Ellen Terry (1847 -1928)

1. THE EARLY YEARS, 1847-1872

Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry at 16 
Photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron

Alice Ellen Terry was born on 27 February, 1847, (although she always stated that it was 1848). Her father, Benjamin Terry (1818-1896), and her mother, Sarah (née Ballard) (1819 - 1892), were well-known provincial actors. Ellen was born in a theatrical boarding house in Coventry and from then on moved from theatre-to-theatre and town-to-town with her parents. She never went to school – travelling players at that time tended to believe that it was unlikely that their off-springs would wish to pursue any other career but one in the theatre. This certainly seemed to be true of many of Ellen's ten siblings; three sisters – Kate, Marion and Florence – became noteworthy actors, as did her brother, Fred Terry. Two other brothers, George and Charles, were to be involved in theatre management.

Ellen Terry
Ellen Terry and Charles Keen in
The Winter's Tale
Click to enlarge

Her first appearance on the professional stage was as the child Mamillius in The Winter's Tale that was produced by and starred Charles Kean. It opened at the Princess Theatre in London on April 28, 1856, in front of an illustrious audience that included Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. Apart from a dozen or so lines, she had little more to do than move around the stage pulling a small cart but, as she later recalled, ‘I tripped over the handle and down I came on my back. A titter ran through the house and I felt that my career as an actress was ruined forever.’ In an interview published in The New York Times on May 15, 1904, she stated, ‘I was born in 1848, and was between seven and eight when I played in The Winter's Tale. (In fact, if her birth certificate is to be believed, she was nine years old.) She played the part at every one of the hundred and two nights.

At the performance of The Winter's Tale on June 16, 1856, a member of the audience was Charles Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’), who was then twenty-seven. In his diary he wrote that he ‘especially admired the acting of Mamillius, Ellen Terry, a beautiful little creature, who played with remarkable spirit and ease.’

Her second part was an even greater success. Playing the young Prince Arthur in King John, she was criticised by Mrs Keen (the actress, Ellen Tree) for not crying realistically. During her next performance, she howled so loudly that reviewers commented on her obvious acting skills. She continued working with Charles Keen at the Princess Theatre until 1859, her roles including Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (which ran for 250 nights), the good fairy, Goldenstar, in the 1857 Christmas pantomime, Fleance in Macbeth, and numerous non-speaking parts. Because of the rigorous training of Mrs Keen during the three years Ellen was at the Princess Theatre, building as it did on the elocution schooling provided by her father, a precious young girl and developed into a actor of obvious talent and considerable promise.

After the departure of the Keans from the Princess Theatre, Ellen and her sister, Kate, performed in an entertainment called A Drawing Room Entertainment, consisting of two plays in which, with many quick costume changes, they played all the parts. Directed by their father, it was first presented at the Royal Coliseum in Regent's Park. After a couple of weeks, the show went on an extended tour with the two sisters, their parents and a musician. The company of five normally travelled by coach but sometimes had to walk - on one occasion tramping the country lanes from Bristol to Exeter. Each day they performed in a different place, staying at night in country inns. The tour lasted for nearly two years.

Kate then joined a stock company in Bristol, while Ellen, aged thirteen, was taken by her father London so she could find work. She was engaged by Madame Albina de Rhona, who had been a successful actor and dancer, to join her new company at the Royalty Theatre. Unfortunately, the programme presented did not appeal to the public and one failure was quickly followed by another. Between November 21 and December 26, Ellen played parts in five different plays.

Soon afterwards, in 1862, her contract at the Royalty came to an end and she moved to Bristol to join her by then her much more famous sister, Kate, in J.H. Chute's stock company at the Theatre Royal. Unlike many others that did little more than provide the backing to high-paid visiting stars, Chute's company had consistently attracted quality actors, including Marie Wilton (who became Lady Bancroft) and Madge Robertson. An excellent manger, he presented everything - tragedy, comedy, farce and burlesque. It provided an excellent if exhausting training for a young actor.

As she had not received any formal schooling, Ellen's whole life and thinking revolved around only the theatre and her family. In reality, she and her sister were the breadwinners for the whole, large family and her parents effectively controlled their careers. Her father was the girl's manager and the mother made their clothes and was an ever-present chaperone. In Bristol, Ellen thrived and was much acclaimed and feted. She was introduced to interesting and well-educated people, including the architect, Edward Godwin.

While my stage education was progressing apace, I was, through the influence of a very wonderful family whose acquaintance we made, having my eyes opened to beautiful things in art and literature. Mr. Godwin, the architect and archaeologist, was living in Bristol when Kate and I were at the Theatre Royal, and we used to go to his house for some of the Shakespeare readings in which our Bristol friends asked us to take part. This house, with its Persian rugs, beautiful furniture, its organ, which for the first time I learned to love, its sense of design in every detail, was a revelation to me, and the talk of its master and mistress made me think. At the theatre I was living in an atmosphere which was developing my powers as an actress and teaching me what work meant, but my mind had begun to grasp dimly and almost unconsciously that I must do something for myself - something that all the education and training I was receiving in my profession could not do for me. I was fourteen years old at Bristol, but I now felt that I had never really lived at all before. For the first time I began to appreciate beauty, to observe, to feel the splendour of things, to aspire!

The Story of My Life by Ellen Terry (1908)

Ellen Terry
The Sisters G. F. Watts
Click to enlarge
Ellen Terry
Choosing - painting of Ellen Terry by
G. F. Watts
Click to enlarge

In March, 1863, Chute's company presented A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Theatre Royal in Bath in which Ellen played Titania. Her costume was designed for her by Edward Godwin. She later said, ‘This was the first lovely dress that I ever wore.’

Next, she went to the Haymarket Theatre in London to play Gertrude Howard in The Little Treasure where her co-star was the famed actor E. A. Sothern. He was over twenty yeas older than she was and the two did not like each other. Although she continued to work at the Haymarket in plays that included The Rivals and Much Ado About Nothing, she became increasingly disillusioned with her life in the theatre, especially after she had met the popular painter, George Frederic Watts. Ellen and Kate posed for his painting, The Sisters. Ellen spent an increasing about of time at Watts' home, becoming enamoured with his way of life and his famous, cultured friends.

Never at any time in my life have I been ambitious, but at the Haymarket I was not even passionately anxious to do my best with every part that came in my way - a quality which with me has been a good substitute for ambition. I was just dreaming of and aspiring after another world, a world full of pictures and music and gentle, artistic people with quiet voices and elegant manners. The reality of such a world was Little Holland House, the home of Mr. Watts.

The Story of My Life by Ellen Terry (1908)

During the run at the Haymarket of The American Cousin (the same play that later was being performed when Lincoln was assassinated), Ellen Terry walked out on the production and her co-star, E. A. Sothern. Apparently acting in the belief that he was rescuing her from the drudgery of theatrical life, Watts had proposed and, with the consent of her parents, Ellen eagerly accepted. They were married on February 20, 1864. It was a week before her seventeenth birthday. Watts was thirty years older than his bride.

Watts had five beautiful and well-connected married sister, including Lady Somers and the photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. At home, Watts entertained many of the most important people of his age, including Gladstone, Disraeli and Browning. Ellen immediately felt out-of-place. Later, she wrote, ‘I sat, shrinking and timid, in a corner - the girl-wife of a famous painter. I was, if I was anything at all, more of a curiosity, of a side-show than hostess to these distinguished visitors.’

Photographs taken by Lewis Carroll of the Terry family in 1864
Ellen Terry Ellen Terry Kate Terry Ellen Terry
Ellen Terry (right) & her mother Ellen Terry Kate Terry as Andromeda Ellen Terry
Click photo to enlarge

After ten months, the marriage was over and Ellen, indignant and bemused, was sent back to live with her parents. In her autobiography, she stated, ‘I hated going back to live at home. Mother furnished a room for me and I thought the furniture hideous. Poor mother! Ellen's parents had moved to London, their own theatrical careers at an end. Their income came solely from their eldest daughter, Kate, who had become one of the most successful leading ladies in London.

Ellen's rebellious feelings were heightened by the realisation that there seemed to be no alternative for her but to return to the stage from which she thought she had escaped for ever. After an educative trip to Paris, she reluctantly and half-heartedly resumed her acting career to participate in the extended Farewell Tour of her sister Kate, who had announced her intention to leave the stage after her forthcoming marriage to Arthur Lewis, the affluent director of the successful haberdashery firm of Lewis & Allenby. Ellen appeared first as Helen to her sister's Julia in The Hunchback at the Olympic Theatre in London on June 20, 1866. To her extreme annoyance, she was billed by her married name, ‘Ellen Terry Watts’. Kate and Ellen then appeared together in Bristol and again (after Kate had joined Charles Fechter's company at the Adelphi Theatre in London) in John Taylor's A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing. Established as the female star of the company, Kate went on to increasingly ecstatic reviews the closer she approached her obviously premature retirement. Ellen faded into the shadows. She did appear, albeit briefly, in what was billed as her sister's ‘last two appearances on any stage’ that took place at the Prince's Theatre, Manchester, on October 4 and 5, 1867. On October 18, Kate Terry married Arthur Lewis.

Less than a week later, on October 24, 1867, Ellen Terry appeared in Charles Reade's drama, The Double Marriage that opened the refurbished New Queen's Theatre under the management of Alfred Wigan and his wife (née Leonora Pincott). It was not a success and rapidly gave way to a revival of Tom Taylor's popular Still Waters Run Deep. In this, Ellen Terry played to considerable acclaim the difficult character of Mrs. Mildmay.

December 26 saw the opening of a revival of Katherine and Petruchio, Garrick's truncated one-act version of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. The two had never met before. The two appear to have been unimpressed with each and there were certainly no signs of the enormous acclaim they would have together for their presentation of Shakespearian roles. Irving had performed almost exclusively in the provinces for some eleven years and most critics damned his performance. Ellen Terry, although only twenty, had far more experience and was praised for her performance but, at that time, she had little interest in her theatrical career.

Henry Irving was nothing to me and I was nothing to him. I never consciously thought that he would become a great actor. He had no high opinion of my acting! He has said since that he thought me at the Queen's Theatre charming and individual as a woman, but as an actress ‘hoydenish’! I believe that he hardly spared me even so much definite thought as this. His soul was not more surely in his body than in the theatre, and I, a woman who was at this time caring more about love and life than the theatre, must have been to him more or less unsympathetic. He thought of nothing else, cared for nothing else; worked day and night…

He had it all in him when we acted together that foggy night, but he could express very little. Many of his defects sprang from his not having been on the stage as a child. He was stiff with self-consciousness; his eyes were dull and his face heavy…

The Story of My Life by Ellen Terry (1908)

Katherine and Petruchio had a short run and was replaced in January, 1868, by a light two-part piece called The Household Fairy. According to The Era, the parts were ‘excellently played by Mr. J. Clayton and Miss Ellen Terry, the former acting with great spirit ; and the latter, as his mirthful monitor, displaying charming archness and vivacity’. Much was expected of her by both the public and her parents who, after the retirement of her elder sister, had only one daughter on stage, bringing in the income necessary to support the family. Without a word to them or anyone in the theatre, Ellen Terry suddenly disappeared. She had run away to a rural cottage called Pigeonwick in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, with Edward Godwin, the architect who been so impressed her when they first became friends in Bristol six years earlier. She was still only twenty; he was forty-four and had been a widower since 1865. Ellen was still married to Watts and so she could not marry Godwin. When the situation became known, her disapproving parents severed all contact with her and the ensuing scandal was exacerbated by the unmarried couple having first a daughter, Edith, in December 1869, and a son, Edward, in January 1872.

Go to Part 2. THE TRIUMPHANT YEARS, 1873-1928 (not yet available)

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Bibliography of Cornish Medieval Drama

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