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


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating! It's a stunning portrait.

Lesley Downer said...

Fabulous! Shall rush to see it!

Joan Lennon said...