1848 – 1928 A.D.
Ellen Terry, an English actress, the most popular of her time, born at Coventry. She was the daughter of Benjamin and Sarah Terry, well-known provincial actors, and her sisters Kate, Marion and Florence, and her brother Fred, all joined the theatrical profession.
Her own first appearance was made in 1856 as the boy Mamilius in The Winter’s Tale, at the Princess Theatre, London, and two years later she played Prince Arthur in King John with such grace as to win high praise.
During the next ten years she acted with various stock companies, and in 1867 she played for the first time with Henry Irving, as Katharine to his Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Queen’s Theatre. After appearing in various later London productions, she made great success in 1878 with her beautiful impersonation of Olivia in W. G. Will’s dramatic version of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. This led to her long association of twenty-four years with Henry Irving, and in this artistic partnership Miss Terry’s attractive personality played an important part.
Among her Shakespearian rôles with Irving at the Lyceum were Ophelia, Portia, Desdamona, Juliet, Beatrice, Viola, Lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Imogen, Volumnia and Katherine in Henry VIII. Other notable performances were those of the Queen in Wills’s Charles I, Camma in Tennyson’s The Cup, Margaret in Wills’s Faust, the title-part in Charles Reade’s one-act play Nance Oldfield, Rosamund in Tennyson’s Becket, Madame Sans-Gêne in Sardou’s play, and Clarisse in Robespierre. With Irving and the Lyceum Company she made several visits to America, where she was enthusiastically welcomed as the leading English actress of her time.
After her final appearances with Irving in 1902 she occasionally acted in other productions, and in 1906, fifty years after her first appearance in The Winter’s Tale, her stage-jubilee was celebrated in London with affectionate enthusiasm, and a popular subscription in England and American resulted in some £8,000 being raised. In 1915 she visited the United States and lectured on Shakespeare’s heroines, with readings.
When quite a girl she married G. F. Watts, the painter, but the marriage was soon dissolved. She was later married to Charles Kelly, and in 1907 to James Carew, both actors.
In his biography of Sir Henry Irving, Percy Fitzgerald says:
“Many admirers held that hers was the secret attraction of the theatre – that her magic charm, vivacity and versatility, were what drew the audience; that, though nominally his assistant, her talents almost overpowered his. We might amend this view and contend that each was necessary to the other, and from constant companionship had come to draw unsuspected gifts and charms. With all his blemishes, Irving had no one near him; no one has surpassed him. No one in the same period was approached Ellen Terry.”
Charles Reade described her in 1875:
“Her eyes are pale, her nose rather long, her mouth nothing particular. Complexion a delicate brick dust, her hair rather like tow. Yet somehow she is beautiful. Her expression kills any pretty face you see beside her. Her figure is lean and bony, her hand masculine in size and form. Yet she is a pattern of faun-like grace, whether in movement or repose. Grace pervades the hussy. In character impulsive, intelligent, weak, hysterical – in short, all that is abominable and charming in woman.”
Reference: Famous Women; An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.