Sunday, 29 June 2014

Ellen Terry: The Painter's Actress

Yesterday the Walker Family trundled off to the lovely village of Compton again to visit the Watts Gallery and its current exhibition 'Ellen Terry: The Painter's Actress'...

The connection between the beautiful Miss Terry and the Watts Gallery is, of course, that a very young Ellen married G F Watts.  Like all good Victorian marriages she was a teenager and he was a man in his 40s with a great big beard and it lasted all of five minutes.  Mind you, in the grand scheme of things both parties seem to emerge from the debacle with more dignity than some other couples I could mention.  Yes, Ruskins, I'm looking at you.  Well, despite the disastrous marriage, her marriage began her mirror career as painter's muse, in works such as this...

Choosing (1864) G F Watts
A very familiar image from the National Portrait Gallery, this picture is often unkindly interpreted as his snide dig at his flighty bride being unable to tell quality from glitz, as she sniffs the scentless blossoms while seemingly unaware of the violets in her hand.  Similarly, close friend Julia Margaret Cameron's image of Ellen aged 16 (in Tennyson's bathroom) is entitled Sadness and is taken as a true reflection of the subject at that moment in her life.

Sadness, Ellen Terry at 16 (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron
While undoubtedly the marriage was a trainwreck, what this exhibition highlights was that Ellen was from a very early age, an actress and understood what was required of her in an image.  It is almost a disservice to her to read the images of her in 1864 as being too biographical, as that underestimates her skill and that of the artists she posed for.

Charles John Kean and Ellen Terry
as Leontes and Mamillius in 'The Winter's Tale'
It is startling how young Ellen was when she started her career.  Following her parents onto the stage, she was even born in theatrical lodgings, and acting well and truly ran in her blood.  'The Winter's Tale', pictured above, marked her first Shakespearean role at the age of 9.  She was noted for her heart-touching pathos, a skill which is clearly demonstrated in Cameron's photograph.

The Sisters (1863) G F Watts
It was actually Ellen's elder sister Kate who caught the artist's eye first of all, and Watts invited Kate and Ellen to pose for him.  Ellen found the artist's studio to be a more elaborate and exciting stage than she could ever have imagined, and I think a testament to this is the depth of emotion in the painting The Sisters.  In the catalogue for the exhibition, they liken the image to that of Rossetti's Golden Head by Golden Head which I think is an apt comparison.  The detail he painted into her expression is breath-taking and it's easy to see how he fell in love with her.

Watchman, What of the Night? (1864) G F Watts
With Watts, Ellen was able to play different roles.  She was Ophelia, she was Joan of Arc, she posed endlessly for him and he sketched and painted her endlessly.  It seems the only role she couldn't comfortably pull off was that of wife and the couple separated in 1865.

Ellen Terry (1872)
Once out of her marital restraints, Ellen went back to the stage and became the icon we know her to be today.  It would be easy to see a break between her life as a muse/wife and the depiction of it in paint, and her life as an actress and the depiction of it in photographs.  She seems to have benefited from the explosion of celebrity photographs in the 1870s, and it is possible to see her costumes and skill in how she portrayed a part, most famously in roles such as Lady Macbeth in 1888.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1888)
Mind you, this exhibition shows that even when she had stopped being an artist's wife, she did not stop inspiring artists to create art based on her performances.  Most famously, we have the Singer Sargent's image of her as the ruthlessly ambitious Lady Macbeth, but we also have Aubrey Beardsley's stark black and white image of her, and Ellen's son, Edward Gordon Craig's own pictures of his mother.

Ellen Terry as Ophelia (1896) Edward Gordon Craig

Ellen Terry as Rosamund de Clifford in Tennyson's Becket (1893) Aubrey Beardsley
The exhibition is beautiful.  You get the chance to see film of Ellen and hear her voice, as well as seeing the beautiful canvases painted with such inspiration and passion by her husband.  After seeing the exhibition I would prefer to think of their marriage as an artistic collaboration that burnt bright and burnt quickly.  I think it is a disservice to both to pigeonhole them in the old man/child bride stereotype.  Ellen Terry continues to be one of those women who inspires as a woman who pursued her art and in turn provoked the most astonishing artistic response in others.

The exhibition runs until 11 November 2014 and further details can be found here.



  2. Thanks for that. There is an outstanding collection of Ellen Terry material at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth, and her memoirs are available to download free of charge from Project Gutenberg:

  3. Thanks for alerting me to this exhibition. I managed to see it and Effie Gray on a lightning trip to the UK. Looking forward to your review of the William Morris show at NPG. There is a nice PR section including the magnificent chest Ned Burne-Jones painted for Red House. Also a Rossetti drawing of a Young Georgiana that I am sure you will like. Anthony

  4. Thanks Anthony, I'm hoping to see the NPG exhibition when I'm in London in December. I shall report back...


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