Violet and Dame Irene Vanbrugh

Violet Vanbrugh (1867-1942) and Dame Irene Vanbrugh (1872-1949)

The plaque is on the walkway between Roman Walk and Southernhay, near the Exeter Blitz Memorial, EX1 1GN.

The inscription reads: Exeter Civic Society. This plaque commemorates stage and screen stars Violet and Irene Vanbrugh. Violet (1867-1942) was born in a house near this site, her sister Dame Irene (1872-1949) at Heavitree Vicarage.

Violet and Irene Vanbrugh were the daughters of the Rev Reginald Barnes, prebendary of Exeter Cathedral and vicar of Heavitree, and his wife Frances Mary, née Nation. Violet was born at her grandmother’s home known as The Double House, 35 Southernhay Place, Exeter, a building now demolished as a result of Second World War bombing. Her father was then vicar of St Mary’s, Torquay, becoming vicar of Heavitree a couple of years later and moving to Heavitree Vicarage where Irene was born. Both girls were educated at Exeter High School.

Violet was determined to be an actor and, much against her father’s wishes, went to London at the age of 18, where with the encouragement of Dame Ellen Terry she was given her first stage role and later learned her craft touring in repertory. She took the name Vanbrugh at the suggestion of Ellen Terry.

Violet toured America with Mrs Madge Kendal’s company and on her return was cast by Sir Henry Irving as Ann Boleyn in King Henry VIII, the first of many Shakespearean roles that enhanced her reputation. She remained devoted to live theatre although she made silent films and in 1938, at the age of 71, she appeared memorably with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller in the Oscar-winning film of “Pygmalion”. Her marriage to actor-manager Arthur Bourchier was short-lived. They had one daughter, Prudence, who also became an actor.

Violet’s younger sister Irene followed her onto the professional stage, bringing her talents to many new plays, including the premieres of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, plays by J M Barrie including The Admirable Crichton, and works by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero and Somerset Maugham.

Her career was at its height in the early 1900s. She was commanded to perform before King George V at Queen Alexandra’s birthday party at Sandringham; worked tirelessly for theatrical and other good causes including the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women in London, made another royal performance before Queen Elizabeth in 1938 and was made a Dame in 1941. During the Battle of Britrain she and Violet, together with actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit, performed extracts from The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Strand Theatre at lunchtimes.

Violet and Irene Vanbrugh in a scene from "The Merry Wives of Windsor".

Irene also appeared in films, including The Rise of Catherine the Great (1938) and the weepie I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945) with Anna Neagle and Rex Harrison. She married the actor and producer Dion Boucicault the younger in 1901, who was also her manager from 1915 until his death in 1929.

The younger brother of Violet and Irene Vanbrugh, Sir Kenneth Barnes, was director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from 1909-1955. He built the Vanbrugh Theatre, named in honour of his sisters, at RADA in London.

Both sisters wrote books about their lives: Dare to be Wise, by Violet Vanbrugh, and To Tell My Story, by Irene Vanbrugh. There are full entries for them both in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and much information on the internet, including the Exeter Memories website, about their stage and screen careers. A new biography, The Vanbrugh Sisters: The lives and times of Edwardian actresses Irene and Violet Vanbrugh by Exeter local historian Christine Trigger and Dan Barratt is available from Amazon. JM