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Smallhythe Place’s famous patron, Joanna Lumley

Interior of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place showing a structural timber frame and a stage with chair set out in rows
The Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

At the start of 2020 the National Trust announced Joanna Lumley OBE as the new patron of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place in Kent, the former home of Victorian actress Dame Ellen Terry.

Strong connections

Like Ellen Terry, Joanna has strong local connections, is a leading actress and human rights activist, and both have been recognised by the Honours system for these roles.

Talking about her local connections, she said ‘When I was eight years old and staying with friends in Tenterden we were corralled into a pageant of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which involved much dressing up. I was a rat or a waif, I forget which: but my sister playing a burgher’s wife went to be dressed by Miss Maud Gibson, whose ancient cottage creaked under a sloping roof, filled with fabrics and costumes…. and she was Dame Ellen Terry’s dresser and confidante, and we were touching hands that had touched greatness.’

Patrons and performers

Joanna follows in the hallowed footsteps of Sir Donald Sinden and Sir John Gielgud. Donald was patron of the Barn Theatre for 20 years until his death in 2014. He assumed the mantle from Sir John Gielgud (Ellen Terry’s great-nephew) who was the Barn Theatre’s patron for 50 years.

Over the decades, many famous actors have trodden the boards of the theatre, including Sybil Thorndike, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Alec Guinness, Rachel Kempson, Paul Schofield, Nigel Hawthorne and Peggy Ashcroft to name but a few.

Outside the 17th-century Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place, Kent
Outside the 17th-century Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The Patron's chair

In July 1929, Ellen Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, opened the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place, holding a memorial performance each year on the anniversary of her mother’s death. She funded this transformation of the 17th-century building by promoting sponsorship of the rush-seated chairs, which are still used in the theatre today. The pokerworked names on the chairs form a fascinating web of Modernist theatrical, lesbian, artistic and neighbourly networks with suffrage and social causes at its heart.

Adding Joanna Lumley's name

To celebrate Joanna’s position as patron, her name is delicately pokerworked, or burned in small dots, on to the back of the chair of actress Dame May Whitty. Like Ellen and Joanna, May Whitty was an acclaimed actress, playing the nurse in Laurence Olivier’s production of Romeo and Juliet and receiving two Oscar nominations for film roles.

She was also lauded for her charitable work, notably the Three Arts Women’s Employment Fund and the British Women’s Hospitals. She was Chair of the Actresses’ Franchise League, campaigning for women’s right to vote. In 1930, the actors’ trade union, British Actors’ Equity, was formed in her London home. Joanna’s chair now sits among many other famous names in the auditorium, tying her to this unique theatrical gem for many years to come.

Joanna Lumley's view

Speaking about her patronage, Joanna says, ‘And now I have a separate and most precious inheritance: the Patronage of the Barn Theatre, passed down to me from Sir Donald Sinden. I could not be prouder or happier. The world turns round, and here I am 65 years later, with that rat (or waif) still inside me, still star-struck at this huge privilege. I am grateful beyond words.’

Visitors in the garden at Smallhythe Place, Kent


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