Ellen Terry's costumes take centre stage at Smallhythe Place
The sumptuous costumes worn by the celebrated actor Ellen Terry and actor-manager Henry Irving for their performances as Beatrice and Benedick in the 1882 production of Shakespeare’s 'Much Ado About Nothing' are now on display at Smallhythe Place in Kent.
As Textile Curator Emma Slocombe discusses, these costumes were made of luxurious materials and were inspired by the dress styles of the past. Recently conserved, these costumes embody the opulence and spectacle of Lyceum Theatre productions in the 1880s, when Terry and Irving were at the height of their powers.
Born to lead
Over 20 years, Ellen Terry (1847–1928) forged her reputation as a Shakespearian lead playing opposite Henry Irving (1838–1905), who staged 'Much Ado About Nothing' in 1882 precisely to showcase her talents. Indeed, all who witnessed her performance agreed that she was born for the role of Beatrice, a role of passion and sharp-tongued wit. The heroine’s line ‘there was a star danced, and under that I was born’ subsequently become associated with Terry for the rest of her life.
" There was a star danced, and under that I was born."
Terry and Irving insisted on staging plays informed by the authenticity of Shakespeare’s original text rather than merely adhering to previous characterisations. Terry's Beatrice was therefore the ‘merry hearted, pleasant spirited lady’ rather than the scold of traditional interpretation, while Irving's Benedick was a gentleman rather than a bully.
A lavish spectacle
The same principle was applied to the staging and costume design. Working with theatre manager (and 'Dracula' author), Bram Stoker, Irving’s sets for the play were among the most lavish and meticulous ever produced.
The most opulent staging was for the famous wedding scene of Claudio and Hero, where chaos ensues after Hero is accused of being unfaithful. Irving used an Italian picture of a cathedral for the backdrop and consulted a priest over the liturgical accuracy of the altar and lights.
Truth to materials
As the leading lady of the Lyceum Theatre Company, Terry’s performances took centre stage. The costumes she wore sought to enhance the beauty and drama of her characterisation and complement the spectacle of the staging.
Terry owned many books on the history of fashion which – full of her notes on style, fabric and colour – were the inspiration for her and her costume makers, who applied historic styling to their designs. Indeed, the intricately detailed costumes worn by Terry and Irving in 'Much Ado About Nothing' show the influence of Elizabethan fashion.
No style without discomfort
All three costumes were produced by theatrical costumiers Auguste et Cie, based in the heart of London’s theatreland off The Strand. They supplied theatres across Britain and America and the costumier Patience Harris, whose mother founded the company in 1873, is likely to have overseen the design process.
Heavily structured and made of thick velvet, the costumes would have been hot and restrictive to wear. But what they lacked in comfort was offset by their impact; the bold green and red foliate pattern of Beatrice’s dress was inspired by 16th-century Italian velvet designs and the beading on the front of Benedick’s doublet would have shimmered under the soft intensity of the theatre’s limelight.
Conserving the costumes
A wide range of conservation and innovative mounting techniques were used by conservators at Zenzie Tinker Conservation to prepare the costumes for display at Smallhythe. While the gold Beatrice costume was treated to tone in with previous historic conservation, the green and red Beatrice gown and the Benedick costume were conserved for the very first time using photographs of Terry and Irving wearing their costumes as a visual guide.
The majority of the conservation was structural, which involved supporting and encasing areas of weakness in linings, hems, necklines and embellishments. However the theatrical nature of the objects and their setting also dictated a certain amount of aesthetic improvement, for instance the wet cleaning of collars and cuffs and re-casting of replacement buttons and buckles.
Beauty in the detail
Many hours of conservation work were undertaken to improve the structural integrity of the costumes in order to display them. This involved underpinning to support delicate areas of the costumes.
These striking cuffs are supported by a wire frame embellished with pearls and metal thread.
The sumptuous garments are of the highest quality, made from luxurious stamped silk velvet with elaborate trimmings and fine detail.
A night to remember
'Much Ado About Nothing' opened on 11 October 1882 to enthusiastic reviews. The response and sentiment of the audience was captured in a review in the Daily Telegraph:
‘There was but one remark heard last night as an audience, with pleasure written on every countenance, filed out of the handsome theatre into the wet and miserable streets. All had gone more than well...and never before in the memory of the oldest playgoer, had "Much Ado About Nothing" been so well acted or so sumptuously attired.'
" Never before in the memory of the oldest playgoer had Much Ado About Nothing been so well acted or so sumptuously attired.’ "
The play ran for 212 consecutive performances, closing at the height of its success to enable the Lyceum to prepare for their American Tour. The cost of staging 'Much Ado About Nothing' and its predecessor Romeo and Juliet was £53,477 7s 1d, but over their 11-month run the plays made £86,579 12s 9d, for its time a phenomenal profit of £33,000.
On 12 June 1906, Terry revived her Beatrice for the final time at a jubilee celebration to mark her 50-year career on the stage. The Times reported that ‘the vast Drury Lane audience included people from every section of society, high and low, rich and poor’ who joined hands together to celebrate and catch a last glimpse of the swift brilliance of her past performance, as Hero describes her in the play:
‘For look where Beatrice like a lapwing runs / Close by the ground to hear our conference’.
Mementoes from the performance
The 'Much Ado About Nothing' script with Ellen Terry's handwritten annotations in the margins.
Personal items belonging to Ellen Terry include stage make up, a mirror and her spectacles.
An original programme for the performance from the evening of 31 October 1882.