Ellen Terry (Alice Ellen Terry) was a famous Victorian actress who was born into a theatrical family and first appeared upon the stage when she was only eight years old.

Renowned for her voice and striking looks, and blessed with her stunning red hair, Ellen went on to become Henry Irvin’s leading lady, greatly admired for her sensitive portrayals of Shakespearian heroines.

Today we would call her a ‘star’.  Reporters followed her every move and fans were eager for any news, especially the details of her love life. She caused quite a sensation in 1888 when she played the part of Lady Macbeth at the London Lyceum Theatre, wearing a  spectacular emerald green costume constructed from more than a thousand Jewel beetle wings.

The gown was later immortalised in a portrait by the artist, John Singer Sargent, which can still be viewed today at London's *Tate Britain galleryHaving witnessed Ellen wearing it when alighting one day from a cab one day, Oscar Wilde went on to write: ‘The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets. It must always be full of wonderful possibilities.’

Choosing by G F Watts

Ellen had quite an effect on men, whatever their sexual persuasion and she clearly enjoyed male company, wedding her first husband (the artist G F Watts) when she was only sixteen years old and he was over twice her age. And although the marriage was short-lived, Watts painted some beautiful portraits of his wife.  

She had an affair with the architect and designer Edward Godwin, with whom she had two children, after which she married the actor and journalist Charles Kelly. She conducted an infamous affair of letters with the writer George Bernard Shaw, and then married again at sixty, this time to man who was half her age.

Today, the shimmering glory of the Macbeth dress can be viewed again. Funded by the National Trust, Zenzie Tinker of Brighton has restored and strengthened the fabric’s structure with many of the original beetle wings then being carefully reattached. Those that had broken were repaired using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The remainder were donated by a generous antiques dealer.

The conserved garment is now on display at Smallhythe Place in Kent, the home in which Ellen Terry died in 1928.

Sadness - Ellen Terry aged 16, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron

*The Sargent portrait of Ellen Terry in the gown of beetle wings is currently on display at The National Portrait Gallery as part of a show devoted to the work of John Singer Sargent.

For other VV's posts related to John Singer Sargent's work, please see:


  1. That's a lovely tale of a gown and five years to restore! Like John Singer Sargent particularly the rough unfinished Madame X.

  2. Thank you, Jane - Sargent made this sketch as well - the witches look really menacing!


  3. Fascinating post (as usual). I'd love to have seen that dress in motion.

  4. Its just amazing isn't it - and you included the Singer Sargent link I forgot. Thanks.

  5. wow - she was beautiful wasn't she? I'd like a gown like that, or I'll settle for a print of the JSS painting. Just lovely.

  6. She must have been very charismatic - the photograph when she was sixteen is absolutely amazing...and I really must try to go and see that gown.

  7. I'm sorry to report that beetle wing covers (elytra) are not shed as a natural part of the insect's life cycle. The elytra are the first pair of wings on beetles and are never shed. The only way these can be harvested is by sacrificing the beetle, supposedly an Asian species popularly used in other beetlecraft art, and known scientifically as Sternocera aequisignata. So a salute to all the Sternocera who gave their lives for this magnificent gown.