform waistcoat
Tailored by Henry Poole & Co
Savile Row, London
Private collection Oxfordshire, U.K.
A formal black velvet waistcoat with steel buttons and a gold silk lining, bearing a label to the back-strap from the highly distinguished Savile Row tailors, Henry Poole & Co. The label annotated in manuscript 'Henry Irving Esq' and with the tailor's garment number '2472'. The ledgers of Henry Poole & Co confirm that the waistcoat was made for the actor Henry Irving of 15 Grafton Street and the Lyceum Theatre.
On 10th May 1894, Henry Irving received a visit at his Grafton Street home from the tailors of Henry Poole & Co for a fitting for various garments and accessories, the items all forming part of a formal suit of clothes known as "Court Dress". This is recorded in the Henry Poole & Co Ltd legers under their corresponding '2472' reference.
In the late 19th and early 20th Century "Court Dress" was required to be worn by those attending Royal functions. Irving was soon to be knighted - the first actor to be so honoured. We can surmise from the date of his fitting that he was preparing to be presented at court, ahead of his investiture as a knight of the realm the following year. According to Bram Stoker in his "Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving" he got a telegram from Irving on Friday, May 24, 1895 stating "Could you look in at quarter to six. Something important." When the author arrived at the actor's house he was shown two letters which Irving had received: one was from the Prime Minister, the Earl of Rosebery, telling him that the Queen had conferred on him the honour of knighthood as a personal recognition for his services to art; the other was from the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) congratulating him on this event. The announcement was made public the following day in the Queen's "Birthday Honours List". The actual investiture took place at Windsor Castle on 18th July 1895. The Queen bestowed the honour herself and it was reported by another guest that Victoria, who was not in the habit of making any remarks to a recipient of an honour, said "I am very, very pleased" as she laid her sword on Irving's shoulder.
Because of the extremely formal nature of the ceremony and the costume required to be worn for it, we can be quite certain that the actor was wearing this garment when he was bestowed his knighthood.
The waistcoat comes together with an associated black velvet Court Dress tailcoat. This garment has been relined and variously altered to conform with the later guidelines for formal clothing as issued by the Lord Chamberlain's Office in their publication "Dress Worn at Court". As the tailcoat bears no label it cannot be categorically confirmed that this also belonged to Sir Henry Irving - but the waistcoat and tailcoat have been associated with each other for many years and came from the same estate.
We are extremely grateful to Keith Levett, Director of Henry Poole & Co Ltd., for granting access to the company's legers and to Dr Susan North, Curator of Fashion at the V&A Museum for providing further information and assessment regarding the garments.
Page 238, Chapter LXIX, Volume II, Bram Stoker, "Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving", London, William Heinemann, 1906 .