1/07/2009

Woman of the week - Dame Ellen Terry

Name: Dame Ellen Alice Terry
Born: February 27 1847, Coventry, England
Died: July 21 1928, Small Hythe, Kent, England
Married to: 1. George Frederic Watts (1864-1877)
2. Charles Kelly (1878-1883)
3. James Carew (1907-1909)
Children: Edith Craig (born 1869)
Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966)
Occupation: Actress

Terry came from an acting-family, born as the third of eleven children, and it was only natural that she did not go to school but instead went on the stage at the age of just 8. She played several roles, including Puck in A midsummer night's dream. She moved around quite a lot, already at this tender age, and worked in both London, Bristol and Bath. In 1864, right before she turned 17, she married the much older painter George Frederic Watts. Ten months after the marriage she was returned home - she always claimed their relationship was amiable, despite the separation, and his letters to her, later on, seems to prove this. The "interference" (as she puts it in her memoirs, written in 1908) was brought about by her parents and some others. She returned to the stage, after some persuasion, in 1867. She did not stay long, this time.

Terry had some years prior met the architect and designer Edward William Godwin, and would live with him in the country in Hertfordshire. They had eloped and at first the family would think that she had actually died, but she could put an end to all rumours by being very much alive. They had two, illegitimate, children - Edith and Edward Gordon and they were given the last name Craig. During the six years the relationship lasted she did not act at all - and would not return to the stage until their relationship ended, through economic difficulties and Godwin getting a new mistress.

With the return to the stage Terry would soon also begin a long partnership with the actor Henry Irving in his theatre-company at the Lyceum Theatre, London, in 1878. Her first role was Ophelia, and she would soon be known as the leading Shakespeare actress of the period - a position she would keep for a long time. One of her roles was as Lady Macbeth, portrayed by Sargent, a picture that can be seen here. She also played a lot of other major parts and was a very well-known actress. 1878 was also the year she married Charles Kelly, mostly to have a father to her children. He died five years later.

Terry continued to have a great success as an actress, both during her second marriage and after it. In the 1880's she also toured the United States with great success. In 1889 she got a house at Barkston Gardens (number 22 - now Burns Hotel) in London where she lived with her children and pets. It was a good choice since it kept her close to friends and colleagues, many lived in that area. She would keep the house till 1902. Two years before that, in 1900, she had gotten herself a house in Smallhyte, Kent, which would be her final home.

In 1906 Terry celebrated her 50 years on stage with a five hour show which featured all the main acting stars of the time. The queuing started some 24 hours before the actual performance. But of course this was not end of her acting. That continued just as it had before. In 1907 she married the American actor James Carew - some thirty years her junior. The marriage lasted just two years, but they kept being on good terms after thier divorce. She acted all the way through the First World War , in many benefit shows too. In 1917 she made her debut on the silver screen - in the end she would partake in seven films, between 1917 and 1922.

Terry retired from acting in the theatres in 1920. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire in 1925. Her last years were marred by a failing eye-sight and dementia. She died from heart-failure in 1928 and was buried at St Paul's at Convent Garden, London.

On a side note, it is worth noting that Terry's son,
Edward Gordon Craig, was the father of the daughter of Isadora Duncan.

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