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Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Sargent portrait of Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry wearing the costume for her role as Lady Macbeth

Many of us theater people have seen the 1889 John Singer Sargent portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and admired that beautiful gown of crocheted fabric embroidered with 1,000 beetle wings that she wore for the role.

It turns out that the gown suffered much damage during its 120-year history of wear and display at the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum.  Happily after fundraising efforts of 110,000 Great British pounds by the National Trust for repair and reinstallation and more than 700 hours of work by specialist Zenzie Tinker and team, the restored dress went  back on display in 2011.

When Ellen Terry starred alongside Henry Irving in Macbeth in 1888, there was not a wide choice of fabrics available in England.  Alice Comyns-Carr, the costume designer, could not find the colours she wanted to achieve her effects. She wanted one dress to ‘look as much like soft chain armour as I could, and yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent. ’(Mrs. J. Comyns Carr’s 'Reminiscences'. London: Hutchinson, 1926). The famed dressmaker Mrs Nettleship found a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel in Bohemia and this was crocheted to achieve the chain mail effect.
The dress hung beautifully but: ‘we did not think that it was brilliant enough, so it was sewn all over with real green beetle wings, and a narrow border in Celtic designs, worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffins were embroidered in flame-coloured tinsel. The wimple, or veil, was held in place by a circlet of rubines, and two long plaits twisted with gold hung to her knees.’

Here is some of the damage to the costume:

Adding net to support the crocheted fabric.

Damage to the skirt
 The dress arrived at the Brighton studio of specialist textile conservator Zenzie Tinker with a box of tattered pieces. It appears that the dress had become an amalgamation of two similar costumes--our wardrobe friends can relate to that-- and Ms. Tinker and staff had to remove the later additions, repair the crochet fabric, and reunite the pieces of the original dress to restore the original Victorian look of the costume.  The additional costume might have been a duplicate or a costume for the understudy.

Unpicking the dress

The museum curators at Smallhythe Place had collected the original beetle wings as they fell off the dress over the decades. At least 100 broken beetle wings were repaired by gluing Japanese tissue paper dyed green on to the back of the wing.  The wings were then be stitched back into place; missing wings were replaced with beetle wings donated by an antiques dealer in nearby Tenterden.

           Above: original beetle wings waiting to be reattached.

Stitching on the beetle wings

The restored dress back on display

 The copyright for the images from the conservation process is held by  Zenzie Tinker with permission of Smallhythe Place and the National Trust.  For more on the conservation process or Ellen Terry, here are a few links:

Zenzie Tinker
 Archeology of a Dress
Victoria and Albert Museum
 The Guardian

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