Skip to main content
Select Source:

Terry, Ellen

Ellen Terry

English actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928) was among the most famous leading ladies of the Victorian era. She won legions of admirers with her grace and golden-haired beauty and is particularly remembered for her interpretations of Shakespearean heroines, including Portia and Beatrice, opposite Henry Irving. At the time of her death a Times commentator concluded, "She was a woman of genius; but her genius was not that of the brain so much as of the spirit and of the heart. She was a poem in herself—a being of exquisite and mobile beauty. On the stage or off she was like the daffodils that set the poet's heart dancing."

Early Life and Stage Debut

Terry was born into a theater family, her parents having been actors in a touring company based in Portsmouth. Among her siblings six others performed on the stage, most notably Terry's elder sister Kate, who until her marriage and retirement from the stage in 1867 was one of the most sought after leading ladies in the English theatre. Successive generations followed in the family tradition, including Terry's own children and Kate Terry's grandson Sir John Gielgud, who became one of the twentieth century's most respected actors.

Under the guidance of her father, Terry began training for an acting career at an early age and made her stage debut as Mamillius the child under the direction of Charles Kean in A Winter's Tale at the Princess Theater in London on April 28, 1856, with Queen Victoria in attendance. A print made by Martin Laroche capturing her appearance as Mamillius with Kean in costume as Leontes is in the photography collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Although the success of her debut was marred by her unintentionally tripping over a prop wagon, she later played other roles for children, including Prince Arthur in King John and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She played comedy and burlesque as well as drama at the New Royalty Theatre in London and at Bristol's Theatre Royal and appeared in a number of contemporary works as well as Much Ado about Nothing, Othello, and A Merchant of Venice.

Marriage to G. F. Watts

In 1864, the sixteen-year-old Terry married the wellknown painter George Frederick Watts, thirty years her senior, and she retired from the stage. Watts's famous portraits of Terry, including "Choosing" and "Ophelia," were more successful than their domestic affairs, however, and they separated within a year. The famous image in "Choosing" depicts Terry deciding between earthly vanities represented by the showy camellias that she smells and nobler values represented by the violets held in her hand. Together with her sister Kate, Terry is also the subject of Watts's "The Sisters." In 1867 she performed in London in several works by the popular contemporary playwright John Taylor, including A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing at the Adelphi Theatre, The Antipodes at the Theatre Royal, and Still Waters Run Deep at the New Queen's Theatre.

In December 1867 Terry appeared for the first time opposite Henry Irving, with whom she would later develop a long professional association, when she played Katharine in Katherine and Petruchio, David Garrick's one-act version of The Taming of the Shrew at the Queen's Theatre. However, she ceased performing in 1868 when, separated but not divorced from Watts, Terry eloped with architect and designer Edward William Godwin. The couple took up residence in rural Hertfordshire and had two children, Edith, born in December 1869, and Edward (later the actor, designer, and producer Edward Gordon Craig) born in January 1872. Plagued by mounting debt, Terry returned to the stage in 1874 at the urging of the playwright Charles Reade and appeared in a number of Reade's works, including the roles Philippa Chester in The Wandering Heir, Susan Merton in It's Never Too Late to Mend, and Helen Rolleston in Our Seamen. Terry also performed with the actor/manager Charles Wyndham that same year at London's Crystal Palace as Volante in John Tobin's The Honeymoon and as Kate Hardcastle in Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

Terry's relationship with Godwin ended early in 1875 during preparations for the role that would bring her the highest fame of her career, that of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, which she first performed at the Prince of Wales's Theatre in London on April 17, 1875. According to biographer Tom Prideaux, "Her peculiar gift for Shakespeare was evident both in her husky but consummately clear diction and in what appeared to be a temperamental affinity with the poet himself, something akin to his lyric verve and humanity, which made his lines seem to originate in her own mind." While remembered for the sensation caused by Terry's interpretation of her role as well as for the artistry of Godwin's set designs, the production closed after only three weeks. However, those three weeks had been enough to solidify Terry's reputation as an actress of imposing skill and to attract numerous admirers of her beauty, including English poets Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne. Wilde, an Oxford undergraduate at the time, wrote a sonnet describing Terry: "For in that gorgeous dress of beaten gold,/ Which is more golden than the golden sun, / No woman Veronese looked upon / Was half so fair as thou whom I behold." Terry later re-created the role in several touring productions and for numerous engagements from 1879 to her final appearance as Portia at London's Old Vic Theatre in 1917.

Lyceum Years

In late 1878 Terry joined the company managed by Henry Irving who had lately assumed ownership of the Lyceum Theatre. Her association with Irving was to become the most successful of her career, and over the next two decades she played opposite him as many of the great Shakespearean heroines, including Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Viola, Queen Katherine, Juliet, Cordelia, and perhaps most notably Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, a role she first performed at the Lyceum in 1882 and later revived in 1884, 1891, and 1893. Over the years she was associated with the Lyceum, Terry appeared in such roles as Pauline in The Lady of Lyons by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (1878), Margaret in Faust by William Gorman Wills (1885), Camma in The Cup (1880) and Rosamund de Clifford in Becket (1893), both by Alfred Tennyson, Jeanette in The Lyons Mail by Charles Reade (1883), Guinevere in King Arthur by J. Comyns-Carr (1895), and Madame Sans-Gêne in Victorien Sardou and Emile Moreau's play by that name (1897). Also during this period Terry was married to fellow actor Charles Kelly, from whom she had legally separated before his death in 1885.

Having spent most of her career appearing in works that were chosen by leading men to showcase their own talents, in 1903 Terry briefly assumed management of the Imperial Theatre in order to have more control over the material in which she appeared. She mounted a production of Henrik Ibsen's The Vikings in 1903 with herself as Hiordis, but the venture was a financial failure. She performed throughout England, including engagements in Nottingham, Liverpool, and Wolverhampton, and appeared in 1905 in J. M. Barrie's Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire, with considerable success.

Golden Jubilee Celebration

In 1906 a tribute was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre in celebration of her golden jubilee. Still a popular favorite with audiences, her fans started lining up the previous day for a matinee that included performances by Caruso, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Eleanora Duse, Lillie Langtry, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and more than twenty members of the Terry family. According to a contemporary account in the Times, "Some thousands of Londoners devoted what was virtually the whole of a working day to a theatrical debauch. From shortly after noon to six o'clock they filled Drury Lane with a riot of enthusiasm, a torrent of emotion, a hurly-burly of excitement, 'thunders of applause.' They cheered 'til they were hoarse, laughed to the verge of hysteria, and sang 'Auld Lang Syne' in chorus, not without tears." The Times commentator noted, "For half a century Ellen Terry has been appealing to our hearts. Whatever the anti-sentimentalists might say, that is the simple truth.…A creature of the full-blooded, naïve emotions she excites those emotions in us." Her address to the crowd is reprinted by biographer Nina Auerbach, "I will not say good bye. It is one of my chief joys that I need not say good bye—just yet—but can still speak to you as one who is still among you on the active list—still in your service—if you please."

At the time of the jubilee Terry was appearing at the Court Theatre as Lady Cicely Wayneflete in Captain Brassbound's Conversion by Bernard Shaw, one of her most ardent professional and personal admirers. She continued in the part during American and British tours in 1907. While in Pittsburgh she married her co-star, the American actor James Carew. Shaw later assessed her interpretation of Lady Cicely in a letter to Terry written after their return to England and quoted by Prideaux, "At the Court, you were always merely trying to remember your part. But now you have realized you are Lady Cicely. Her history has become your history; and instead of trying to remember somebody else's words, you simply say what is right to say in the situation … and there you have the whole thing alive and perfect. It is really a very wonderful performance."

Terry continued to work throughout her sixties and seventies, appearing as Nance Oldfield in a Pageant of Famous Women written by her daughter, Edith Craig, and C. Hamilton in 1909. She separated from Carew in 1910. Other notable theatrical engagements of this period include Nell Gwynne in The First Actress by Christopher St. John (Christabel Marshall; 1911), and Darling in Barrie's TheAdmirable Crichton (1916). She also developed a successful career on the international lecture circuit, discussing Shakespearean heroines and interspersing her discussion with recitation. According to a favorable review in Times, "She is to English audiences what she is, not merely because she has played nearly all the great Shakespeare heroines, but because she reflects them in her own self and personality.… It is a happy thing for England as well as for Miss Terry, now that her acting days are nearly over, that she has found so effective a way of bringing home to Shakespeare's countrymen the inner meaning of his plays and the charm of her own art." During World War I she performed many war benefits.

Although Terry is most associated with the Victorian stage, she remained active into the motion picture era and appeared in several films, including her debut as Julia Lovelace in Her Greatest Performance (1917) as well as The Invasion of Britain (1918), Pillars of Society (1918), Potter's Clay (1922), and The Bohemian Girl (1922).

In May 1922 Terry received an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews. She was named a Dame of the British Empire in the New Year's honors list of 1925. She died several days after suffering a heart attack, at home in Smallhythe, near Tenterden, Kent, on July 21, 1928. According to the Times obituary, "The death of Dame Ellen Terry … has been received with universal sorrow. In the history of the English stage no other actress has ever made herself so abiding a place in the affections of the nation."

Books

Auerbach, Nina, Ellen Terry: Player in Her Time, W. W. Norton, 1987.

Prideaux, Tom, Love or Nothing: The Life and Times of Ellen Terry, Scribner, 1976.

Shearer, Moira, Ellen Terry, Sutton, 1998.

Terry, Dame Ellen, The Story of My Life, Schocken Books, 1982.

Periodicals

Journal of European Studies, June-September, 2002.

New Republic, October 12, 1987.

Times (London), June 13, 1906; July 19, 1911; July 23, 1928.

Online

Ellen Terry Biography,http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/terry.html (January 10, 2004).

Ellen Terry Tribute Page,http://www.ellenterry.org (January 12, 2004).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terry, Ellen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Terry, Ellen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/terry-ellen-0

"Terry, Ellen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/terry-ellen-0

Terry, Ellen

Terry, Ellen (1847–1928). Actress. Born into an acting family and brought up on the boards, Alice Ellen Terry left the stage for some years until concern for her children's future prompted a return in 1874 under Charles Reade. She joined Irving as his leading lady at the Lyceum theatre (1878), where her beauty and grace of movement enhanced his productions; appearing in Britain and America, their famous partnership lasted until 1902, though she had already commenced her ‘paper courtship’ with Shaw in the 1890s. Enormously popular, her vitality and stagecraft were underpinned by intelligence, yet all her successes, except in Shakespeare, were in sentimental melodrama. An unconventional approach to life was accompanied by humour, frankness, and generosity. When Terry became too old for many roles, and eyesight and memory began to fail, she turned to lecture-recitals here and abroad. She was created dame in 1925.

A. S. Hargreaves

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terry, Ellen." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Terry, Ellen." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/terry-ellen

"Terry, Ellen." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/terry-ellen