Sunday, March 15, 2015

Ellen Terry, John Singer Sargent and the Beetle Dress

Further to my previous post, which focused on the newly completed Jewel Beetle Woman (Sternocera aequisignata) now present my Muse: Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928) as Lady Macbeth, a role she famously performed on the West End of London in 1888. Amongst the crowd on opening night was the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) who later persuaded her to sit for him. An eye witness to Terry’s arrival at Sargent’s Chelsea studio was none other than Oscar Wilde, who remarked: “The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities."

Left: John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1888, oil on canvas, 221.0 x 114.3 cm. Collection: Tate
Right: The Beetle Dress, designed by Alice-Comyns-Carr and constructed by Ada Nettleship: restored to its
former glory. Collection: Ellen Terry Museum, Smallhythe Place

Alice Comyns-Carr designed the gown, which you can read about HERE. Ada Nettleship crocheted it from a combination of soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn from Bohemia that was primarily intended to evoke chain mail, whilst also suggesting the scales of a serpent. The dress was sewn with 1000 iridescent wings from the green Jewel Beetle Sternocera aequisignata.

Terry kept the ‘beetle dress’ for the rest of her life and sometimes wore it on special occasions. The gown now resides in the permanent collection of the Ellen Terry Museum, Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden in Kent, UK. I first visited this beautiful museum, which was formerly Terry’s home, in the mid-1970s and returned in 2011, soon after a major restoration of the gown had been undertaken. You can learn about it HERE and HERE.