The Costumes at Smallhythe Place
A look into some of Ellen Terry’s most well-known costumes, the process behind their conservation and where you can see them in upcoming exhibitions.
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).
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 is ahead of its loaned display for the 'Sargent & Fashion' exhibition in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston in October 2023. It will later transfer to Tate Britain in London in 2024, where it will be displayed alongside Sargent's portrait. This will be the 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 Beetlewing dress
The Beetlewing dress, positioned in an identical manner to reflect John Singer Sargent's portrait.
The Beatrice Dress
Ellen Terry’s ‘Beatrice’ costume from her role in the 1891 production of Much Ado About Nothing is now on loan to the V&A as part of their 'DIVA' exhibition in June this year. 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 of this year.
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.
Ellen Terry as Beatrice
A photograph of Ellen Terry in the Beatrice dress for the 1891 production of 'Much Ado About Nothing'.
'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.'
- Jamie Robinson, Textile Conservator at Zenzie Tinker Conservation
Currently displayed at Smallhythe Place
While some of our costumes are out on loan, there are several beautiful pieces still on display upstairs in the house at Smallhythe Place.
In the costume room, you will find two costumes worn by Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving for the 1882 Lyceum Theatre production of 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Displayed around these costumes are photographs and letters strewn across a vanity table, reminiscent of a backstage dressing room.
Further along the corridor you will find a room dedicated to memorabilia from past productions Ellen Terry and Henry Irving starred in, including the headdress Ellen wore for the 1888 production of Macbeth and several smaller and delicate pieces that show the same handsewn beetlewings as seen on the famous dress.
A cabinet of curiosities
A display cabinet filled with shoes, hats and other props from Ellen Terry and Henry Irving's productions.