Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Restored: Ellen Terry's Beetle-Wing Dress

"Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't." This briefest of lines from Act I, scene 5, of Shakespeare's Macbeth inspired one of the most famous stage costumes ever constructed.

When the Victorian actor-manager Henry Irving [DNB bio here; Wiki bio here] decided to produce "the Scottish play" in 1888, with he playing the title role and Ellen Terry, his acting partner, playing his wife, Terry [DNB bio here; Wiki bio here] called on her close friend Alice Comyns Carr to design her dresses. Carr wanted one of them to "look as much like soft chain armour" as possible and "yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent." Working with Lyceum dressmaker Mrs. Nettleship, Carr devised a garment "sewn all over with real green beetle wings, and a narrow border in 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 griffins were embroidered in flame-coloured tinsel. The wimple, or veil, was held in place by a circlet of rubines, and two long plaits [of hair] twisted with gold hung to her knees."

The result was magnificent, and John Singer Sargent painted Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889 (shown at left, on display at Tate Britain). 

Now this costume, an irreplaceable link to the Victorian theatre and one of its most famous and fascinating stars, has been restored and put back on view at Smallhythe Place, Ellen Terry's former home in Kent.

[Read the National Trust's press release here,]

Via Kent News 'One of the most iconic dresses of the Victorian era – shimmering with 1,000 real beetle wings – is returning home to Kent. The emerald and sea-green gown, which is covered in iridescent wings of the jewel beetle, was made famous by the celebrated actress Ellen Terry in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in 1888.

'The 120-year-old dress was one of the most iconic costumes of the time, immortalised by the John Singer Sargent portrait at the Tate Gallery. Now, after 1,300 hours of painstaking conservation work costing £50,000, the gown is on display at Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden, where Ellen Terry lived between 1899 and 1928. House manager Paul Meredith said the beetle wings that had dropped off were collected and reattached along with others that had been donated by an antiques dealer.

'"The 100 or so wings that were broken were each carefully repaired by supporting them on small pieces of Japanese tissues adhered with a mixture of wheat starch paste," he said. "But the majority of the work has involved strengthening the fabric, understanding the many alterations that were made to the dress and ultimately returning it to something that is much closer to the costume worn by Ellen on stage in 1888."

[Read a description of the restoration and see additional photos here.]

'The actress, known as the Queen of the Theatre, was famed for her portrayal of Shakespearean heroines and played opposite Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in London for more than 20 years.

'Her beetle dress stage costume was one of the most important items in the National Trust’s collection and was on the priority list to be conserved. Brighton-based conservator Zenzie Tinker and her team carried out the work.

'"We have restored the original shape of the elaborate sleeves and the long, trailing hemline that Ellen so admired," Tucker said. "If she were alive today, I’m sure she’d be delighted. She really valued her costumes because she kept and reused them time and again. I’d like to think she’d see our contribution as part of the ongoing history of the dress."

'The gown is now in a new display space at Smallhythe Place alongside other features from Ellen Terry’s dressing room which have never been viewed by the public before. The half-timbered house, built in the early sixteenth century when Smallhythe was a thriving shipbuilding yard, was Terry's home from 1899 to 1928 and contains her fascinating theatre collection. The cottage grounds include her rose garden, orchard, nuttery, and the working Barn Theatre.

'Mr Meredith said the setting was an intimate area, bursting with theatre history and stage costumes. "Now the beetle wing dress is back and we finally have a really good contemporary display space, we hope to show many more people just how special the house and collections are."'


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, Tate Collection

"Ellen Terry's Beetlewing Gown Back in Limelight," The Guardian, 11 March 2011

Alicia Finkel, Romantic Stages: Set and Costume Design in Victorian England (McFarland, 1996) 


Trish said...

Kristan, thank you for letting us know about this! What an amazing costume, what an amazing story!! To have seen her

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