Friday 10 May 2024

A Dark Plot by L.J. Trafford

Death of an Emperor

On the 18th of September in the year 96 CE, a young Imperial slave boy was attending to the shrine to the Lares, the gods of the household, that resided in the bedchamber of the emperor Domitian. Domitian paid very serious attention to religion and proper adherence to it. He favoured the god Jupiter and goddess Minerva, rebuilding the temple of the former after it had been burnt to the ground and holding a special festival at his Alban villa for the latter. Elsewhere in his now 15-year reign he had overseen the trial of a Vestal Virgin accused of breaking her sacred chastity. Found guilty he had her entombed alive as both the law and the gods insisted upon.
The Emperor Domitian. Getty Open Content.

As the boy went about his job, no doubt anxious that the notoriously short-tempered Domitian might find fault with his work, word was brought to the emperor that outside the chamber there was a man named Stephanus who sought an urgent audience with him. What could possibly be so urgent as to disturb the emperor in his private bedchamber? A conspiracy, Stephanus was claiming, a grievous conspiracy to murder the emperor and what’s more he had the proof of it.

That was all Domitian needed to hear, he told his guards to let Stephanus in. It was unlikely that the emperor recognised the man who now entered his most private of rooms. Although, an Imperial freedman, Stephanus was new to the palace. He’d previously worked as a steward in the household of Domitian’s niece, Domitilla but had been absorbed into the emperor’s own household after Domitilla had been banished by her uncle. He stood in front of the emperor with the scroll clasped in his right hand that he claimed named these conspirators. As he handed over the scroll to the eager emperor, perhaps Domitian noticed that Stephanus’ left arm was heavily bandaged. Perhaps he did not. The chance to remove yet more men wanting to murder him was of more importance than how some random slave’s injury came about.

As Domitian unfurled the scroll Stephanus ripped off his bandages and pulled out the dagger he’d concealed beneath them. Then he stabbed the emperor in the groin. Domitian getting to his feet yelled to the slave boy to fetch him his dagger that he always kept under his pillow. The slave boy diving onto the bed, lifted the pillow and found nothing underneath. As the emperor grappled with Stephanus, he shouted again for the boy to get help. Running to a door the boy found it to be locked, as were all the other doors to the emperor’s chamber.

Domitian continued to fight his assailant, lacerating his fingers trying to grab the dagger off the steward. Both hit the floor, with Domitian on top of Stephanus and attempting to gouge out his eyes. This was when the doors finally opened and in ran other members of the Imperial household: Clodianus, Maximus, Satur and an unnamed gladiator from the imperial training school.

However, these four were not there to help or at least not help Domitian, they were plan b and they set about their allocated task, unsheathing their own weapons and adding seven more blows to the ones Stephanus had already inflicted upon Domitian. Although he had made good work of fighting off Stephanus, Domitian could not fight off five of them. The emperor was dead. Every detail we know about the killing of Domitian comes from that one terrified slave boy. Although none of the historians who use his story ever bothers to give him a name.

The Aftermath

Domitian’s death had been a brutal, sustained attack, a noisy one too what with the emperor yelling for his dagger and for help. him and Stephanus rolling on the floor crashing into the furniture amd perhaps the little slave boy screaming in terror. Help came too late to save the emperor, but it was in time to catch the murderers bloody handed standing over their victim. We are told Stephanus was killed ‘when those who had not shared in the conspiracy made a concerted rush upon him’.Cassius Dio. I think we can assume that Clodianus, Maximus, Satur and that unnamed gladiator were also run down by the still loyal servants of the emperor.
The palace that Domitian built but was also murdered in. 
Photo by Scott Rowland

The emperor was dead, his assassins were also dead. However, this was potentially a combustible situation, for the childless Domitian had left no heir. In 41 CE after the Emperor Caligula had been brutally stabbed to death in a corridor there had been a clash of intentions as the Senate declared the restoration of the Republic at the exact same time the Praetorian Guard had found Caligula’s uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain and proclaimed him emperor. The Guards being the ones with swords they easily won the argument that day.

In 68 CE when the similarly childless Nero had committed suicide a brutal civil war had been unleashed as four men: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Domitian’s father, Vespasian battled each other to become emperor. People still remembered 69 CE, the year of those four emperors, and they feared a bloody sequel to it. But that didn’t happen. There was no clash of intentions between the different power brokers in Rome, there were no battles between competing would be emperors because by the end of the day, the very same day that Domitian was killed there was already a new emperor in place. His name was Nerva and he was the first of what Edward Gibbon, author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, christened the Five Good Emperors.

Anyone who knows anything about the assassination of Roman emperors has probably just spat out a mouth of coffee and half a masticated hobnob across their lounge. Because the aftermath of Domitian’s death, the ease at which we move from one dynasty to another is quite unusual in the ancient Roman political sphere. I’d go as far as to say it is unprecedented.

The most violent act that follows Domitian’s assassination is dished out by the Senatorial class on the many images of the now dead emperor that littered the city. ‘It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and savage them with the axe as if blood and agony could follow from every blow. Our transports of joy – so long deferred – were unrestrained; all sought a form of vengeance in beholding those bodies mutilated, limbs hacked in pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire, to be melted down, so that from such menacing terror something for man’s use and enjoyment should rise out of the flames.’ So says a rather surprising vandal, the lawyer and prolific letter writer, Pliny the Younger.

There is a reason for this orderly transition of rule. There had been a plan. A well thought out plan that considered the before, the during and both the immediate aftermath and the longer-term implications of murdering the emperor.
Stephanus, Maximus, Clodianus, Satur and the gladiator may have undisputably stabbed Domitian to death, but they weren’t the ones who’d set in motion the plan.
The instigators of this most successful of plots, the hatchers of the conspiracy, the planners of the assassination were clever men who’d kept well out of the way of the bloody murder they’d set up, avoiding the fate of Stephanus and co. Their names were Entellus and Parthenius and they were a Chamberlain and Head of Petitions, the highest ranking, most trusted of all of Domitian’s staff.

The men who really killed Domitian

The lives of imperial slaves and ex-slaves are generally of no interest to Roman historians who all hail from the elite classes of Rome. Snobbery likely plays a part in this omission no doubt, a distaste for the stench of slavery on the now freed. But also jealousy probably played a part too. Imperial freedmen had unique access to the emperor far beyond any Senator had, they were thus first in line to receive the material benefits of the emperor’s pleasure and certainly many palace freedman became enormously wealthy as a result.

Freedmen could also control access to the emperor, which was bound to put Senatorial noses out of joint. The Senate had never disabused itself of the notion that it was the most important and wisest body of men in the whole empire and was so owed oodles of respect, even from the emperor. That many emperors chose to rely on slaves who lacked a family tree that went all the way back to Romulus was an eternal mystery to them.
That such powerful and influential men in their own time as Imperial freedmen go largely unrecognised and un-noted demonstrates just how deeply Roman class divisions went. However, we do know a little about the brains behind Domitian’s murder from an unlikely source: the poet Martial.

Martial is the author of what is my all-time favourite poem from ancient times. ‘You ask what I get out of my country place. The profit gross or net, is never seeing your face’
Glorious, isn’t it? Martial paints a unique portrait of Rome through his poems as crowded, smelly and overwhelmed with people he found grievously annoying.
However, Martial had a clear ambition to be more than a scribbler of scurrilous slander. He fancied being a court poet with all the fame and fortune that came with the post (if you were any good at it).

This wasn’t a job you could simply apply for, you needed a way in, a contact on the inside who could convince the emperor that he really very much needed another poet in his entourage. Martial’s contact on the inside was Parthenius, Domitian’s chamberlain.

We see how Martial seeks his influence from his own work. There are several of his poems that feature Parthenius; a verse written for Parthenius’ son Burrus’ fifth birthday, a thank you for a snow-white toga gifted to the poet by the chamberlain ‘You surpass in whiteness the lily, the budding flower of the privet, and the ivory which glistens on the hill of Tivoli. The swan of Sparta and the doves of Paphos must yield to you; and even the pearl fished from the Indian seas.’ Gushes Martial.

This flattery in friendship has a point, as becomes apparent in later poems, Martial wants Parthenius to put his poems in front of the emperor.
The Senate House. Photo by Scott Rowland.

Whither, my book, whither are you going so much at your ease, clad in a holiday dress of fine linen? Is it to see Parthenius? certainly. Go, then, and return unopened; for he does not read books, but only memorials; nor has he time for the muses, or he would have time for his own.’

‘And if by chance (but for this we must scarcely hope) he shall have a moment to spare, beg him to present with his own hands our verses to the emperor; and to recommend this little book, so humble and so small, with merely four words: "This your Rome reads."

Evidently this nagging by poetry worked for Martial does end up praising the emperor and his many wonderful actions in verse form. Credit to Martial for managing to make a poem out the mundane subject of Domitian widening of the pavements and his anti-castration legislation.

To you, chaste prince, mighty conqueror of the Rhine, and father of the world, cities present their thanks: they will henceforth have population; it is now no longer a crime to bring infants into the world. The boy is no longer mutilated by the art of the greedy dealer, to mourn the loss of his manly rights.
Err quite.

As well as forming a useful connection in Parthenius, Martial was also buttering up or at the very least taking a paid commission from Parthenius’ fellow Imperial freedman, Entellus. Who it appeared had a very nice garden.
‘He who has seen the orchards of the king of Corcyra, will prefer the garden of your country-house, Entellus. That the malicious frost mar not nip the purple clusters, and the icy cold destroy the gifts of Bacchus, the vintage lives protected under transparent stone; carefully covered, yet not concealed. Thus does female beauty shine through silken folds; thus are pebbles visible in the pellucid waters. What is not nature willing to grant to genius? Barren winter is forced to produce the fruits of autumn.

So there we have it, two ex-Imperial slaves who have spent decades no doubt working their way up the palace staff lists to positions of such height and influence that poets are banging at their doors seeking their patronage. One man who once gifted the poet a beautiful toga and another who was so proud of his garden he sought to have it immoratlised in verse. And then they both involve themselves in a conspiracy to brutally murder their boss. Jarring doesn’t cover it. What on earth had happened to propel these two men to that point?

The Darkness

Cameo of Domitian by Josiah Wedgwood
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reading any book about Domitian you will come across the fact that he fell out with the Senate big time and that his treatment of them veered towards the cruel. And although many scholars try to argue that Domitian’s reign of terror wasn’t nearly as terrible as the reigns of terror other emperors inflicted upon that class, it still wasn’t a great time to be a Senator. We know this because we have two eye witness accounts of what it was like to serve Domitian from lawyer and letter writer Pliny and the Roman historian, Tacitus.

‘The worst of our torments under Domitian was to see him with his eyes fixed upon us. Every sigh was registered against us; and when we all turned pale, he did not scruple to make us marked men by a glance of his savage countenance.’ So says Tacitus.
Pliny makes several references to Domitian’s rages ‘Domitian was besides himself with fury’ he says, ‘he was infuriated by the hatred he had incurred for his cruelty and injustice.’

Domitian was an intimidating boss. He knew it and he capitalised on it, most notably in the tale of the black banquet to which he invited the foremost senators and equestrians. This is what the party guests arrived to find: ‘He prepared a room that was pitch black on every side, ceiling, walls and floor, and had made ready bare couches of the same colour resting on the uncovered floor; then he invited in his guests alone at night without their attendants.  And first he set beside each of them a slab shaped like a gravestone, bearing the guest's name and also a small lamp, such as hang in tombs. Next comely naked boys, likewise painted black, entered like phantoms, and after encircling the guests in an awe-inspiring dance took up their stations at their feet.’

Having made it home alive after such a terrifying evening, the party guests must have thanked the gods profusely, at least until there came a knock at the door and a messenger from the emperor was announced. The messenger had come with a gift from the emperor, but his real mission was to further mess with their minds. No wonder those senators smashed Domitian’s statues to pieces when he died.

Alongside a general mental terrorising of the Senatorial class, there were also arrests, trials and executions. At which point you may be wondering what indeed my point is. How does Domitian’s treatment of the Senate impact on the actions of Parthenius and Entellus? It doesn’t. But I think it raises a revealing point, if this was what the emperor was inflicting upon the elite class of Rome, men with means, money, influence and connections that might be of some use to them (Pliny and Tacitus make it through the entirety of Domitian’s reign mentally scarred, true but also higher in rank than they started it) what might he be inflicting on his household of slaves and ex-slaves who had nothing to protect them and no one to write down their tales of suffering. They were constantly at the emperor’s side, unlike the Senators who at least had homes to escape to and breathe a sigh of relief they weren’t for the chop that day.

If Domitian could create such an oppressive atmosphere during a standard meeting with his Senatorial advisors, what was the atmosphere like for those living at the palace with the increasingly paranoid emperor. ‘He used to say that the lot of princes was most unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed.’ Suetonius.
In fear of the conspiracies he could not prove Domitian had the palace floor polished so that he could see any would be assassin reflected as he snuck up on him. He had executed Epaphroditus, a now elderly Imperial freedman, because twenty-five years previously Epaphroditus had been present with Nero when that emperor had committed suicide. In Domitian’s head Epaphroditus had allowed the death of his master, an emperor no less. Epaphroditus’ own death was to serve as a warning to Domitian’s own staff.

Coin depicting Emperor Nerva
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jupiter knows how many of the imperial slaves found themselves summarily executed for similar imagined crimes in the emperor’s head. How many found themselves, like Tacitus and Pliny, terrorised by the emperor’s rages. We shall never know. But it had to be darker than the black banquet up there at the palace. So dark that two freedmen who were friends to a poet, one of whom had a nice garden and the other a giver of snow-white togas saw no other way but to set up a conspiracy to murder the emperor that they had both prospered under.

They very nearly got away with it too. With Stephanus and the others slain there was no one to point the finger at Parthenius and Entellus as ever having been involved. Except there clearly was because nearly two years after Domitian’s death the palace was overrun with soldiers demanding that Nerva hand over the culprits. A sword pressed against his throat, Nerva felt he had no choice but to give into the guards’ demands. We know not what happened to Entellus. We do know what happened to Parthenius. The Guards sliced off his testicles and shoved them in his mouth, suffocating him.
Nerva, who owed his position to Parthenius, was allowed to die of natural causes a few months later.

L.J. Trafford is the author of several books on Ancient Rome including Ancient Rome's Worst Emperors

Friday 3 May 2024

Spies, Lies & Deception - Celia Rees

 Being interested in spies and all things spying, I just caught the end of this fascinating exhibition at The Imperial War Museum. 

I first visited the IWM in the Sixties and have been a regular visitor over the decades. In recent years, my visits were often focused on a particular exhibition which had direct relevance to something I was writing. Fashion On The Ration was really useful when I was writing Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook; Lee Miller: A Woman's War was invaluable as one of my characters was an American photojournalist. I like exhibitions. The mix of images: photographs, paintings, sketches, postcards, newspaper cuttings and the objects that people used, owned, carried and valued tell you a great deal about those people and their lived experience. To a writer of historical fiction, these things provide invaluable reference, enabling us to more accurately re-create and re-imagine past lives. 

I've also spent time in the Imperial War Museum Research Room, doing Real Research, reading contemporary accounts of life in Post War Germany for Miss Graham: diaries, letters, journals, log books and official documents. It's not just information, these documents provide really valuable details of people's lives. These are the 'nuggets' we depend on as writers to make our characters authentic to their time and make them come alive, details that it would be impossible, otherwise, to find or imagine. Even the paper, the handwriting, the writing instruments, pencil or fountain pen, the browning paper, the courier font of the manual typewriter are evocative echoes of past lives. 

The Imperial War Museum is also a place of inspiration. I was in another Spy Exhibition when I had one of those powerful moments when disparate strands of an idea come together and coalesce into something that you know will be a book, in this case Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook

Spies, Lies & Deception covered more than a hundred years of espionage through 150 different objects, photographs and interviews. It began with spying in World War 1 and went on to the interwar period and World War II: the deceptions, inflatable tanks and Operation Mincemeat; the gadgets dreamed up by MI9 the precursors of Q and the heroism of agents like Noor Inayat Khan who had to use those gadgets for real. 

Noor Inayat Khan

The exhibition continued through The Cold War period with the Soviet double agents, Cambridge spy, Kim Philby and  Karl Fuchs, the spy who gave away the secrets of the atom bomb to the Soviets. One of my favourites from this period is Melina Norwood, an 87 year old great grandmother, another atomic spy, who wasn't uncovered until 1999. As a woman, she was not considered a threat. 

Melina Norwood - great grandmother - and spy

The exhibition continued to the present, ending with the Salisbury Novichok poisonings and the role of Bellingcat, the online investigators, in uncovering the real identities of the two men responsible, both officers in the GRU,  Russia's Foreign Military Intelligence Agency. 

Matchbox containing secret messages.

We've come a long way from messages hidden in matchboxes to Bellincat's combing of open source data. In a world of deepfakes, where it is hard to tell fact from fiction, their investigation of the Salisbury poisonings proved it is harder now to hide and keep secrets. Just like mobile phones have made any citizen a potential news photographer, online open source intelligence organisations, like Bellingcat, keep an eye on clandestine developments in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.  

Friday 26 April 2024

To Tate Britain - and Ellen Terry’s Dress. By Penny Dolan

The iconic portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in her beetle-wing dress has been a favourite painting of mine for many, many years.


I am not alone in my enthusiasm as, with the detachment of someone who had been on stage almost all her life, the actress herself commented:

“The picture of me is nearly finished and I think it magnificent. The green and the blue of the dress is splendid, and I think the expression as Lady Macbeth holds the crown over her head quite wonderful.”

A while ago, studying Victorian theatre for my children’s novel, I learned that the beetle-wing dress still existed, and was kept as part of Terry’s costume archive at her last home, Smallhythe Place.

The property, a small half-timbered cottage with a tiny theatre, is deep in the Kent countryside, between Tenterden and Rye and now owned by the National Trust. However, the opening hours and parking were limited and Kent is a long way from my home in Yorkshire.

                     Visiting Smallhythe Place's garden | Kent | National Trust

Later, when I was passing through Kent for work, the website informed me that the Trust was now focused on a nearby archaeological site, that Smallhythe Place itself was under renovation and Terry’s dress away for conservation. Ah well, so be it, I thought. By then, my novel A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E was out into the world, other things were happening, and life moved on.

However, about fortnight ago, Ellen Terry came back into my mind. In ‘The Motive and The Clue’, Jack Thorne’s play about the tensions between ageing Sir John Gielgud and young hellraiser, Richard Burton, who wants direction as Hamlet. In response to Burton’s tirade about life as a miners son, Gielgud - most wonderfully played by Mark Gattis - says in a hollow, lonely voice something like “What else could I be, coming from a theatrical family like mine?” Which is when I remembered that Gielgud’s family tree included great-aunt Ellen Terry of the beetle-wing dress. 

Almost on the same day, in a series of tweets by fashion historian Dr Kate Strasdin, I read that, right now, both the Lady Macbeth portrait and that famous dress are on display in Tate Britain, which has prompted this History Girls post today.

The Dress

In 1888, John Singer Sargent, an American-born, European artist, and the leading portrait painter of his generation, attended the opening of Henry Irving’s production of Macbeth. Seeing Terry as Lady Macbeth, he immediately asked to paint her but, as he wrote to his wealthy American patron, Terry delayed until the reviews of the play were in. She “had not yet made up her mind to let me paint her in one of the dresses until she is convinced she is a success. From the pictorial point of view, there can be no doubt about it – magenta hair!”

The blue-green dress was designed by Alice Comyns Carr who made many of Terry’s costumes. The dress ‘shone with a strange metallic lustre’. And had a hint of soft chain mail about it. Carr recorded that her “fine needlewoman” Adaline Cort Nettleship, had “bought this fine yarn for me in Bohemia . . a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel, and wanted ‘something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent”. Photographs, rather than the a painting, show that ‘Mrs Nettles’, as Terry called her, used crotchet work to create the effect.

The design was chosen to invoke fear. Not only was green a dangerously sinister hue but the dress was covered in a thousand glittering scales: the shining wing-cases or ‘elytra’ of the green jewel beetle, which were harvested when the farmed insects had died, which meant little in an era of feathers and furs.

Beetle-wing embroidery originally came from Mughal India, where small sequin-like pieces of ‘elytra’ were traditionally added to decorative and household fabrics and to clothing and accessories for all genders and ages. In the eighteenth century, English women living in India wore soft white dresses embroidered with small green elytra motifs.

However, during the nineteenth century, elytra and elytra fabric were imported to Britain. The fabrics were of lesser quality, but the hard wing cases that glittered in gas or candle-light, were ideal for evening dresses. Terry’s dress, however, was so well-made that it was re-used many times and went on tour to America, before becoming part of her costume archive.

Continuing to describe Lady Macbeth’s costume, Carr noted that: “When the straight thirteenth-century dress with sweeping sleeves was finished it hung most beautifully, but we did not think it was brilliant enough, so it was sewn all over with the real green beetlewings, and a narrow border of celtic designs worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffons were embroidered with flame-coloured tinsel . . . two long plaits twisted with gold hung to her knees.

Note that cloak: though the cloak in the description above is described as “heather”, Carr had also designed a bright scarlet cloak for Terry’s appearance after the Macbeth murder scene. The second cloak offers an interesting view of Terry and Irving’s relationship: although Irving praised the look of the cloak when Terry wore it on the first night, by the second performance, Irving appeared with the cloak thrown around his own shoulders, aware that the splash of the blood-red focused the audience’s eyes on him, on Macbeth. Terry, I assume, shrugged her shoulders.

This action was not necessarily as harsh as it seems. Irving must have felt that, on stage, the cloak would look better on Macbeth as the central character. Irving was always aware of the quality of the acting, but he was also conscious of the picture the scene was creating. He was particular, not only of the positioning and gestures of the actors but also the quality of the painted scenery and the drama added by all the lighting effects. Irving’s intention was that his audience would see each scene as a beautiful, carefully constructed painting: as an example of theatre as high art, not common music-hall entertainment. Ellen Terry, appearing in her green dress, helped to fulfil to his purpose.

The Painting.

Dressed in costume and wearing her long dark-red theatrical wig, Terry took her carriage to Sargent’s studio in Tite Street, London each day for a couple of weeks. She noted that during that time, her “face’s appearance”, as she put it, earned her no fee. Ellen, who loved luxury, was also aware of poverty.

Oscar Wilde, who lived nearby, watched her daily arrival. A Terry fan, he wrote “The street that on a wet dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia . . . can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.”

                                     File:Sargent, John SInger (1856-1925) - Self-Portrait 1907 b.jpg ...

John Singer Sargent, although his image indirectly promoted Irving’s play, did not choose a scene from the production. Originally he started work on a series of grisaille sketches, showing Lady Macbeth leaving the castle keep, surrounded by flares and bowing court ladies. 

                                     Drawing by Sargent for Terry's golden jubilee programme, 1906

However, Singer was keen to use the richness of oil paints to show the “stained glass effects” that he had observed on the Lyceum stage, so he chose to paint a solitary Lady Macbeth, holding Duncan’s crown above her head, a queen from the Celtic twilight.

In the picture, Terry gazes up at the crown with an extraordinary, enigmatic expression. She saw Lady Macbeth as a woman who, because of love, was as one with her husband and his ambition: “a woman of highest nervous organisation, with a passionate intensity of purpose.” Terry loved the work, describing her look as apprehension, and said that the portrait felt “more like me than any other”.

Jonathan Jones, art critic of the Guardian, writing about twenty years ago, suggested that she looks like a sacred figure from an ancient temple. He also criticised the work, pointing out thatthis is not a real moment of self-loss. It is a painting of what theatre meant to the people at the time, an evocation of Terry’s power to inspire fantasy in her public.”

Sargent may have decorated the frame with Celtic motifs, ready for the portrait's first public viewing, which took place in 1889, at the New Gallery in Regent Street’s  owned by Alice’s Comyns Carr’s husband Joseph. The work became a great attraction. Terry reported it as “the sensation of the year . . . There are dense crowds round it day after day . . . but opinions differ about it.” Though some critics loved Sargent's painting, others did not, and The Saturday Review declared it “the best hated picture of the year.”

Sir Henry Irving bought the painting and hung it at The Lyceum Theatre, where he hosted the all-male Beefsteak dining club and eventually celebrated the hundredth performance of 'The Merchant of Venice'. The painting was also exhibited in Europe and South America, until finally being auctioned off and bought for the Tate by a wealthy donor in 1906.

The Actress

Ellen Terry (1847-1928) was born into a large theatrical family. As an infant, her cot would have been an open chest of drawers in that production’s lodgings. As a young child, she grew up reading the works of Shakespeare with her siblings. Terry grew up as familiar with the hardships of the touring life as with the glamour of life on stage.

Her father, Ben, was the business man, the one who found work with the actor-manager Charles Keans’ company. Sarah, Terry’s mother, who taught the child actress about performance and the importance of being ‘useful’ on stage to the leading actors. Aged five, Terry appeared as Prince Arthur in King John and other young roles in Kean’s productions. At eleven, she took the role of Puck in his A Midsummer Nights Dream, and also appeared in a genteel Shakespearian Entertainment attended by Queen Victoria.

Terry’s lively manner, burnished gold hair and Pre-Raphaelite beauty brought her to the attention of wealthy artistic circles, and her life was not without notoriety. At sixteen she retired from the stage to become the wife of the renowned painter G. F. Watts. Already in his mid-forties, Watts was unsure whether he should adopt his model or marry her.

Watts painted The Sisters, a double portrait of Ellen Terry and her older sister Kate, he also painted her alone: in his work ‘Choosing’, she appears as a young girl, caught between the attraction of a scarlet, scentless camellia and the humble, maidenly sweetness of a bunch of violets. Knowing the circumstances and the outcome, this is a rather unsettling image.

Terry also modelled for the pioneer photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was related to Mrs Princeps, Watt’s too-dominant patron. Terry appears as a simple young girl in classical dress, her eyes closed and her head resting in an innocent dreamlike pose. Sadly, as Watts’ spirited wife, Terry found no role in his already well-organised home and was shunned by his reverential circle of admirers. The marriage was not a success, and Terry returned to her parents. 

                                       Wikipedia:Featured picture candidates/Ellen Terry - Wikipedia 

After some brief appearances on stage, Terry fell deeply in love with the designer and architect Edwin Godwin. She ran away from her parents and the public to live with him in rural Hertfordshire, and was soon the mother of two adored children. With Goodwin often away and Terry cut off from society, the relationship was strained, and their mutual love of art and luxury soon brought financial problems.

Then, in 1874, when Terry’s pony-cart lost a wheel on a country lane, Charles Reade a passing horseman, recognised her. He was a playwright and an old theatrical friend who helped her and persuaded her to return to the stage in one of his own plays. With the bailiffs at the door, and Reade’s money on offer, Terry accepted and found that her audiences welcomed her back warmly, both in London and on tour.

Terry’s true ascent to theatrical stardom came not long after. Squire Bancroft, the renowned theatre manager, cast her as Portia in his 1875 production of The Merchant of Venice. Her appearance, first in a china-blue and white gown designed by Alice Comyns Carr and then in black velvet as lawyer, stole the eye. According to the artist Graham Robertson, she was “the painter’s actress” appealing to the eye and ear, “her gestures and pose being elegance itself; her charm held everyone but predominantly those who loved pictures.” Though the actor playing Shylock did not live up to the role, Terry herself, and the production, shone.

Though Godwin’s stage sets, based on his visits to Venice, were praised, Terry’s trust had gone and the relationship broke down. Before long, now formally separated from Watts, she married the actor Charles Wardell Kelly whom she knew on tour. Marriage brought her respectability and her mother and family, who had disowned her, happily accept their daughter again. Kelly, though, was not happy to accept roles of lesser stature than his wife and so, as Terry’s theatrical reputation rose higher, envy and jealousy blighted the marriage.

Besides, Ellen Terry, at that point, was beginning the most important professional relationship of her life. Henry Irving, the leading stage manager and actor of the Victorian age invited her to play Ophelia to his Hamlet at his Lyceum Theatre. She became his stage partner, establishing a theatrical marriage that continued for twenty-four years. Their personalities on stage were complementary and were once described as “the flower and the tree”. Terry’s warmth, womanliness and lightness contrasted with Irving’s serious attitude and sometimes stiff manner. For her part, she was content to use her famed femininity as a foil to his dominant roles.

                                            File:Henry Irving portrait.jpg - Wikipedia

Irving, in his turn, gave Terry the chance to star in all the female Shakespearean roles: Ophelia, Desdemona, Portia, Juliet, Viola, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Imogen, Volumnia and Queen Katherine, for his theatre and she was dubbed, by Oscar Wilde, “Our Lady of the Lyceum.”

And the ‘Missing’ Dress . . .?

I had long given up thoughts of seeing the dress itself, and I did not see the painting when I visited Tate Britain last year, after the great rehang. However, Dr Kate Stradin’s tweet sent me searching online, and there was an answer to the missing garment.

Around the millenium, the National Trust had found that Terry’s archive at Smallhythe Place needed serious attention. There was particular concern about the presence of 'wooly bear moths' within the house and the fabric collection. Consequently, twelve years ago, Zenze Tinka Conservation starting major preservation work on the beetle-wing dress, which was in preparation for the “Sargent and Fashion” exhibition to be held at the Boston Museum of Fine Art in 2023. Reading on, I discovered that the whole exhibition was due to transfer to Tate Britain, in London, in 2024. 

It is 2024 now, and Ellen Terry's famous costume is right here, on display. For the first time since 1889, her green beetle-wing dress, the heather-coloured cloak and Sargent’s portrait will be together in the same place. 

 And on the day this History Girls post appears, I will be down at Tate Britain, meeting and greeting Ellen Terry’s famous green beetle-wing dress at last.

 Maybe, over the summer, I might even take a look at Smallhythe Place again, and see how the conservation work is getting on.

Penny Dolan

PS. After being disappointed by Jonathan Jones’ rather dismissive Guardian review of the Sargent and Fashion exhibition recently, I was hugely cheered to see, on the Letters page, a spirited response from Cally Blackman, asserting the importance of fashion and frocks.

She writes

Whatever the distress caused to Jones by the lighting, wall colours and glass cases in wrong places, it is a very rare thing indeed to see garments displayed next to the paintings in which they are depicted, and a special joy to see these same garments interpreted on the canvas with Sargent’s consummate skill and aesthetic judgment. Some of the gowns on display are by Charles Worth, the most prestigious couturier in Paris (not “designer” – the word had not been invented then).” 

 Then came Blackman’s warning:

Compared with these, Ellen Terry’s beetle-wing-embellished Lady Macbeth stage costume (“costume” is the term for clothing worn for performance, not for garments worn in everyday life) looked dull and lifeless, yet scintillated in radiant, glowing colour from Sargent’s portrait, a testament to his quality as an artist.”  

I am still looking forward to seeing the dress, and the whole exhibition, tremendously. It has been a long time.


Further information:

Ellen Terry by Joy Melville.

Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World by Jeffrey Richards.

A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families by Michael Holroyd

Tom Gurney:

A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E by Penny Dolan


Dr Kate Strasdin @kateStrasdin The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes

                    16 stunning Victorian textiles from The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes

Friday 19 April 2024

Ada Lovelace - by Sue Purkiss

 On a recent stay on Exmoor, I came across an article about someone called Ada Lovelace. I had vaguely heard of her, but if you'd asked me why, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. Yet she turns out to have been a fascinating and significant character - in a number of different ways. 

Born in 1815, she was the only legitimate child of Lord George Gordon Byron, who was famous as much for his scandalous, buccaneering lifestyle as for his status as one of the Romantic poets. His shadow would loom over her life - she called her sons Byron and Gordon; yet she never met him: he and her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke (known as Annabella), separated a month after Ada was born, and he subsequently left England for Europe, never to return. He died in Greece eight years later. Part of the reason for his departure was the amount of scandal surrounding his love life - in particular a probable relationship with his half-sister Augusta. These were the things that pushed him, but there was also something that pulled him: an irresistible craving for adventure, and for a life unshackled by the mores of English society.

Ada Lovelace

Annabella, left with her child, does not seem to have been a particularly affectionate mother, largely handing over the care of Ada to her own mother; but she did have strong views about how the child was to be brought up. Disturbed by Byron's behaviour and black moods, she had come to believe he was insane, and she determined to protect her daughter from insanity by means of education: Ada was to be taught mathematics and logic, and kept away from the dangerous possibilities of literature. One of her tutors was eminent mathemetician and astronomer Mary Somerville - after whom Somerville College in Oxford was later named - and the two became good friends. Ada seemed to have a natural propensity for science: when she was twelve, she decided she was going to learn to fly, and she went about her project methodically and seriously, deciding on suitable materials for wings and studying the anatomy of birds.

Her interest in mathematics continued, and she became friends with the eminent scientist Charles Babbage, working with him on his Analytical Engine, which is often said to be the first computer. Another eminent scientist, Michael Faraday, was impressed by the scientific papers she wrote on the workings of the engine; she saw possibilities as to how it might be used in a way which was over a hundred years ahead of her time. This was a time, remember, when new ideas were bubbling up in all sorts of different spheres: technology, botany, agriculture, ballooning, astronomy, the use of electricity - and, of course, in literature too. Byron himself was one of a group of successful poets including Shelley and Keats, with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey at a slight remove, all of whom, to a greater or lesser degree, plundered the worlds of science for imagery and ideas.

Ashley Combe House (now demolished)

In 1835, Ada married William, the eighth Baron King, later to become the Earl of Lovelace. The main family home was in Surrey - but they honeymooned at another family house on Exmoor, near Porlock Weir, called Ashley Combe. The house was on the steeply wooded slopes of the north coast, with dramatic views of the Bristol Channel. It's a stunningly beautiful area, and it's no surprise that Ada came to love it. She returned there frequently, and she and William redesigned the house, turning it into an opulent Italianate mansion - and they also improved the woodlands, planting exotic trees and creating dramatic viewpoints and a network of paths: she and Babbage discussed their ideas as they walked along these paths, perhaps ending up at the tiny Anglo-Saxon Culbone Church. These woods are a focus of interest again now: along the cliffs are pockets of temperate rain forest, where trees are hosts for lichens and mosses and ferns, thanks to the damp air which sweeps in from the west. Like many other nature-rich habitats in Britain, temperate rain forests have declined, so any remnants are doubly precious - and Ada played her part in protecting them.

She died young, at only 36 - the same age as her father. Like him, she had a life which didn't follow the expected pattern for her time and milieu. Her name is less well-known than his - yet arguably, she achieved far more. Sadly, she became estranged from her husband just months before her death; her mother swept in to care for her. Rather poignantly, she requested to be buried beside the father she had never known, in Nottinghamshire, near his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.