Wednesday, 16 March 2011


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 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 galleryHaving 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 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 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 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 a generous 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:


  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.