Ford Madox Brown and Sir Henry Irving's Production of
King Lear at the Lyceum Theatre in 1892

The collaboration between painter and player is nowhere clearer than in Ford Madox Brown's contributions to Sir Henry Irving's 1892 production of King Lear. Brown's earliest endeavors with the play in Paris in 1843-44 resulted in a series of eighteen pen-and-ink sketches of various scenes. Several of these drawings were later rendered as finished oils; the second sketch in the series became Cordelia's Portion (1866) and the last, greatly modified, was the basis for Lear and Cordelia (1848-49).

Henry Irving was familiar with these drawings and paintings by Brown; the actor owned sixteen of the original drawings sketched by Brown almost fifty years before he mounted his production of King Lear at the Lyceum. Irving also owned a print of Cordelia's Portion that hung in his dressing room and he "had always admired immensely" (Meisel 418). Irving, impressed as he was by Brown's work, turned quite naturally to the painter when it came time to design the costumes and scenery for King Lear.

Brown's influence on Irving's production is immediately obvious. To begin, compare this detail from Cordelia's Portion with J. B. Partridge's illustration of Irving in the role of Lear (the cover, London Illustrated News, Vol. 101, November 19, 1892).

Commenting on the striking similarities between the two illustrations, Martin Meisel notes that Irving

sits on his throne in the posture of Brown's Lear (reversed), glaring out under his eyebrows. His farther arm tensely grasps the map of his divided kingdom (rather than the arm of his chair, as in Brown, where the map, with "Cordelia's Portion" torn through, lies in the foreground. His nearer, bent arm loosely grasps his sceptre, angled upwards since it no longer need direct us to the map. The small Roman table and its furnishings, the carved eagle arm-post of the throne, the tree-emblem on its backcloth, the mistletoe over the King's head, all belong to the painting that perhaps chiefly furnished Irving with the idea of an interpretation. (428)

The influences were not limited just to Brown's drawings and paintings.

In collaboration with Hawes Craven the set-designer and Joseph Harker the builder, Brown contributed designs for the first three scenes shown below. But even in those scenes not specifically attributed to Brown his influence is always evident. The presence of so much Roman architecture--Lear's palace, the open atrium and the Roman temple with its cupola--may strike us as an odd choice for the scenery, but Irving says that his was how Brown conceived the era in which King Lear is set, "a time shortly after the departure of the Romans, when the Britons would naturally inhabit the houses left vacant." Martin Meisel calls the choice of an historical period "unorthodox," but Brown had considered the matter carefully while he pondered the composition of his earlier painting from the play, Lear and Cordelia, where Cordelia stands at the foot of the pallet where her father lies. Brown explains his reasoning for the details of the painting in the exhibition catalogue for his Picadilly exhibition in 1865:

Having its origin in the old ballads, Shakespeare's King Lear is Roman-pagan-British nominally; medieval by external customs and habits, and again, in a marked degree, savage and remote by the moral side. With a fair excuse it might be treated in Roman-British costume, but then clashing with the medieval institutions and habits introduced: or as purely medieval. But I have rather chosen to be in harmony with the mental characteristics of Shakespeare's work, and have therefore adopted the costume prevalent in Europe about the sixth century, when paganism was still rife, and deeds were at their darkest. The piece of Bayeux tapestry introduced behind Lear is strictly an anachronism, but the costume applies in this instance, and the young men gaily riding with hawk and hound, contrast pathetically with the stricken old man. The poor fool who got hanged for too well loving his master, looks on with watery eyes. The Duke of Kent, who, though banished, disguised himself in order to remain with the king, is seen next the fool, having a wig on to alter his appearance. The physician, with his conjuring book, was magician also in those days. (12)

Lear's palace, Act I, scene i. In a letter to Irving (June 24, 1892), Brown says, "The large sketch of Lear's Castle is finished, if you would like your scene modeler to come & see it. The other designs of Albany and Cornwall's halls are not yet ready to show, but they will not take me long." The original source for this drawing and the next two is the souvenir program from the opening performance of the play at the Lyceum on November 10, 1892. A drawing from London Illustrated News accompanying the review by Henry Norman (November 19, 1892, pp. 637-38) shows what the scene looked like when Brown's design was transferred to the stage.

Albany's castle, Act I, scene iii. The scene is set in an atrium open to the sky.

Courtyard of Gloucester's castle, Act II, scene iv. This design clearly shows Brown's concept of a "Roman, pagan, British" setting for the play. In the background is a temple with a dome, a reminder of the recent Roman past. As in the first scene, we have an artist's sketch of what the scene looked like when it was viewed on the stage. In Act II, scene iv, Lear curses his daughters Regan and Goneril before leaving for the heath.

This is a detail from pages 616-17 (Volume 101) of London Illustrated News, with a two-page engraving showing the reconciliation of Lear and Cordelia in Act IV, scene vii. With Irving is Ellen Terry, who played the part of Cordelia.

This is a drawing by Hawes Craven; it shows the death of Lear in the last scene (iii) of Act V. It must have been an impressive scene on the stage with the dying Lear and his daughter spread-eagled dead at his feet. The two armies, looking vaguely Nordic with their shields, skins and horned helmets, stand before a backdrop of the Dover Cliffs.

We have moved in these illustrations from the closed interior of Lear's palace to the beach and open sea. Alan Hughes suggests that the scenery is thus not merely decorative, but symbolic as well. Irving, he says,

was able to turn Lear's crumbling Roman palace into a powerful metaphor for his mental state. An important visual theme ran throughout the production. Gradually, scene by scene, Lear moved from protected enclosure to naked exposure. The abdication was played in an enclosed hall with a single doorway through which the outside world could be glimpsed. As experience exposed Lear to cruel nature, the scene moved out of doors: the clash with Goneril took place in an unroofed atrium, while the confrontation with Regan occurred in an open courtyard. The scenes on the heath conveyed a sense of utter nakedness to the sky: sets depicted treeless plains broken only by standing stones, symbolic relics of a bygone age. The interior scenes were elaborate, built-up sets of solid appearance, while the exteriors were created by the simplest of traditional means, using only painted drops and wings: it was as though the rich spectacle of theatre had been stripped away from Lear with his other illusions, leaving him alone in the void. (139)

Ford Madox Brown's conception of King Lear, first envisioned in 1843 in a series of rough sketches, thus emerged fully realized fifty years later in Sir Henry Irving's production of the play.