Industrial Evolution, Part II

Terzameron Day 22
April 11, 2020

Ben Miller



My title at Shrubsole is Director of Research, which on a good day makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes…and on a bad day, Inspector Clouseau. Antiques can be as tricky to interrogate as a conspirator, but this plaque was ready to sing.


As I said yesterday, the plaque above depicts a scene from Henry Irving’s Merchant of Venice—identifiable by the set and costume design. And in a remarkable coincidence, around the same time that we acquired the plaque, we also bought this impressive claret jug and goblet, crafted from two magnum champagne bottles mounted with gilt silver. At the time, we didn’t realize that they related to the very same theatrical production. But that’s why we have a Director of Research!



The bottle bears a droll inscription:


Memento from the Table at Irving’s Supper given on the Stage of the Lyceum, February 14, 1880
This Bottle held Good Wine given by a Good Fellow to Good Fellows And—They liked it.


Now, Valentine’s Day of 1880 happened to be the day of the 100th performance of Irving’s Merchant. And while the show would run for an astonishing 250 performances, the 100 mark was already a record number for any theatrical production in London. To commemorate the success, Irving invited practically the whole of London’s gentry, literary elite, and dramaturgical community to stay after the show and dine right there on the stage. The crowd included Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens the Younger, and Irving’s manager, none other than Bram Stoker. There were also three earls, countless actors, critics, playwrights, and MPs. Each of the 300 guests was given a bound parchment copy of Irving’s text; they ate turtle soup; they listened to a string quartet; and they drank magnum bottles of Heidsieck 1874.


That last detail is important. Because that night, one clever guest snatched two of those magnum bottles. The guest brought them around the corner from the Lyceum to the silversmith Rupert Favell and commissioned him to add the silver-gilt mounts (in Venetian style) and the inscription. But who was the guest? And why the substantial effort?


The rest of what I have to say here is conjecture, but bear with me. One of Irving’s guests that night was his old friend, the comic actor John Lawrence Toole. Toole had a long history of tomfoolery with Irving. Bram Stoker relates the following:


Toole would even play pranks on Irving, these generally taking the form of some sort of gift. For instance, he once sent Irving on his birthday what he called in his letter “a miniature which he had picked up!” It came in a furniture van, an enormous portrait of Conway the actor, painted about a hundred years ago; it was so large that it would not fit in any room of the theatre and had to be put in a high passage. Again, when he was in Australia he sent to Irving, timed so that it would arrive at Christmas, a present of two frozen sheep and a live kangaroo. These arrived at Irving’s rooms in Grafton Street… The kangaroo was sent with a donation to the Zoological Society as a contribution from “J. L. Toole and Henry Irving.”


Doesn’t this sound like the sort of fellow who might have have had a quirky memento made as a thank-you to Irving for a wild party? And here’s the kicker: Stoker’s description goes on to say, “Toole loved to make beautiful presents to Irving. Amongst them was a splendid gilt silver claret jug…”


I can’t say for certain that this was the very jug now sitting next to the plaque in our shop. But I can speculate!

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