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The very magnificence of his obstinacy

The art of painting actors in leading character roles has been around since the time of David Garrick; it continued into modernity, as illustrated by this portrait of Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus.

Catherine Simpson
'Sir Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus' by Clare Duncan, 1959
'Sir Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus' by Clare Duncan, 1959

This painting, from the collection of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), while on the face of it seeming to be a rather ordinary portrait, can in fact reveal far more than you can imagine.

The painting is of the great British actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, in the role of Coriolanus which he played in 1959 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon — the forerunner of the RSC.  It was painted by Clare Duncan and forms part of a larger collection of artwork covering a range of topics.

Duncan’s work is representative of a long tradition of portraying actors in character going back to the 18th century. During this century there was a revival of interest in the work of Shakespeare which led to a rising demand for book illustrations and single prints, either of stage personalities in their best known roles or of scenes from the plays.  The rise in popularity of theatrical painting was to a certain extent helped by the actor, David Garrick (1717-1779). Garrick was one of the most successful actor/theatre managers of the 18th century and heavily influential on the theatre of his day. He realised that he could use the rise in demand for illustrations as a means of promoting himself. Consequently, he had many portraits produced of himself in character in order to bring his work to the attention of a wider audience.

One of this most famous of these is a portrait of Garrick as Richard III by William Hogarth. Garrick, as Richard, is portrayed awaking from a sleep in which his dreams have been haunted by the ghosts of those he had murdered from Act 5, scene III of the play. Much liked, it would soon appear as an illustration and was to be the first of a large numbers of engraved portraits of Garrick to appear in the actor’s lifetime.

'David Garrick as Richard III' by William Hogarth, 1745
'David Garrick as Richard III' by William Hogarth, 1745

The popularity of illustrating scenes from Shakespeare’s plays continued into the 19th century and there are many examples of Victorian paintings of actors in character, including Daniel Maclise’s depiction of Priscilla Horton as Ariel, 1838-9, and Theodore Chasseriau’s depiction of Desdemona and her maid showing Maria Malibran in the title role in 1849. In both the 20th and 21st centuries the depiction of actors in character has continued and expanded with images of performers often being included in a range of mediums.

And it is to this category that we can place the painting of Olivier.

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier, (22 May 1907 – 11 July 1989) was one of the most famous and revered actors of the 20th century.  During his career, which spanned six decades, Olivier played a wide variety of roles on stage and screen and received many awards including two Oscars. He was also regarded as one of the foremost Shakespeare interpreters of the 20th century.

Olivier had played at Stratford before in 1955 to great critical acclaim and was one of a number of star names involved in the 1959 season which also marked the Memorial Theatre’s hundredth season. The season in general was seen as weak with the exception of Olivier’s performance as Coriolanus which was remembered by all who saw it as electric.  In the production, he famously performed Coriolanus' death scene by dropping backwards from a high platform and being suspended upside-down (without the aid of wires.) The newspaper reviews of the time are dominated by praise for Olivier.  The Daily Telegraph, reporting on the play on 8th July 1959, talks of how Olivier takes on the challenging role of Coriolanus and succeeds by

“....the very magnificence of his obstinacy”

The Nottingham Guardian Journal, reporting on the same date, praised Olivier’s skill in portraying the many different aspects to Coriolanus character and declares that

“...It was Olivier’s night”

However, despite the greatness of his acting, the 1959 season was to represent Olivier’s last performance in Stratford. Disagreeing with the idea of a permanent company being established in Stratford, he would never perform there again. Therefore, this portrait of Olivier, viewed from this angle, is very important as it represents a record of a key moment in the history of theatre in Stratford and the last performance there of one of the greatest actors of our age. Knowing this changes the way I perceive this portrait and I wonder if it does the same for you?