The Beetle Wing Dress at Smallhythe Place
The beetle wing dress has been conserved prior to being exhibited at Tate Britain and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston as part of the Sargent and Fashion exhibition. The costume and the famous painting of Ellen Terry wearing the dress will be shown together for the first time in over 130 years. It is in storage at Smallhythe Place but is too fragile to be redisplayed before it leaves for the Tate.
On 29 December 1888, a packed auditorium at London’s Lyceum Theatre sat in anticipation of one of the social highlights of the season. It was the opening night of Henry Irving’s revival of Macbeth, in which he played the lead role opposite his long-time acting partner Ellen Terry (1847–1928) .
The curtain rose and Terry’s appearance drew gasps. As Shakespeare’s notorious villainess, she was dressed in a costume of bewitching splendour – a shimmering green robe embellished with iridescent beetle-wing cases. Long dark-red hair, plaited and bound in gold, cascaded over an accompanying heather-coloured velvet cloak to complete her look.
It was the first of three outfits Terry wore to illustrate Lady Macbeth’s changing psychological state over the course of the play. This one was intended to symbolise the character’s ruthless ambition.
Medieval and Pre-Raphaelite inspiration
The remarkable creation was designed by Alice Comyns-Carr and made by Adaline Cort Nettleship. Its green and metallic crochet is overlaid with real wing cases shed by European and Asian jewel beetles. Its medieval design was inspired by an effigy of Clotilde, queen of the Franks, originally from Notre-Dame de Paris.
Comyns-Carr, who worked closely with Terry on many of her costumes, later wrote that the dress combined the look of ‘soft chain armour’ with ‘the appearance of the scales of a serpent’.
" I was anxious to make this particular dress look as much like soft chain armour as I could, and yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent. "
A powerful visual impact
Although critics and theatregoers were divided over Terry’s characterisation, they were united on visual impact of her performance. Her costume created an ethereal vision that ‘might have stood in the court of Camelot’. Oscar Wilde, noting the contrast between her dress and the austere garb of the male cast, quipped ‘Lady Macbeth seems an economical housekeeper, and evidently patronises local industries for her husband’s clothes and the servants’ liveries; but she takes care to do her own shopping in Byzantium’.
The dress was further immortalised in John Singer Sargent’s commanding full-length portrait of Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889, now part of the Tate's collection, which pictured the dramatic moment Lady Macbeth claims her crown as witnessed by him on opening night.
The need for conservation
Subsequent years were hard on the dress, which survived international tours and Terry herself, with her reputation for arriving late and dressing in haste. It was restored and redisplayed at Smallhythe Place, Terry’s Kent home and country retreat, in 2011, after 1,300 hours of conservation work over two years and a cost of £110,000.