Ellen Terry was one of the most famous and celebrated actresses of the English stage, particularly renowned for her brilliant interpretations of Shakespeare. In a career spanning seven decades and two centuries, her extraordinary talent and intellect won her thousands of admirers both at home and abroad.
Born in a Coventry boarding house in 1847 to a theatrical family, Alice Ellen Terry was, like her siblings, intended for the stage. She had little in the way of formal education and spent much of her childhood travelling the country with her parents who were both provincial actors. She made her stage debut aged nine, playing Mamillius in A Winter’s Tale, at London’s Princess’s Theatre in 1856.
Ellen received training in acting and elocution, developing her considerable potential into a formidable talent. She performed in a variety of productions at leading London venues and at the Theatre Royal in Bristol. Though still a child, she had considerable status as an actor.
Ellen had an unconventional personal life. In 1864, aged just sixteen, she married the artist George Frederick Watts, thirty years her senior, and ceased performing. The marriage lasted less than a year and Ellen returned to live with her family. Having modelled for several of Watts’ most famous paintings, Ellen became an inspiration and subject for artists and poets of the era.
In 1868, after a short-term return to acting, Ellen went to live in Hertfordshire with architect Edward William Godwin. She was still formally married to Watts and the scandal of this relationship outside marriage was exacerbated by the birth of two children, Edith in 1869 and Edward in 1872. Ellen and Godwin parted ways a few years later and, when finally divorced from Watts, Ellen was then briefly married to actor, Charles Kelly.
Ellen returned to the stage in 1874. A year later she played Portia in The Merchant of Venice at the Prince of Wales Theatre. So remarkable was her performance that it inspired a sonnet by Oscar Wilde, garnered tremendous critical acclaim and cemented her reputation as a leading exponent of English theatre.
In 1878 Ellen was invited to join Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum Theatre, first performing as Ophelia opposite Irving’s Hamlet. It was the beginning of a hugely successful professional relationship and a close personal friendship that lasted a quarter of a century. Regarded as the country’s leading Shakespearean actress, Ellen played a variety of Shakespeare’s women, in addition to many other roles, not only on the London stage but also in provincial theatres, in New York and on numerous tours across North America.
During the 1890s Ellen began a friendship, and now famous correspondence, with George Bernard Shaw. He was an ardent admirer of her talent and intelligence and wished to tempt her away from working with Irving. Eventually, in 1903, her tenure with Irving at an end, Ellen took over the management of the Imperial Theatre. Here she had total artistic control over the works produced and concentrated on the plays of Shaw and Ibsen.
The next few years saw Ellen undertake touring engagements in England and to America. In 1906 her golden jubilee was celebrated with a star-studded gala performance at the Drury Lane Theatre to which her fans thronged in their legion.
Whilst on tour in America in 1907, Ellen married her third husband, actor James Carew, who was thirty years her junior. The couple separated two years later. Her acting career maintained its vigour and she continued to perform throughout her 60s and 70s. She also became hugely successful on the lecture circuit, not only in England but in American and Australia, speaking on Shakespearean roles and mingling discussion with recitation. When the First World broke out, Ellen performed in numerous war benefits.
With the coming of the motion picture age, Ellen’s exceptional talent and presence transferred to the screen and she appeared in several successful films, including her movie debut playing Julia Lovelace in Her Greatest Performance in 1917.
Ellen was a supporter of women’s suffrage and, together with her daughter, Edith, joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and, later, the Actresses’ Franchise League, which aimed to work towards women’s suffrage through educational methods.
In May 1922, Ellen received an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews and in 1925 was made a Dame of the British Empire. She died at her farmhouse home, Smallhythe Place, in Kent in July 1928 aged 81. The obituary published in The Times described the outpouring of 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.”