Biography, Blog

The Enigma of Ellen Terry (1847-1928) – Dr. Veronica Isaac

Ellen Terry (1847-1928)

‘Of Ellen Terry, the actress, Our Lady of the Lyceum as Oscar Wilde used to style her, what a series of wonderful pictures live in the memory”[i]

ELLEN TERRY, photograph by Samuel Alexander Walker (1841-1922), a photographer with a studio on Regent Street, London. The photograph shows Ellen Terry when living with Edward Godwin.

A leading late nineteenth century actress, Dame Ellen Terry’s lifestyle directly challenged conventional Victorian morality and social codes: encompassing three marriages, two illegitimate children, and at least two long term love affairs. Despite this, she became one of the most respected performers of the era and achieved international success.

The daughter of two ‘strolling players,’ Terry made her stage debut in 1856 and continued acting until her first marriage, aged 16, to the painter George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) in 1864. Although she separated from Watts in late 1865, the marriage introduced her to ‘another world, a world full of pictures and music and gentle, artistic people.’[ii]

The time she spent with Watts had a lasting influence on her taste in décor and dress. Her subsequent relationship with the architect and designer Edward William Godwin (1833-1886) had an equally significant impact on her approach to dress and design, both on and off the stage, initiating her ‘[…] interest in colour, texture, effects of light on colour, the meaning of dress, and a certain taste for beauty which [she] never lost.’[iii]

Terry first met Godwin in 1863, and the pair became reacquainted during her brief, and unhappy, return to the stage in late 1865. In 1866, Terry abandoned family, friends, and her professional career, to spend six years living with Godwin in rural Surrey. Godwin introduced Terry to the artistic principles and leading advocates of Aestheticism, just as the movement was gaining hold in Britain. Strongly influenced by non-European and historical styles, this ‘Cult of Beauty’ rejected conventional late nineteenth art, dress and interior design: promoting the idea of ‘art for art’s sake.’[iv] Godwin drew much of his inspiration from Japanese art and design. The homes Godwin and Terry shared were shaped by this minimalist aesthetic, with bare floors, plain walls decorated with Japanese paper fans and prints, and Terry herself, frequently appearing in a silk kimono.

In 1874, escalating debts compelled Terry to return to London and resume acting, and within two years she and Godwin had parted. Now the mother of two illegitimate children, Edith Craig (1869-1947) and Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), she overcame not only the gossip surrounding the failure of her marriage to Watts, but also the scandal provoked by her subsequent relationship with Godwin (whom she never married). She never attempted to conceal the existence of her children, and they played an important part in establishing her identity as a caring mother, whose return to the stage was an unavoidable sacrifice made through necessity, rather than any personal ambition.

In 1878, Terry’s popularity brought her to the notice of Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905). Newly established as the manager of the Lyceum Theatre, Irving offered her a position as the leading lady of the Lyceum Company. The success of Terry’s stage partnership with Irving, which lasted over twenty years, stemmed from their mutual respect for each other’s professional ability, together with their close personal relationship. Significantly, Irving appreciated Terry’s knowledge of ‘art and archaeology in dress,’ whilst she recognised that he often ‘[…] had a finer sense of what was right for the scene.’[v]

National and international tours secured Terry’s fame throughout England, America and Australia and her salary reached ‘£200 a week’ (the average weekly income of a leading lady was £25 to £40).[vi] Whilst the status Terry achieved within her profession was not unique, the level of influence she was able to exercise over her stage dress, and the immense sums invested in many of her most spectacular costumes, was unusual.

Oil painting on canvas, Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928) as Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, after John Singer Sargent, RA (Florence 1856 – London 1925). Inscribed in pencil, in capitals, down edge: CARR. A copy after the original in Tate Britain from an invented pose, not seen in the performance of 1888 but Sargent was struck by the actress’s appearance. Oscar Wilde, who saw Terry’s arrival at Sargent’s Chelsea studio, remarked, ‘The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.’over her stage dress, and the immense sums invested in many of her most spectacular costumes, was unusual.

The garments Terry wore, both on and off the stage, played a crucial role in securing her reputation as an ‘Icon of Aestheticism’. The Aesthetic movement placed an emphasis on the beauty that results through ‘harmony’ and the inspiration which can be drawn from the past, fuelling a desire for theatre costumes which were ‘archaeologically correct and artistically appropriate.’[vii] Terry and her designers carefully researched past fashions when presenting historical productions. Similarly, she collaborated with the scene painters, consulting them ‘about the colour, so that I should not look wrong in their scenes, nor their scenes wrong with my dresses.’[viii]

Sustaining the illusion of ‘eternal youth’ became an increasingly oppressive burden for Terry during her final years as ‘Our Lady of the Lyceum’. Conscious that, however forgiving her audiences were, she could no longer provide the youthful and innocent heroines Irving required, Terry left the Lyceum Company in 1902.

A year later she leased the Imperial Theatre, commencing her first, and only, venture into theatre management. Working with her daughter (a respected costumier) and son (a progressive and experimental designer and director), Terry staged a controversial production of The Vikings by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). Although the production proved a commercial and financial disaster, for Terry, it represented an important rebellion against her characterisation as ‘a Victorian actress.’[ix]

Staging this production was part of a wider process of self-fashioning through which Terry sought to establish a new, progressive, identity. The lecture tours she undertook between 1910 and 1915

Photograph of Ellen Terry lecturing on Shakespeare’s heroines. She began these successful lectures in 1910, and in 1914 started a world tour, cut short by the outbreak of the First World War. Original photographer unknown – work may be in copyright and her published writings, particularly her autobiography (published in 1908), also provided an important means through which Terry demonstrated that ‘There [was] something more in my acting than charm!’
Terry continued to act on stage, and in some early films, until ill health, and increasingly poor eye sight, led to her enforced retirement. Her elevation to the rank of Dame, in 1925, was a highlight of her final years. This honour affirmed Terry’s position as a respected figure and leading actress and when she died, in 1928, the King and Queen were amongst the thousands who mourned her passing.

After Terry’s death, Edith Craig, transformed Terry’s former home, Smallhythe Place, into a memorial to her mother. Now run by the National Trust  [], it provides a lasting testament to a woman, who overcame a scandalous off-stage life and established herself as a financially independent, respected, and popular actress, who understood the ‘art’ of dress, both on and off the stage.



Veronica Isaac is a freelance curator and University Lecturer. She is interested in all forms of material culture, but specialises in historic dress and theatre costume from the long nineteenth century. Her PhD research explored Ellen Terry’s personal and theatrical wardrobe and was carried out in collaboration with the National Trust, Victoria & Albert Museum and the University of Brighton.

[i] Walford Graham Robertson. Time Was: The Reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1931, 149.

[ii] Ellen Terry, The Story of My Life (London:Hutchinson, 1928) 48.

[iii] Ellen Terry, “Stage Decoration”, The Windsor Magazine (Copyright by S.S.McClure Company in the United State of America, 1911) 74.

[iv] Stephen Calloway, ‘The Search for a new beauty’, in Stephen Calloway, Lynn F. Orr, and Esmé Whittaker’s, The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic movement, 1860-1900 (London: V&A Publishing, 2011) 11.

[v] Terry, The Story of My Life, 157.

[vi] Kerry Powell, Women and Victorian Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 7 and Tracy Davis, Actresses As Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture (London: Routledge, 1991) 26.

[vii] Oscar Wilde, ‘Truth and Masks,’ Intentions: The Decay of Lying. Pen, Pencil, and Poison, The Critic As Artist, The Truth of Masks (London: Osgood (1891, [Online edition, transcribed from the 8th edition published by Methuen and Co. in 1913]). n.p. Accessed 7 July 2012.

[viii] Terry, The Story of My Life, 69.

[ix] Terry, The Story of My Life, 312.

Figure 1 – Samuel Walker, Ellen Terry in the 1880s, Cabinet card photograph. ©Samuel Alexander Walker/National Trust Images/John Hammond_NT Images  56293

Figure 2 – George Frederick Watts, Choosing. Oil on strawboard mounted on Gatorform, 1864. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG 5048. This portrait shows Terry aged 17 as painted by her then husband G.F. Watts. Terry is wearing the brown silk wedding dress designed for her by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910).

Figure 3 – Samuel A. Walker, Ellen Terry, ca.1874, Sepia Photograph on paper. 14.1 x 10.4cm. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum Number S.133:418-2007. Terry posing in a Kimono, c.1874. Terry often wore kimonos whilst living with Godwin and they remained part of her wardrobe.

Figure 4 – Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928) as ‘Lady Macbeth’ in William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ after John Singer Sargent, RA (Florence 1856 – London 1925) ©National Trust Images_NT Images 1010376.

Figure 5 – Photographer Unknown_Terry in the costume in which she performed her lectures c.1910-1914 ©National Trust Images/John Hammond _NT Images 61530