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Costume conservation

The hands of a conservator working on the green beetle wing dress in the Costume Gallery at Smallhythe Place
Conservation on the green beetle dress at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images/David Levenson

Discover the painstaking processes behind restoring some of the most beloved costumes in Smallhythe's collection.

One collection of particular importance is the costume collection. It is the largest portfolio of Ellen Terry’s costumes and garments that she gathered over a 60-year career as one of England’s most reputable actresses.

Senior Collections & House Officer Susannah Mayor says: ‘Preventing the infestation of carpet beetles and "woolly bears" among the costumes is arduous but important work. In 2014 we had to freeze over 200 costumes after a breakout occurred, which is a long and tricky process, so we do everything we can to prevent this happening again.’

The collection is kept in carefully regulated conditions that control light, temperature and humidity, but textiles are notoriously susceptible to pests.

Faced with the prospect of an attack on these precious items, area conservator, Gill Nason, and textile consultant, Zenzie Tinker, were consulted. Zenzie is also responsible for the conservation of the famous Beetle wing dress worn in 1888 by Ellen as Lady Macbeth.

Close up of the Beetlwing dress
Close up of the Beetlwing dress | © National Trust Images/David Brunetti

Conserving the Beetlewing Dress

Perhaps most famous of all Ellen Terry's costume is the Beetlewing dress that she wore as Lady Macbeth in the Lyceum Theatre production of 'Macbeth' in 1888.

Designed by Alice Laura Comyns-Carr and made by Adaline Cort Nettleship, the dress was designed to invoke fear. The addition of beetlewings created the effect of a serpent's scales. The whole outfit, which included a purple velvet cloak, contrasted with Terry’s long, dark red theatrical wig which was plaited with gold.

Starring opposite Terry was her long-time acting partner Henry Irving, and the play was one of the theatrical highlights of the 1888 social season. Terry’s performance and its powerful visual impact were immortalised the following year in a painting by the artist John Singer Sargent (currently on display at Tate Britain).

Conserving the Beetlewing Dress at the Textile Conservation Studio, Norfolk
Conserving the Beetlewing Dress at the Textile Conservation Studio, Norfolk | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

At the Textile Conservation Studio, Norfolk

Conservators using a digital microscope to inspect the Beetlewing dress

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The dress underwent major conservation work 12 years ago by Zenzie Tinker Conservation and the cloak also recently underwent conservation work by the National Trust's Textile Conservation Studio. This was ahead of its loaned display for the 'Sargent & Fashion' exhibition in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston in October 2023.

It has now transferred to Tate Britain in London, where it will be displayed alongside Sargent's portrait. This exhibition marks first time the dress, cloak and painting have been brought together since 1889.

Over 450 hours of conservation work on the silk velvet cloak has taken place, including documentation, professional photography, deconstruction, supporting the fragile velvet onto Studio dyed fabric with laid couching stitches worked in the most fragile areas, Sudio dyed conservation net has also been applied to damaged/delicate areas.

The Beatrice Dress as previously displayed at Smallhythe Place
The Beatrice Dress as previously displayed at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images/Cassie Dickson

Conserving the Beatrice dress

Ellen Terry’s ‘Beatrice’ costume from her role in the 1891 production of Much Ado About Nothing is currently on loan to the V&A as part of their 'DIVA' exhibition. The costume was previously conserved at the Zenzie Tinker Conservation Studio in 2020 and has been on show at Smallhythe Place since.

Prior to an object going on loan to another institution it is important to fully document its condition; a way of protecting both loaner and borrower (and of course the costume itself). Jamie Robinson, a Textile Conservator from Zenzie Tinker Conservation Studio, assessed and packaged the dress with the help of our Collections & House team in April 2023.

Documentation took the form of a report accompanied by diagrams and photographs and the dress was packed in a costume storage box, padded with acid-free tissue and custom-made polyester wadding pads to prevent creasing and movement in transit.

Much Ado About Conservation

A freshly packaged Beatrice Dress at Smallhythe Place
A freshly packaged Beatrice Dress at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images

Ready to go

The Beatrice dress packed and ready to go in transit in 2023.

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The weight of the garment, lustre of the velvet under the soft museum lighting and twinkling cut glass gems gave me a real sense of what it must have felt like to wear the costume on stage and it feels very fitting that it is now going on loan to another ‘stage’ to yet another audience

A quote by Jamie RobinsonZenzie Tinker Conservation Textile Conservator