Ellen Terry: The Saga Continues

Ellen Terry in Costume

Ellen Terry in Original MacBeth Gown

Alice Ellen Terry (February 27th, 1847 – July 21st, 1928) was the darling of the theatre and her life has been compared to that of Princess Diana. Born into a family that made their living from the traveling theatre, Ellen and her siblings never had a real home, as they spent most of their childhood in boarding houses near the theatre or actually at the theatre with their parents. By the age of eight, Ellen Terry was working in the theatre along side her older sister. By the time Ellen was sixteen, (1864) her sister had married well and was no longer working on the stage.  Ellen was the primary breadwinner of the family. Her parents encouraged her to marry G. F. Watts, a rich and famous painter,  who was thirty years her senior, and who had also offered to support her family after the marriage, since Ellen would be retiring from the stage, at age sixteen. G. F. Watts hired a companion for Ellen (to teach her the finer manners of polite society) and he continued to be a recluse painter. Within a year of the marriage, Ellen was bored to tears and he was bored with being married to a teenager that did not fit into his circle of friends.  The couple separated. He continued to pay her family 300 pounds a year until 1877, when he finally divorced her for adultery. By 1877 Terry had two children with Edward William Godwin, whom she never married, and had returned to the stage and was on to her second third husband, Charles Kelly. What was it about Ellen Terry? Men loved her. Her fans adored her; she could do no wrong in their eyes, no matter how scandalous her life was.

What was Ellen Terry’s secret? She didn’t care about the money, and she made plenty of it. She was generous to a fault. At seventeen, she left the stage for a second time to run off with the married, Edward William Godwin, and did not work for six years and had two children with him. The major problem was Edward William Godwin, architect and designer, didn’t work much. They fell on really hard times and Ellen Terry returned to the stage and picked up right where she had started off. She again was the darling of the theatre. Edward William Godwin, the love of her life, ran off and married his secretary, Beatrice Birnie Phillip. He was simply jealous of her success.  When Godwin died, Phillip, his widow, came to Terry and asked for money. Ellen Terry supported Phillip  financially and emotionally, until Phillip died and then supported  Phillip’s mother, for the rest of her life! How many women would do that? The men that Ellen Terry married, really weren’t all that nice, but had no problem living off her money.  She continued to support her family, her children, and all her husbands (except G.F. Watts) well after their separations and divorces. Ellen Terry’s parents thought Ellen Terry was very greedy and loved the limelight, (but she supported the entire family until they all died.) I think Terry could just not say no to anyone. In 1877, when G.F. Watts finally divorced Terry, she married Charles Kelly. Terry stated she loved manly men of the theatre, and Kelly was that. However, he wasn’t nearly as good an actor as Terry, and Henry Irving, Terry’s professional partner, whisked her away from him and Irving and Terry set off to America, leaving her husband by the wayside. Irving was not stupid either. Ellen Terry was his bread and butter!  Kelly and Terry separated, but she supported Kelly until his death. He died on the day she announced she was coming back to England! In 1907, Terry married, James Carew, in Pittsburgh,  her co-star in America, while on another tour there. She was 60 and he was 30. A letter on display at her home records the media hysteria when the news broke of her latest adventure. She wrote from Smallhythe Place, “The horror of it all when I first arrived back in England. I wish we had never been born! About 50 reporters and photographers all met me! I fought……flew into the railway carriage and pulled down all the shades….with an enormous crowd outside the windows asking me to put my head out!! Her marriage to Carew lasted two years. They separated, but she never divorced him.

Then there was the problem with the children. Daughter, Edith Craig, got a proposal for marriage, but Ellen told her daughter, who worked with her on the stage, that she was needed so much by Ellen that she could not marry. Her daughter responded by creating a wall, separating the cottage at Smallhythe Place, into two halves. Edith then moved two other females into the cottage on her side (where she lived in a ménage à trois, with dramatist, Christabel Marshall and the artist, Clare, “Tony” Atwood from 1919 until her death in 1947. Ellen Terry supported them all financially and lived alone on her side of the house. 

During this same period, Terry’s son, Edwin Gordon Craig, had managed to have thirteen children with eight different woman and Ellen Terry supported all the children and their mothers and then took care of the woman Craig finally married, and their two children also. Ellen continued to work, in the theatre in England and traveled the world in her later years, lecturing and acting, and at one point worked in the United States in the film industry.  She commented, “Am I to do one night stands for the rest of my life?” She was just a nice woman, who was very gifted and couldn’t say no. She also supported many charities and the Woman’s Right’s movement.

In her personnel life she was very thrifty. She was beautiful until the end and had beautiful clothes, but recycled them, dying her dresses new colors, adding a new feather here or there. Why buy new clothes when the old ones were perfectly fine? One of her most popular dresses, for the theatre, was the “beetle-wing gown.” Ellen Terry wore this green, shimmering dress, made with the wings of 1,000 beetles, as she performed as Lady Macbeth. The dress transformed the beautiful red-headed actress into a cross between a serpent and a medieval knight and was the talk of the town after the first night. John Singer Sargent painted Terry wearing it!  Oscar Wilde loved it! Edith Terry commented, “Is this not a lovely robe? It is so easy to wear, one doesn’t have to wear a corset!”

Lady Macbeth Beetle wing Gown, Worn by Ellen Terry

Lady Macbeth Beetle Wing Gown, Re-woven  

Beetle Wing Dress Worn by Ellen Terry

Re-Woven Beetle Wing Dress Worn by Ellen Terry

In 2006, the fragile knitted dress with the beetle wings, which had been preserved as part of Terry’s spectacular collection of theatre memorabilia, was falling apart. Beetle wings were regularly found lying at the bottom of the display case. Henry Irving’s, Macbeth, ran for more than six months to packed houses and the costume was re-used on many later tours also. It bore the scars of being tramped on by others, snagged on scenery, and torn from the jewelry Terry wore on stage. 

Ellen Terry Beetle Wing Gown

Working on Ellen Terry’s Beetle Wing Gown

Beetle Wing Gown Worn by Ellen Terry

Close Up of Beetle Wing Gown Worn by Ellen Terry

With donations to the National Trust, a 110,000 pound restoration was met and the dress is again on display at her home at Smallhythe Place. Most of the money came from visitors’ donations at her 16th century, chocolate-box cottage, at Smallhythe Place. An antique dealer in nearby Tenterden, donated additional beetle wings….. which the beetles shed naturally. The gown arrived at the studio of specialist textile conservator, Zenzie Tinker, in Brighton. She soon realized that she was dealing with the remains of two identical dresses, that had been patched together, when both were too badly damaged to wear.  Hundreds of beetle wings were repaired by gluing green-dyed Japanese tissue paper on the reverse side of the gown, and then stitching the beetles in place!

Ellen Terry led a remarkable life becoming one of the premier actresses of her day, admired for her beautiful voice, sensitive interpretations and striking appearance, right up to the end. Her death mask, on display, in her home proves it! She was very generous with her money, tried to help everyone, and was loved by all! Who could fault her?  Visiting Smallhythe Place, in Kent, will be an honor you never forget! Enjoy! See you next time!

PS, For pictures of the cottage at Smallhythe Place and the garden, see previous posts.

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