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Theatre costume - Costume worn by Henry Irving

Costume worn by Henry Irving

  • Object:

    Theatre costume

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (made)

  • Date:

    ca.1885-1894 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Credit Line:

    Given by the Royal Shakespeare Company

  • Museum number:

    S.2766:1 to 11-2010

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This is one of the most unusual costumes worn by Henry Irving (1838-1905) during his acting career and was created for his role as Mephistopheles in W.G.Wills' (1828-1891) adaptation of Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Irving generally conducted a great deal of research before adding a new production to his repertoire. In this instance he took himself, Ellen Terry, Alice Comyns-Carr (Terry's Costume designer) and her husband, the dramatist and critic Joseph Comyns-Carr, to Nuremberg to carry out research. His anxiety for complete accuracy and realism was such that shortly after their arrival in Nuremburg Irving also wired for his scenic artist, Hawes Craven, to join him so that Craven could study the landscape at first hand.

In preparing to stage Faust Irving had invested heavily in not only the scenery, but also the special effects. One of the most spectacular of these 'effects' was the real electric sparks that flashed between the swords of the devilish Mephistopheles (Irving) and Faust (On the first night H.B. Conway (d.1909) played this part, the next day Irving recast George Alexander(1858-1919) in the role): an effect achieved by connecting the swords of the combatants (who wore insulated gloves) to primitive electric mains.

Although many theatrical critics condemned Irving's use of special effects to heighten tension, (some even suggesting the production bore a greater resemblance to a pantomime than a work of serious drama), it achieved great commercial success. Irving made over 700 appearances as Mephistopheles and the work remained in the Lyceum company repertoire from its opening night in 1885 until the end of Irving's partnership with Terry in 1902.

Irving became a professional actor in 1856, and learned his trade in regional theatres until 1866, when he came to London. He joined the Lyceum Theatre company under the management of H. L. Bateman in 1871, winning great acclaim that year for his psychologically developed characterisation of the guilt-ridden inn-keeper Mathias in Leopold Lewis's melodrama The Bells. He took on the responsibilities of 'actor-manager' in 1878 when he assumed the management of the Lyceum, and remained there until 1902, enjoying star status with his leading lady Ellen Terry (1847-1928). Irving produced a diverse range of old and new plays at the Lyceum, including Shakespeare, historical drama, and literary adaptations. His tireless work to elevate the status of the theatrical profession was rewarded in 1895 when he became the first actor ever to receive a knighthood for services to the Theatre.

Irving specialised in spectacularly staged productions with large casts of performers. He commissioned designers and composers to create appropriate scenery, costume and incidental music, played by a full orchestra. Although electric lighting was available from the 1880s, Irving preferred the softer effects of gas, with lime light to focus attention at key points in the play. Irving toured complete productions outside London, taking the full company, scenery and costumes throughout the United Kingdom and across the United States and Canada. The development of the railway system made his the first generation able to achieve this level of touring productions.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (made)


ca.1885-1894 (made)




Length: 30 cm Shoe heel to toe (not including glove), Width: 9 cm Shoe, Length: 22 cm Glove, Width: 11 cm Glove, Length: 20 cm Part 7, Width: 23 cm Part 7, Length: 67 cm Part 9, Length: 45 cm part 9 (feather), Width: 120 cm part 9, Length: 21 cm Part 12 glove, Length: 31 cm Part 12 shoe, Length: 210 cm Part 12 cord, Width: 12 cm Part 12 glove, Width: 9 cm Part 12 shoe, Weight: 0.4 kg Part 12, Height: 10.5 cm Part 12 shoe, Length: 52 cm Part 6, Width: 18.5 cm Part 6, Weight: 0.05 kg Part 6, Length: 131.7 cm part 10, Width: 40.5 cm part 10, Weight: 0.15 kg part 10, Length: 23 cm part 11 (with straps), Width: 22.4 cm part 11 widest point, Weight: 0.15 kg part 11, Length: 46 cm Part 2 (shoulder to hem), Width: 74 cm Part 2 (elbow to elbow), Length: 50 cm Part 5 (waist to hem), Width: 48 cm Part 5 (hip to hip)

Descriptive line

Theatrical ensemble of jerkin, breeches, waistcoat, purse, gorget, coif, cowl, hood, tights, cloak, shoulder drape and shoe, worn by Henry Irving as Mephistopheles in his 1894 revival of W.G. Wills' 'Faust', at the Lyceum under Irving's own management.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Holmes, Martin. Stage Costumes and Accessories in the London Museum. London : HMSO, 1968. Catalogue entry 110.


Entertainment & Leisure; Stage costumes


Theatre and Performance Collection

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