The Portia Robes at Smallhythe Place

A faded letter, a prop used for the character Portia in Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'

The Portia Robes of Ellen Terry are newly on display at Smallhythe Place, having undergone some conservation by Zenzie Tinker at her Studio in Brighton. This costume was worn in numerous performances of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Ellen Terry in the role of Portia, whilst taking the disguise of a young man.

Ellen Terry first played the role in 1875 and then in 1879 with Henry Irving and the Lyceum Company when the production ran for 250 performances. It was a part that Ellen Terry played many times over the course of her career and this costume dates from the mid 1880s.

The dress was taken on tour to America several times and would have been used in performances at Sandringham for Queen Victoria. Ellen also lent it to various people over the years for performances or for fancy dress, amongst them Vita Sackville West.

Vita Sackville West as Portia in Shakespeares' 'The Merchant of Venice' painted by Clare Atwood
A painting of Vita Sackville West in the role of Portia from 'The Merchant of Venice' by Clare (Tony) Atwood

The painting of Vita as Portia is by Clare (Tony) Atwood, who lived with Edy Craig and Christopher St. John at Priest House next door to Smallhythe Place. The trio did not meet Vita until the 1930s so this painting is retrospective and probably based on an earlier photo of Vita as Portia.

The costume comprises of robe, dress and sash and is made from a combination of materials of differing weights. From the heavy deep red ribbed silk of the centre bodice panel and upstanding collar and skirt, to the long dark rust red silk crepe of the robe, and the floor length crimson ribbed silk long sleeved dress, the Portia robes are both elegant and unique. Its extending train, stiffened round collar and hand-stitched fastenings add such exquisite detail to the dress. This is a hand crafted masterpiece of an irreplaceable nature.

The robes are on display in the Lyceum room, and can be viewed during normal opening hours at Smallhythe Place.