Ellen Terry's costumes take centre stage at Smallhythe Place

Emma Slocombe, Textiles Curator Emma Slocombe Textiles Curator
Costumes at Smallhythe

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. 

Photographs of Ellen Terry in the two Beatrice costumes now on display at Smallhythe
Photographs of Ellen Terry as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
Photographs of Ellen Terry in the two Beatrice costumes now on display at Smallhythe
" 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.

The Church Scene in 'Much Ado about Nothing' by William Shakespeare, after Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853–1937), 1884
The Church Scene in 'Much Ado about Nothing' by William Shakespeare, after Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853–1937), 1884
The Church Scene in 'Much Ado about Nothing' by William Shakespeare, after Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853–1937), 1884


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.

Two surviving Beatrice costumes worn by Terry. One (left) is made of gold stamped velvet and the other (right) of velvet inspired by the colours and patterns of 16th- and 17th-century Genoa velvet
The costumes worn by Ellen Terry as Beatrice for Much Ado About Nothing
Two surviving Beatrice costumes worn by Terry. One (left) is made of gold stamped velvet and the other (right) of velvet inspired by the colours and patterns of 16th- and 17th-century Genoa velvet

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. 

 

Detail of ruff and sleeves

Beatrice's bodice

Beatrice's gold velvet gown worn during the wedding scene – with fitted bodice, full sleeves and a high collar paired with a full skirt and trailing gown – was a romantic interpretation of Elizabethan fashion.

Benadick costume worn by Henry Irving for Much Ado About Nothing

Benedick's doublet

The embellished decoration of Benedick’s doublet was designed to imitate the appearance of the 16th-century vogue for slashed fabrics.

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


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 Daily Telegraph, 1882

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.

Mass appeal

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