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 a head of 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 iridescent wings shed from Jewel beetles – the shedding being a natural process of the insects’ life cycle.
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 gallery. And, having witnessed Ellen Terry wearing it when alighting one day from a cab, 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 natural sexual persuasion and she clearly enjoyed male company, wedding her first husband (the artist G F Watts) when she was sixteen and he 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 married again at sixty, this time to man who was half her age.
Today, the shimmering glory of the Macbeth dress can be publicly viewed again, following five years and hundreds of hours of repair work carried out by Zenzie Tinker of Brighton and funded by the National Trust. The fabric’s structure was strengthened and then many of the original wings were carefully reattached. Those that had broken were repaired using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The remainder were donated by an antiques dealer. The conserved garment is now on display, alongside items from Ellen Terry’s dressing room and many other exhibits relating to her theatrical career, at Smallhythe Place in Kent, the home in which Ellen Terry died in 1928.
Sadness - Ellen Terry aged 16, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron
For other VV's posts related to John Singer Sargent's work, please see: