Who IS Ellen Terry?

Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry

Exactly who is Ellen Terry? Visiting her home, Smallhythe, on the National Trust Register in The UK, this is what I learned…………..

Ellen Terry was the Lady Diana of her day. Everyone wanted to be around her, everyone wanted to marry her. She was the rock star of Shakespeare and the theatre! She was beautiful! She could do no wrong in the eyes of her fans.  And like many stars she led a scandalous life! Upon her first retirement from the stage in 1867 she was one of the most sought after leading ladies of her time!

Born into a theatrical family, and along with her siblings, Terry began training for a touring company under the guidance of her father. At the age of eight she made her stage debut as Mamillius in “A Winter’s Tale” in London on April 28, 1856, with Queen Victoria in attendance. She also played comedy and burlesque, as well, and she and her sister, Kate, soon became the major breadwinners of the family. In 1864, when she was sixteen, she married the famous painter, G. F.  Watts, who was thirty years older than her. She was infatuated with his fine house and lifestyle and he was infatuated with her. He paid her mother and father a stipend since they would lose money when she retired from the stage upon their marriage. The so-called marriage ended within a year and they separated. He admitted that his primary concern had been to keep her off the stage, since it was considered a lowly profession.The most successful aspect of their marriage were the two paintings of her that he painted. The famous image in “Choosing depicts Terry deciding between earthly vanities, represented by showy camellias that she smells, and the nobler values, represented by the violets held in her hand.

"Choosing" by G.F. Watts

“Choosing” by G.F. Watts

Watts continued to pay her parents as long she as she agreed to be chaste.  She soon went back to the stage. So much for shrinking violets!

In 1868 while separated, but not divorced, she eloped with blossoming architect and designer Edward William Godwin, who also was married at the time. She again retired from the stage and moved to rural Hertfordshire with him, to a house he had designed. In 1869, her daughter Edith was born and her son Edward, in 1872. She gave them the last name Craig to spare them the stigma of illegitimacy. Surrounded by mounting debt, (Godwin liked very nice things), Terry returned to the stage in 1874. Godwin turned his efforts to designing theatrical costumes and scenery to be near her. Terry’s return to the stage was wildly popular, this time in the role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, which brought her the highest fame of her career. Godwin left her, and since his wife had died, he married a young and upcoming designer from his office. During this time Terry had many admirers, both for her theatrical skill and her great beauty.

Watts filed for divorce, accusing Terry of adultery. In the meantime she had met fellow actor,  Charles Clavering Wardell, known by his stage name, as Charles Kelly. Many knew of Terry’s “invincible power”, as she was known as “the most fascinating woman in the world, when she cares to throw her spells around.” Many were dubious of the relationship between her and Kelly, but after her official divorce from Watts, Kelly married the “high strung, flighty,” Terry. Her mother called her “mad Ellen” saying, “She is greedy of praise. Yon can not lay it on too thickly, as long as you apply it with the brush and trowel.”

In 1878, Terry joined the  theatrical company managed by Henry Irving, who had assumed ownership of the Lyceum Theatre. Her relationship with Irving, which she always claimed was purely professional, lasted for over twenty years while playing opposite him in many great Shakespearean plays, as heroines such as Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Viola, Queen Katherine, Juliet, and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing.

It was obvious that there was more money to be made, more kudos to be gained, by acting with Henry Irving than there was by acting with her own husband. Kelly turned to “social” drinking with friends that understood him, although he never admitted to being an alcoholic. Terry went on tour to America, and they separated. When Terry announced her return to England in 1885, Kelly promptly died.

During all this time Terry’s children traveled with her and when she was not working they lived at rural Smallhythe Place, her country home. There is so much more detail of her life and that of her children’s, that I can not get into here, but it can be found in a book by  Joy Melville, called, Ellen Terry. What a complicated and sad, sad, life they lived! I suggest you read it, it is sooooooo good!

In 1906, a tribute was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre in London for Terry’s Golden Jubilee. Still so popular with her audiences, her fans lined up days ahead, for a one day matinee featuring Terry and her children and and other famous actors. It was noted that from noon until six pm, thousands of Londoners filled Drury Lane with a “riot of enthusiasm, a torrent of emotion, a hurly burly of excitement, and thunders of applause. They cheered until hoarse, laughed on the verge of hysteria, and sang Auld Lang Syne in chorus, not without tears.” The Times noted, “ For half a century, Ellen Terry has been appealing to our hearts. Whatever the anti-sentimentalists say, that is the simple truth. She is a creature of full-blooded, naive emotions that excites those emotions in us.” 

In 1907, she returned to the stage in the United States, and while in Pittsburgh, married the American actor, James  Carew. Terry continued to work into her sixties and seventies, sometimes appearing with her daughter, Edith Craig. There’s so much more to that story!!!!! Read the book!!!!!! She separated from Carew in 1910.

Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry

In 1925, Terry was named a Dame of the British Empire, and in 1928 she died from a heart attack at her home in Smallhythe on July 21st. Her obituary read, “ The death of Dame Ellen Terry has been received with universal sorrow. In the history of the English stage no other actress has ever made herself so abiding a place in the affections of the nation.”

Her daughter, Edith, was committed to preserving her mother’s legacy. She opened the family home as a museum and then turned it over to the National Trust in 1947, upon her death from coronary thrombosis. There is a Shakespeare Festival, held in the converted barn and on the grounds, every year in honor of her mother.  

Don’t you want to peek inside her cottage at Smallhythe with me? Let’s do it then! Enjoy!

Inside Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden, Kent, UK

Inside Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden, Kent, UK

Isn’t this just the coziest cottage? Next we’re going to see Ellen’s famous dress!!!! You won’t want to miss it! See you then!

Inside Smallhythe Place, Country Home of Ellen Terry

Inside Smallhythe Place, Country Home of Ellen Terry

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