Spotlight On … Ellen Terry

Written by James Hawksley

On Monday 23rd April, the National Leather Collection hosted Night at the Museum! for World Book Night. To follow on from this event, and our blog on Frank Gregory’s doublet a couple of weeks ago ( check it out here if you missed it), I thought of two particular items from our collection that would be fitting for this week’s blog.

Today, we’ll look at Shakespearean actress, Ellen Terry, whose life was worthy of a play in itself.

So, what does this have to do with our Museum? We, dear reader, are lucky enough to have two items belonging to Miss Terry in our collection.

The first is a scissor set, in a triangular case covered with red roan leather. Roan leather is a soft, flexible sheepskin leather, often made to mimic morocco leather. Ellen Terry’s monogram is engraved onto the front of the case in gold tooling. The second item is a waist-belt worn by Ellen Terry during her performance as Ophelia in 1878. It is made of calf leather with silvered copper fittings.

© National Leather Collection
© National Leather Collection

Ellen Terry was born in Coventry, on the 27th February 1847. She began her theatre career acting in Shakespearean plays at the very young age of 9. In 1856, she played the young prince, Mamillius, in The Winter’s Tale opposite Charles Kean as Leontes. She performed for several years at various venues, including the Theatre Royal in Bristol after joining the Stock company.

Ellen took a short break in acting when she was 16, allowing her to marry painter and sculptor, George Fredrick Watts, who was thirty years her senior. The marriage was a complete failure and they were already separated within the year.

Struggling to become enthusiastic about performing again, Ellen tried to return to the stage but with little gusto. She retired from the stage again for a further six years whilst living with Edward Godwin, an architect and theatre designer.

Ellen Terry, aged 16.

Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Henry Irving (left) and Ellen Terry (right) as Coriolanus and Volumnia in Coriolanus, 1901.

Again, and even after two children, Ellen’s relationship was starting fail. Luckily, she found a new friend in the form of author and producer, Charles Reade. Reade reignited her passion for theatre and Ellen performed as Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

Then came more good news. Watts had finally demanded a divorce. It had only taken him 13 years, a new relationship and two children with another man to finally admit that it was over. HURRAH, you might think! In true form, Ellen found a new man shortly after; Charles Kelly, an actor. HURRAH again, you may think! Alas, Ellen continued her track record of short relationships, and they too were separated not long after.

Amidst this torrent of relationships, it seems incredible that Ellen still managed to find the time to act.

Ellen was developing a great “professional” relationship with Henry Irving, while still married to Charles Kelly of course. Irving ran the Lyceum Theatre and wanted to improve it, to make the theatre the centre of outstanding Shakespearean theatre. Ellen was exactly what he required with her dazzling performances and undeniable beauty.

Whilst at the Lyceum Theatre, Ellen played important roles such as Portia (1879), Juliet and Beatrice (1882), Lady Macbeth (1888), Queen Katharine (1892), Imogen (1896), Volumnia (1901), Ophelia (1878), Desdemona (1881), and Cordelia (1892) and also a more humble role in Beckett, a play by Tennyson.

Ellen continued to act, and toured to the US. Eventually, as with all of us, time wasn’t on her side, and she started to become too old for a lot of the roles she performed. The affections between her and Irving started to dwindle, and she severed ties with Irving in 1902.

Before she parted ways with Irving, Ellen had been in correspondence with George Bernard Shaw, a comic dramatist, literary critic, and socialist propagandist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. He was encouraging Terry to leave Irving and help him promote and lead his new Theatre productions. Sadly though, Ellen lacked the skills due to her temperament .

She then married again, to an American actor James Crew. Then, would you believe it, they separated not long after.

In 1925 Ellen had performed her last play. Her memory and eye sight were starting to fail. She died 3 years later in her cottage in Smallhythe in Kent.

It’s amazing to know that we have two pieces of theatre history in our collection. Pieces that had such close connections to prominent actors and names of the Victorian period. Most importantly, we have been able to put a face and provenance to these items. To a museum, is equally as valuable as the objects themselves.

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