The Museum at Smallhythe Place

Smallhythe Place, in Tenterden Kent. Former home of victorian actress, Dame Ellen Terry

Born into a family of travelling actors, Ellen Terry was immersed in the world of theatre all her life. The museum at Smallhythe Place plays homage to her life and career. With over 9500 artefacts from her personal and professional life, the collection here explores her history and unravels hidden secrets of how she became an international celebrity of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Ellen bought Smallhythe Place in1899 as a quiet retreat, away from her busy life in London treading the boards. She lived here until she died in 1928. Ellen left all her remaining property at Smallhythe to her daughter, Edy Craig who was determined to establish Smallhythe Place as a museum in honour of her late mother. With much financial difficulty, a year later Edy successfully turned the house into a museum and the barn into a working theatre. In 1939 Edy gifted the property to the National Trust.

Edy rearranged many of Smallhythe’s rooms to create displays relating to Ellen’s life. With the exception of the Library and the recently re-designed Costume Room, the current layout of the rooms departs very little from Edy’s original arrangements. Smallhythe Place therefore survives much as E.V. Lucas described in 1936: filled with mementoes of Ellen’s life and career, and still ‘pulsating with [her] personality’.

The Terry Room

Used by Ellen as a sitting room, this room now explores Ellen’s professional and personal background.

Costume sketches by Burne-Jones and a portrait of Ellen as Joan of Arc by G.F. Watts (Ellen’s first husband) hang on the walls and portray Ellen in various roles throughout her time on stage.  A scroll produced to commemorate her 50-year Stage Jubilee in 1906 takes centre place above the fireplace, and the insignia with which she was presented when she was made a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire serve as reminders of her professional achievements.

Alongside these sit more intimate mementoes of Ellen’s life: her birth certificate, her family tree and her ‘friendship necklace’, compiled by Ellen from beads given to her by family and close friends.

The Terry Room at Smallhythe Place

The Dining Room

The dining room now explores the actress’s connections with leading artists and performers of her generation and documents key moments in her 60-year career bringing insight into the theatrical world within which she rose to distinction. However, the room also retains many social and private elements of how it was originally during Ellen’s time here.

Formerly the kitchen, Ellen turned this area into her dining room when she arrived at Smallhythe Place. It was somewhere informal to gather together with friends and family and sit around the fire during the cold winters. To this day, her wooden settle remains in its original position on the right handside of the 16th Century fireplace.

Today the dining room echoes Smallhythe’s new identity, a conversion from a private home to a public memorial; the original cases with their hand-written labels installed by Edy Craig still on display.

The Dining Room at Smallhythe Place

The Lyceum Room

Once a bedroom, the Lyceum room now showcases Ellen’s stage career, focusing in particular on her time as leading lady at the Lyceum theatre where she worked with Henry Irving.

The display cases and cabinets contain a diverse collection of mementoes from Ellen’s many performances, including the dress robes she wore when playing Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Amongst other stage props, sit sketches and photographs connected to Henry Irving, who became manager of the Lycuem theatre in 1878.

The Lyceum Room at Smallhythe Place

The Library

In 1968 this room was converted in to a library where Ellen’s books, originally kept ‘mainly just in piles’ distributed around the house, were all brought together. Today over 3,000 books can be found in here.

These books are filled with marginalia, as F.T Bowyer said ‘The charm and interest of the books is due largely to their owner’s copious comments and annotations’, from theatrical biographies of her contemporaries and predecessors to play texts she appeared in or studied, including her series of lectures on Shakespeare. The collection is filled with hidden history and Ellen’s passion for literature.

The Library at Smallhythe Place

The Bedroom

Perhaps both the most personal and intimate room at Smallhythe, the bedroom retains its original layout and emulates the way in which Ellen used it throughout her time living here.

Radiating a tranquil and calm ambiance due to the absence of artefacts connected with her career and celebrity status, the focus of this room is instead on her personal life, her relationships as a mother, daughter, sister and a woman in her own right.

The furnishings here served a practical purpose or personal connection to Ellen, the well-worn school desk was originally purchased for her children, and used by Ellen throughout her life for letter writing; the dressing table designed by Edward Godwin overlooking the road and Yew Tree Cottage; and the round table, still laid for tea illustrates the room becoming both her sitting room as well as her bedroom in her later years.

The photographs on the surrounding walls show family and the people who were dearest to her. Amongst them is a pastel portrait of her mother, Sarah Terry.

The Bedroom at Smallhythe Place

The Costume Room

Here, behind a large glass display case stands the famous Beetle wing Dress worn by Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1888 at the Lyceum Theatre. Designed by Alice Comyns Carr, the dress is adorned with real wings shed naturally by the jewel beetle of Southeast Asia. Carr, who worked closely with Terry on her costumes, wrote that the dress should look 'like soft chain armour… [and] give the appearance of the scales of a serpent'. Beside this lies a replica of what Ellen’s backstage dressing room would have looked like.

The Beetlewing Dress at Smallhythe Place, worn by Ellen Terry in the role of Lady Macbeth