Ellen-Terry

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THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF A DRESS

Restored dress as worn by Ellen Terry in her 1888 portayal of Lady Macbeth.

“When Ellen starred alongside Henry Irving in Macbeth in 1888, there was not a wide choice of fabrics available in England, and Alice could not find the colours she wanted to achieve her effects. She wanted one dress to ‘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.’ (Mrs. J. Comyns Carr’s 'Reminiscences’. London: Hutchinson, 1926) Mrs. Nettlship found a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel in Bohemia and this was crocheted to achieve the chain mail effect.

The dress hung beautifully but: 'we did not think that it was brilliant enough, so it was sewn all over with real green beetle wings, and a narrow border in Celtic designs, worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffens were embroidered in flame-coloured tinsel. The wimple, or veil, was held in place by a circlet of rubies, and two long plaits twisted with gold hung to her knees.’

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In 1888 actress Ellen Terry performed the role of Lady Macbeth at London’s Lyceum Theatre while wearing an awesome green gown bedecked with the 1,000 sloughed-off wings of the jewel beetle. It quickly became one of the most celebrated costumes of the Victorian era, immortalized in a portrait painted by John Singer Sargent.

126 years is a long time and over the years Dame Terry’s dress experienced all sorts of wear and tear and numerous alterations. But after 1,300 hours of painstaking work over and £50,000 ($81,000) in expenses, this magnificent costume has been restored to its original glory.

Work began on the gown two years ago after a successful fundraising campaign, but restoring the beetle wings wasn’t the most difficult task. “We had collected the beetle wings that had fallen off over the years,” says Paul Meredith, house manager at Smallhythe Place, where the dress now resides, “so that the conservator was able to reattach many of the originals, plus others that had been donated to us—1,000 in total.” The restoration team patched the 100 or so broken wings using small pieces of Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.

Click here to read more about the restoration process.

Photos by Zenzie Tinker

[via Morbid Anatomy and Ecouterre]

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(via The archaeology of a dress : Archaeology News from Past Horizons)

A stage costume worn by Ellen Terry, one of the most celebrated and glamorous actresses of the Victorian age, has now returned  home to Smallhythe Place in Kent – now a National Trust property.

The emerald and sea green gown, covered with the iridescent wings of the jewel beetle (which they shed naturally), was worn by Ellen when she thrilled audiences with her portrayal of Lady Macbeth at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1888.

It was one of the most iconic and celebrated theatre costumes of the time, immortalised by the John Singer Sargent portrait now on display at the Tate Gallery.

Known as the Queen of the Theatre, Ellen was mobbed by fans wherever she went. She played opposite Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre for over 20 years and was famed for her portrayal of Shakespearean heroines.

As one of the most important items in the collection, the Beetle Wing dress was on the priority list to be conserved.

At over 120 years old, the dress had seen many years of wear and tear and was subject to much alteration. It was structurally very weak and a shadow of its original self. Two years ago the intricate process of conserving it began.

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(Victorian beetle wing dress worn by Ellen Terry to go on display after £50k repair job | Mail Online) Terry’s role as Lady Macbeth has its own Wikipedia page. The artist was so blown away by Terry’s performance in this dress that he ran straight home and started painting. “[The dress] was designed to ‘look as much like soft chain armour… and yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent’.” A note in passing: the beetles shed the wings themselves, so no one is running around pulling the wings off beetles for this.

Large (Wikimedia)

This George Frederic Watts painting—Choosing, circa 1864—depicts “Ellen Terry choosing between the camellias, which despite their luscious appearance have little scent, and the violets in her hand which are far humbler in appearance but smell sweeter…symbolic of [the choice] between worldly vanities and higher virtues,” as the National Portrait Gallery puts it.

Ellen Terry, an excellent actress (much younger than Watts), married the painter sometime very soon before or after the completion of this portrait.