Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944) as Richard III 1910

Frank O. Salisbury RA (1872-1964)

Portrait of Sir John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944) as Richard III, Frank O. Salisbury RA
Oil on canvas
20th Century
30x25in 76.2 x 63.5cm
Frank Salisbury is described as one who, in his youth, loved to draw processions and pageants- so much the better if they included knights and heraldry. This love of spectacle is apparent, of course, in works such as the portrait series that records the principal courtiers and attendants present at the coronation of King George VI in 1937, or in his allegorical works such as The Painters of Chelsea. With considerable relish, however, he has been able to combine both his incisive life portraiture and his delight in historical costume in this present painting.

The painting suggests Act II Scene II, in which Gloster, flanked by Cardinal Beaumont and the Bearer of the Sword of State, is first shown to the audience enthroned as King Richard III. The pensive attitude reflects contemporary characterisation of the Evil Genius, as the King meditates the murder of his nephews, already declared illegitimate, but still a hazard to his rule: ''Shall I be plain/- I wish the bastards dead; And I would have it suddenly perform'd.''

The setting may be imaginary, since only Martin-Harvey is posed from life, or it may well represent with some accuracy the elaborate stage sets of the period. Clearly, some considerable effort and enthusiasm has gone into this recreation of mediaeval pomp. The Canopy of Estate behind the King bears the Royal Arms of England and France with Richard's own supporters, white boars, and those costumes and fittings that are visible display an antiquarian desire for correctness that not all of Salisbury's predecessors and contemporaries had shared. As a painter he does not fail to compose and balance the group of figures to ensure inescapable emphasis on the person of the King in the centre. The luxurious fur of the coronation robe is created in a few broad brushstrokes, whilst the scarlet that appears in the scabbard of the Sword of State and in the robed of the Cardinal is highlighted most boldly in the King''s right leg as it projects forward from the throne. This bright red when combined with the reflecting gilt of the crown and sceptre creates the impression of a single shaft of light, almost a spotlight, falling onto Richard III, picking him out from the shadowy figures of his court and suggesting an impending soliloquy.

Two paintings by Salisbury from a sitting of c.1910 are known to exist; the second employs the same pose as this painting, but concentrates upon a canvas of similar dimensions only upon the upper body of the sitter, making explicit the character''s torment and insecurity. This latter image is reproduced in Sir John''s Autobiography (1933), and it was plainly a role and a portrayal in which he took considerable satisfaction.

Sir John Martin-Harvey's acquaintance with painting might have been closer than merely being the subject of a portrait: when he left King's College School Wimbledon in 1880 he was an accomplished artist, and later remarked that he might have pursued his talent as a career, had he not been encouraged to take up acting by Sir W.S. Gilbert, who had been impressed by Martin-Harvey's performance in a children''s production of HMS Pinafore. By 1882, Martin-Harvey had joined the company of Sir Henry Irving, in whose company he remained for fourteen years, including four tours to the United States. The combination of Martin-Harvey''s talent, and his apprenticeship spent under the aegis of so great a man as Irving boded well for the future.

In 1896 Harvey left Irving's Lyceum company and appeared in several plays at the Royal Court Theatre, including Children of the King. His performance as Pelléas in Maeterlinck's Pelléas and Mélisande moved the author to remark: ''Il a volé mon âme, ce M. Harvey.''

In 1899 Martin-Harvey opened in what was to be the first of his public triumphs. The Only Way was an adaptation for stage of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, which, driven both the dramatic potential of those episodes and by the taste of the time, stressed the more poignant and emotive aspects of the original novel. Martin-Harvey played Sidney Carton and his wife, Angelita de Silva Ferro appeared as Mimi. Critical reception of this production was universally favourable, whilst its enduring popularity with the theatre-going public is shown by the fact that by the time of the play''s farewell tour in 1939, it had been performed over four thousand times.

Martin-Harvey received equal acclaim in his interpretations of more traditional roles. His appearances as the leads in Hamlet (1904) and Richard III (1910) -which this painting records- were regarded as object lessons of the acting craft. His appearance in Œdipus Rex in 1912 was a profoundly impressive performance in an epoch-making production.

He was one of the earliest supporters of the scheme to found a National Theatre, and it was for this support of his profession as much as for the numerous successes during his exercise of it that he was knighted in 1921, and received an honorary L.L.D from the University of Glasgow. In 1933 he published his Autobiography, in which he stated his debt to Sir Henry Irvine as well as to the love and support of his wife. He died in East Sheen 14th May 1944.
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