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Ellen Terry: dame for a laugh

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns the spotlight onto a surprisingly high-spirited actress

20 July, 2018 — By Neil Titley

Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph of Ellen Terry at the age of 16

IN 2005, Madonna strode onto the stage of Koko, the Camden High Street rock venue, and shouted: “Last time I played here was 22 years ago. It was my first show in London and it is so f****** good to be back.”

A century earlier in 1900 Ellen Terry strode onto that same stage to announce: “If there is anything good floating about in the theatrical world, I am sure that it will now settle on Camden Town.”

Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928), the most famous actress of her age and the great-aunt of Sir John Gielgud, was there to open the building then known as the Camden Theatre. In the foyer she unveiled a commemoration tablet (still surviving) of herself playing the part of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

She had first performed this role in 1875 to huge acclaim despite the occasional hiccup during rehearsals. The actor playing Bassanio was a notorious lecher named Mr Sykes. At one point, Sykes had advanced on her obviously intent on taking full advantage of the stage direction to “embrace Portia”. Ellen blanched at the prospect and stuttered: “Oh no, Mr Sykes, all you should do is… er… kiss my hand. It’s more Venetian”.

Sykes leered salaciously. “Come on now, Miss Terry. You’re cuttin’ all the fat out of me part.”

Ellen was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women of the Victorian era, but descriptions of her appearance differed. Oscar Wilde said that she resembled “some wan lily o’er-drenched with rain” – which she loved – while Max Beerbohm suggested “a Christmas tree decorated by a Pre-Raphaelite” – which she didn’t.

One observer said that though Ellen was soft and yielding on the surface, beneath she had an ego of steel. She knew her worth. After being instructed at length on how to play a part by a young director she replied: “And now I’ll add that little extra something for which I am paid my enormous fee.”

What nobody denied were her irrepressible high spirits and love of fun. When she acted opposite Herbert Beerbohm Tree playing Falstaff, at one performance she slid a pin into his inflated “fat” costume and gleefully watched as his paunch collapsed.

Although Ellen was born in Coventry, her large theatrical family soon drifted to London where they took up lodgings in Stanhope Street, just off the Hampstead Road.

Aged 16 she was already an experienced actress when she left the theatre to marry the celebrated but 47-year-old painter GF Watts. This liaison lasted less than a year. Then, aged only 21 and still legally married to Watts, Ellen eloped with the architect Edward Godwin to live as his mistress and to bear him two children. This scandalous liaison lasted six years before she left Godwin to return to the stage.

“He loved me, and I loved him, and that, I suppose, is the reason we so cruelly hurt each other,” she said.

Terry attempted wedlock twice more. In 1878 she married an English actor called Charles Kelly, (in her words “a manly bulldog”), before separating from him in 1881. Then in 1907 and aged 60 she married a 31-year-old American actor called James Carew. They separated three years later. Carew said: “The only way to get on with Nell was not to live in the same house.”

Perhaps the most important man in her life was the supreme star of Victorian theatre Sir Henry Irving. Their partnership brought her wealth (during the 1880s she became the highest paid woman in England), full acknowledgement of her dramatic talents, and astounding fame across Europe and the USA (in 1925, being only the second actress to be created a Dame of the British Empire).

Although never acknowledged, it is highly likely that the pair were lovers – and beyond that, Ellen also managed to lighten Irving’s solemn approach to life. They once found a small girl hanging about backstage and asked her what role she was playing. Terry, then Irving, exploded with laughter when the girl replied: “Please, mum, I’m a water-carrier, then I’m a little page, and then I’m a virgin.”

When she heard the news of Irving’s death, Ellen was appearing in a play in Manchester. Bernard Shaw reported that: “The next night she ordered the curtain to go up as usual; she managed to act almost to the end until she came to the lines ‘It’s summer gone, autumn begun. I had a beautiful husband once, black as the raven was his hair…….’”

“Then she broke down in tears for her old love and friend and partner, while stagehands quickly lowered the curtain, and the audience filed out of the theatre in silence.”

Although she died at her country home at Smallhythe in Kent she was cremated at Golders Green. Her ashes are kept in a memorial casket in the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden – another lasting connection with Camden.

• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk

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