John Martin-Harvey and Fan Letters to Hamlet

Hamlet - quilting in progress Hamlet – quilting in progress

I have been reading a treasure-trove of correspondence sent to the Edwardian Actor-Manager, Sir John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944), including fan letters relating to his many performances of Hamlet. I have been lucky enough to have access to some of the original letters which Martin-Harvey kept in his personal collection.

Martin-Harvey first played Hamlet on November 14 1904 at the Theatre Royal, Dublin. The role was included in his repertoire for years afterwards, with his wife Nina de Silva as Ophelia, and seems to have been a particular favourite with the actor and his audiences.

Mr Martin Harvey and Miss Nina de Silva as Hamlet and Ophelia Mr Martin Harvey and Miss Nina de Silva as Hamlet and Ophelia

Martin-Harvey wrote extensively about Hamlet, his thoughts on the characters and individual scenes, and even gave an address – Some Reflections on Hamlet – to the Royal Society of Literature in 1916. In his autobiography, he reflected that playing Hamlet was “fatiguing. Here the hero is plunged almost into a state of high tension with the news about the appearance of his father’s spirit, a tension which increases almost to snapping point after his interview with the ghost; all this, remember, is only the first act. Afterwards, the strain comes and goes in a succession of waves, more or less intense.”

Reflections on Hamlet Some Reflections on Hamlet

All this reflection resulted in a constantly evolving performance and quite a lot of correspondence. Martin-Harvey received letters from the great and the good – including the poet W B Yeats, who wrote in 1909 that the actor’s performance was improving: “I think this performance beyond all comparison a finer and simpler thing than that of five years ago. I thought then that you sacrificed something of Hamlet’s dignity to his emotional nature. I felt that your Hamlet was too bewildered, too alarmed a soul to be the great prince we imagine, but now you have got the balance better.”

But it is the letters from the general public that I find most interesting. Audiences felt that they could write with both praise and criticism – and the fact that the letters still survive is an indication that they were read and perhaps even taken seriously.

John D from Dublin wrote on December 23 1905 that “I saw your Hamlet on opening night – the entrance was a little too gloomy and aged in my opinion,” but “your address to the ‘Players’ was splendid and the two soliloquies were all that could be desired.” Stanton C went to see the play in Liverpool in a critical mood but found himself swept away by the performance: “This is my first letter to an actor or any public man, I do not ask or invite a reply, nor am I after your autograph; but just ask you to accept this poor acknowledgement of a great obligation.” Mr Q from Dublin wrote to say that he “saw a performance so beautiful – so finished – so real,” and then asked a favour: “My youngest son, aged 20, is deeply bitten – he has some aptitude for the stage. Would you have a few minutes to spare at the Theatre Royal any morning to see him?”

My favourite Hamlet fan letter comes from an anonymous lady from Middlesbrough who signed herself as “A working class woman (quite of the ‘lower orders’) who loves good acting.” She wrote to say the performance “left me astonished! amazed! stupefied! Never have I seen anything like it.” This lady wasn’t to know that this letter would be kept by Martin-Harvey – but it was and here it is:

A letter from A letter from “a working class woman who loves good acting.”

And, in my postcard collection, I have an excited message sent to a Miss O of Nottingham to say “November 24th 1905 – have got tickets. Will you come and have tea with us that day at 6.30 and we will go on together?” Miss O is one of my favourite Martin-Harvey fans – in an earlier post I wrote about her postcards featuring Martin-Harvey in his most famous play, The Only Way. I’m glad to think she saw Hamlet too.

Nov 24th 1905 - Have got tickets! Nov 24th 1905 – Have got tickets!

There is something very moving about these heartfelt letters surviving for over a century. Apart from being a fascinating insight into theatrical history, I love the idea of these people sitting down to convey their thoughts about an actors’ performance, not knowing that the person to whom they were addressed would keep them so that they still survive today.

I wanted to add something to this outpouring of emotion. Reading all these letters inspired a small quilted piece featuring John Martin-Harvey as Hamlet. I used a postcard sent in 1906, printed on to fabric, as the starting point, and thought about the hopes, dreams and sheer enjoyment that can be found in the theatre as I sat down to sew.

Hamlet - a little quilt Hamlet – a little quilt

The Nelson Quilt at Osborne House

In the early hours of Sunday July 5 2015, I finished putting all 3,200 pieces of the Nelson Quilt together. The quilt top is now complete.

A week later, I visited Osborne House (once the home of Queen Victoria) on the Isle of Wight in order to get some pictures of the quilt in a beautiful location that is particularly relevant to my Nelson project.

The Nelson Quilt at the site of the Royal Naval College Osborne

Thirteen months ago, I had the idea for the quilt when researching Maurice Elvey’s 1918 silent film biography of Nelson. I was reading contemporary reports about the making of the film and the locations used – Burnham Thorpe, Portsmouth, Southsea, Torquay. And the Royal Naval College Osborne, in the grounds of Osborne House.

The Royal Naval College Osborne was used by Maurice Elvey as the location for a highly fictionalised version of Nelson’s school days at the Royal Grammar School in Norwich. This was a very deliberate anachronism: the College opened in 1903 as a training school for young cadets who would spend an initial two years studying at Osborne before transferring to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth (where Elvey would go on to make his 1939 film Sons of the Sea). By 1918, Osborne was known as “the cradle of the Navy” and so, when considering locations for his Nelson film, Elvey chose the patriotic symbolism of Osborne, where the young sailors of 1918 – who might aspire to be like Nelson – were being educated.

In Elvey’s film, the schoolboy Nelson was played by a talented young actor called Eric Barker. Barker makes a delightfully irreverent young hero who dons a paper admiral’s hat to lead his fellows in pranks and boisterous behaviour. I haven’t been able to trace the identities of any of the other boys in these exuberant scenes, but I wonder whether they were real cadets studying at the College who were given special permission to have a bit of fun at the request of the visiting film crew?

The Petty Officers’ Quarters, Royal Naval College Osborne

Osborne Naval College closed in 1921, but some of the buildings are still there, including the gatehouse and the Petty Officers’ Quarters, now converted to an English Heritage shop and restaurant.

When Elvey was filming scenes at the Naval College in the summer of 1918, parts of Osborne House were being used as an officers’ convalescent home. In the Elvey film, there are some scenes of Nelson visiting convalescent sailors after battle, and I have a feeling that these scenes were also taken at Osborne. Other parts of the House were open to the public for guided tours. I don’t know if Elvey took the time to visit, but I like to think that he did.

It was very satisfying to take the finished quilt top to Osborne. It felt like the completion of a circle that started in June 2014 when, while reading about Maurice Elvey using the Royal Naval College as a Nelson film location, I asked myself what seemed like an idle question: “What would Nelson look like as a quilt?”