Now contained within special air-tight boxes, Dame Ellen Terry's Victorian theatre costumes and day dresses rarely see the light of day, but a talk being given by the National Trust at Smallhythe Place on Wedesday 6 June plans to reveal some of her hidden treasures.

Rummaging through the contents of a lady’s wardrobe seems intensely personal but on this occasion the caretakers of Dame Ellen Terry’s personal affects don’t think she would mind the intrusion. Now contained within special air-tight boxes, Dame Ellen’s Victorian theatre costumes and day dresses rarely see the light of day, but a talk being given by the National Trust at Smallhythe Place on Wednesday 6 June plans to reveal some of her hidden treasures. 

Dame Ellen was the leading Shakespearean actress of the Victorian stage. Her performances led to audiences dubbing her the ‘Queen of the Stage’ and contemporaries, such as Oscar Wilde writing sonnets in her honour.  In 1878 she became the leading lady for Henry Irving’s theatre company based at the Lyceum in London and it was here that she formed two of the most important partnerships of her career. Working alongside Henry Irving for the next twenty years, Dame Ellen produced some of her most famous roles which included Portia from The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth.  It was also whilst based at the Lyceum that she met the dress designer Alice Comyns-Carr. 

Dame Ellen believed in comfort and beauty and, in a controversial move for her day, refused to wear corsets or bras.  Away from the stage she spent much of her time in richly embroidered kimonos or loose flowing gowns and her penchant for dancing around the gardens of Smallhythe dressed in her nightgown resulted in the warning that it ‘may inflame the local farmers’.   

On stage, however, her costumes needed to deliver maximum impact.  She was renowned for her natural presence and ability to ‘float’ across the stage and her costumes were designed with this in mind.  Her refusal to wear anything heavy or constricting could be problematic but Alice Comyns- Carr was more willing to experiment with designs and fabrics than her predecessors and the pairing led to some of Dame Ellen’s most dramatic costumes, including the now famous beetlewing dress.   

Designed for Ellen’s role as Lady Macbeth, Alice said that she ‘was anxious to make this particular dress  look as much like soft chain armour as I could, and yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent’.  The extra something were the emerald green wing cases of a jewel beetle found in India, Thailand and Burma.  The beetles naturally shed their wing cases and once attached to the dress gave it an iridescent sheen that led to it becoming a ‘society sensation’ in 1888.

Despite a performing career that spanned nearly seven decades, Dame Ellen suffered from stage fright and would often rush on to the stage at the very last minute.  She frequently tore her costumes in the process and this may have been one of the reasons why, when National Trust conservators looked at the dress in 2006, they discovered it was actually two dresses in one with many alterations and attachments having been made.  In the tradition of the theatre, however, costumes were frequently loaned out or adapted for other actors and on one occasion, the borrowing of the beetle wing dress led to Dame Cybil Thorndike reporting an experience of being propelled onto the stage by what she felt to be Dame Ellen’s presence when she forgot her lines during a performance of Macbeth.

It took 1500 hours of conservation to restore the beetlewing dress to its former glory, but its story is fascinating and will be just one of the highlights discussed at the talk. So, if you would like to know more about the contents of these very special boxes please make sure you visit Smallhythe Place in Tenterden, Kent on Wednesday 6 June 2012.  The talk will be held between 2pm and 4pm and will include a tour of the usually private costume store and a display of items not usually on show. 

Normal National Trust admission charges apply and if you would like any further information please call the office on 01580 762334 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/smallhythe-place

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are due to Katie Shaw, Paul Meredith and all the members of the National Trust team who kindly shared their time and expertise with me. It is greatly appreciated.