Centre for Design History member, Senior Lecturer Veronica Isaac, reports on her recent research activity to document the costumes of Ellen Terry
Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928) was one of the leading performers of her generation. In spite of a scandalous off stage life (encompassing divorce, love affairs, and two illegitimate children) she charmed audiences across the world, becoming an international celebrity and – at the peak of her career – one of the highest paid actresses of the late nineteenth century.
Terry is most famous for the twenty-four years she spent working alongside the actor/manager Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) at the Lyceum Theatre, London (1878-1902). The aspect of her life and career which attracted my attention, however, was the interest she took in her personal and theatrical wardrobe.
As the leading lady of the Lyceum Company Terry exercised an unusual level of control over her stage costume. She had her own costume designer from the outset. This was initially Patience Harris, who ran the costumiers Auguste et Cie (1857-1901), and – from 1887 – Alice Comyns-Carr (1850-1927). Both Terry and Comyns-Carr were leading figures within Aestheticism: a movement which drew inspiration from across different time periods and cultures, promoting art and décor that celebrated ‘beauty’ and advocating an approach to dress dictated by the taste and physicality of the wearer – rather than fashionable trends. The two women collaborated on a series of costumes which brought Aesthetic dress to the stage, their most famous creation being the glistening green gown Terry wore as Lady Macbeth in 1888. This costume – designed to resemble chain mail- was crocheted from soft green silk yarn with a strand of blue tinsel running through it by the costumier and dressmaker Ada Nettleship (1856-1932). The entire dress was covered with iridescent beetle-wing cases which glittered eerily in the gas light, and Terry’s spectacular entrance onto the Lyceum stage inspired painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) to immortalise her performance on canvas.
Figure 1: An image of the Beetlewing Dress as displayed at Smallhythe Place © David Brunetti/ The National Trust
The ‘Beetlewing dress’ is one of nearly a hundred stage costumes which survive at Terry’s former home – Smallhythe Place in Kent. Now managed by the National Trust, the costumes form part of a wider collection of material documenting Terry’s life and career which was brought together by her daughter – the costumier and theatre director Edith Craig (1869-1947). The Trust took on the custodianship of the house and collection after Craig’s death and over the past two decades they have been working on a series of projects to showcase key pieces from Terry’s stunning stage wardrobe.
These costumes are fascinating – but difficult – garments to work with. Many were used for hundreds of performances under hot lights, they were worn by multiple performers and were often transported across oceans for international tours. Terry was also a challenging performer to costume. Trained in the art, design and history of dress by painter G.F Watts and the architect and designer E.W Godwin, Terry had strong opinions about the style of dress which suited both her body type and the production. She was also renowned for arriving late to the theatre and rushing on stage at the last moment – often damaging her costumes in the process. The surviving costumes are therefore often torn, stained, and worn through use (particularly at seams and fastenings). Conserving and mounting them requires a great deal of time, expertise and financial investment.
I first began working with these costumes during my doctoral research over a decade ago, but they continue to fascinate me. Over the summer I was fortunate enough to be part of an on-going project to condition check, photograph and re-house some key costumes from the collection. I worked with the then Head of the Textile Conservation Studio – Maria Jordan – and a local photographer – Peter Mould – to capture the first images. We began with the costume Terry wore as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, a role she first performed in 1875. This vivid red ribbed-silk incarnation of the costume dates from around the time of the first Lyceum Company Tour to America in 1883 (for which a new version was created) and required particularly delicate handling as it had accumulated significant damage during its stage career. Learn more about this costume here
We also had the chance to photograph some of the rare examples of Terry’s personal dress which survive in the Ellen Terry Collection. This included two of the Chinese Robes Terry wore in the early 1900s, together with a tiny kimono: a gift for Terry’s daughter Edith, from the painter James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) and purchased by him from the House of Liberty when ‘liberty was hardly a name.’
Figure 2: The Portia Costume being photographed against a portable reflector and on a green cloth, 2021 © Peter Mould/National Trust
Figure 3: ¾ view of Terry’s Chinese Robe © Peter Mould/National Trust
Figure 4: Detail of Terry’s Chinese Robe © Peter Mould/National Trust
Figure 5: Rear view of the Kimono presented to Terry by painter James McNeil Whistler © Peter Mould/National Trust
A specific challenge of this initial stage in the photography project was that these garments needed to be photographed on their existing mounts and inside the house: Smallhythe Place dates from the 16th century and has low sloping ceilings and slanting floors – indeed the creaking wooden floor is so steeply angled in some places that you occasionally have the sensation that you are walking across the deck of ship. The lighting had to be kept low – both to minimise potential light damage to the costume, and also for artistic effect. The blinds were pulled down and the costumes were spot lit using a range of specialist lights and portable reflectors. They were also carefully positioned on a green cloth (to allow for editing out the backdrop later if required). This dim lighting actually brought an element of theatricality to the process – giving me an unanticipated insight into how these costumes might have appeared to an audience viewing them from a dark auditorium and illuminated only by gas light.
Figure 6: Edited image of the Portia Costume © Peter Mould
It was a real privilege to be part of this project which has been kickstarted with funding from the Janet Arnold Award (Society of Antiquaries, London). A further grant from the Centre for Design History, made it possible for me to combine a day photographing the costumes, with further research into the photographs, books and archival material held at Smallhythe. Both this research, and the photographs will play a major role in my new biography of Terry which will highlights how the actress used clothing – both on and off the stage – to express and fashion her professional and private self. In the longer term the photography project will also help to make the costume collection accessible to a wider audience – generating high quality images for the National Trust, and ensuring that these important garments are stored in a way which helps secure their long term survival.
Sincere thanks are due to The Societies of Antiquaries and the Centre for Design History for the support they have provided for my on-going research.