I had already come across the ‘beetlewing costume’ via posts I had written about closing up Kipling’s home – Batemans – particularly the conservation of its contents.
|Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth -|
painting by John Singer Sargent
I knew Ellen Terry’s name (1847 – 1928) … but really nothing about her life or the magnificent glistening dress she wore when performing Lady Macbeth.
So when hearing a talk on Ellen at our Social History group … I was enchanted to learn more.
Terry came from an acting family … and began performing in her childhood … she was one of 11 children … at least five became actors – Kate, her elder sister, was the grandmother of Sir John Gielgud, who along with Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson were the trinity of actors dominating the British stage for much of the 20th century …
|'Choosing' - portrait of Ellen|
Terry, by George Watts c. 1864
The Terry family gave performances around the country … with Ellen taking parts from the early age of 9 … it seems she never stopped.
An eminent artist, George Watts, painted the two sister’s portraits … and then despite the age difference (46 – 17) – Watts and Terry married: it didn’t last, but the time allowed Terry to meet various luminaries of the time: Browning, Tennyson, Gladstone and Disraeli … which opened new doors and gained her more admirers.
|Julia Margaret Cameron's photo of|
Ellen Terry, aged 16
While the portraits painted by Watts and the early photographs by the renowned photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, ensured she became a cult figure for the poets and painters of the later Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements, including Oscar Wilde.
Terry lived life to the full … beginning a relationship with a progressive architect-designer, by whom she had two children, Edward William Godwin (1833 – 1886). Godwin had a particular interest in medieval costume … which led him to design theatrical costumes and scenery for Terry and her performances, even after their affair cooled.
|Northampton Guildhall - designed in the|
Ruskinian-Gothic style by Godwin
Terry had two further marriages, and other liaisons over her long life … one where she married an American, James Carew, who was 30 years her junior … that lasted only two years.
Two other partnerships developed – not of the romantic kind – for a short while with George Bernard Shaw – they had struck up a friendship and conducted a famous correspondence …. they weren’t so keen when they met!
|Henry Irving (1838 - 1905)|
The other was with Henry Irving who had worked hard to become a successful actor-manager-theatre director … particularly after his association and subsequent partnership with Ellen.
She remained popular regardless of how much and how often her behaviour defied the strict morality expected by her Victorian audiences … it is unknown whether Terry had a romantic relationship with Irving – who was considered the doyen of English classical theatre, even, in 1895, being the first actor to be knighted.
Much of Ellen Terry’s life has been recorded in art and photography … often wearing gowns designed by Godwin. The most spectacular, and one which was worn and worn over the years – here and in America – is the Iridescent Beetle Wing costume she wore as Lady Macbeth.
|The costume in dire need of repair ...|
The gown was made in crochet using a soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn from Bohemia to create an effect similar to chain mail.
|Part of the portrait by John Singer Sargent|
John Singer Sargent on seeing Terry in her performance in 1888 was compelled to paint her portrait, hence we have a detailed image to refer to. It is in the Tate Gallery – where it had been donated in 1906; there is a contemporaneous photograph of Ellen Terry wearing the dress in the National Portrait Gallery.
The costume was embroidered with gold and decorated with over a thousand of those sparkly wings from the green jewel beetle. By the way the beetles shed their wings naturally – thank goodness for that clarification!
|The Bejewlled Beetle|
I found that the Victoria and Albert Museum have an article on Ellen Terry, the actress, her designer and her costumes … well worth a read.
|Henry Irving watching a rehearsal -|
illustration c. 1893
Irving died in 1905 leaving Terry distraught however she returned to the theatre in 1906. She continued to perform, appeared in her first film in 1916, travelled back and forth to America, toured Australasia … while also lecturing on the Shakespearean heroines.
She continued to participate in the theatrical world, though after WW1 withdrew more and more … she was recognised by society and appointed a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire – only the second actress to be so honoured.
Terry, in 1899, had bought Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden on the Kent/Sussex border – which she first saw with Henry Irving. Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, opened the house in 1929 as a memorial to her mother.
|A walk through the gardens at Smallhythe|
It is now owned by the National Trust who maintain the many personal and theatrical mementos, the house, garden and the Barn Theatre in the grounds … where the tradition of putting on a Shakespearean play every year on the anniversary of Ellen Terry’s death (21 July) has been maintained.
|The Barn Theatre|
That costume, transforming the beautiful red-haired actress into a cross between a jewelled serpent and a medieval knight, was the talk of the town in 1888 after the first night … and was, after one hundred years (with all the wear and tear of tours, behind the scenes change of costumes, and packing crates), desperately in need of a touch of conservation.
|Ellen Terry c 1880 - aged 33|
This Guardian article explains that the repairs proved as muchcostume archaeology as needlework … it was restored to its present glory by a specialist textile conservator, Zenzie Tinker – whom I had across as the expert used by Batemans, in Rudyard Kipling’s, home.
I so enjoyed learning about Ellen Terry, which led me to look at theatre in the 1800s, actors and actresses, society, art and literary works, epistolary collections, textile conservation … and then the history of it all, ending with Smallhythe Place – which I have never visited … definitely something I need to correct.
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories