Beetles, darling

©Zenzie Tinker

One of the most spectacular costumes worn by Ellen Terry, the queen of the Victorian and Edwardian stage, has gone back on display at Smallhythe Place, in Kent.

Hand-coloured photograph of Ellen Terry as Imogen in 'Cymbeline', 1896. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Ellen Terry was famous for her dramatic roles, and to enhance her interpretation of Lady Macbeth in the late 1880s she wore an extraordinary emerald and sea green gown adorned with the iridescent wings of the jewel beetle.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by John Singer Sargent, at Smallhythe Place. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

It gave her a silkily armoured, serpent-like appearance. She was portrayed wearing it by John Singer Sargent (one version of which is at Smallhythe, another, more finished, is at Tate Britain).

Smallhythe Place. ©NTPL/John Miller

The dress had been preserved at Smallhythe Place, the Kent cottage where Terry ended her days, but over time it had become increasingly fragile. Textile conservator Zenzie Tinker and her team were commissioned to restore the costume.  

©Zenzie Tinker

About 1,000 beetle wings were re-attached to the costume, both original ones and replacements that had been donated. The entire conservation process took 1,300 hours of work.

©Zenzie Tinker

Now the beetle wing dress is back at Smallhythe, in a new contemporary display space, together with other items from Terry’s dressing room which have never been shown before.

“Fabulous, darling”, as Ellen Terry might have said.

Update: More images cane be seen here on the Daily Mail website.

9 Responses to “Beetles, darling”

  1. KDM Says:

    This is wonderful – I must share this on my museum blog – KDM

  2. Theresa Cheek Says:

    Wow…yet one more reference to beetle shells used in adornment. I did a post on them last year. This is an amazing dress..the labor is insane!

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Keith, great to see the comment about this on your blog (, and how interesting that the young Lynn Fontanne knew Ellen Terry. Does Ten Chimneys have some of Fontanne’s and Lunt’s costumes?

    Theresa, that post of yours about the use of beetles by artists ( is fascinating: Jan Fabre, Christopher Marley, Connie and Randy Cotita, Michael Cook. I wonder whether some of them were aware of Terry’s dress?

  4. Theresa Cheek Says:

    I linked this post to mine. 😉

  5. CherryPie Says:

    What an an amazing dress. I must take a look next time I am in Kent.

  6. KDM Says:

    Emile: No costumes – and no jewelry. Lynn left her couture to a local womans college (my predecessor organized a wonderful exhibit of these here in 2006) and the heirs had an auction of her jewelry. The Lunt-Fontanne papers were also given to the state archives. I am very glad the Lunts had the foresight to do this – as the archives and clothing are being expertly cared of by professional textile and archival people at their respective homes. I think a Ten Chimneys/Smallhythe cultural exchange would be mah-velous (darling)! KDM

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    As you say, it makes sense for such specialised collections to be looked after by the specialists, but to be brought out for occasional exhibitions. Many of the family archives relating to National Trust places were similarly deposited with local record offices, where they have been expertly catalogued and looked after.

    I will forward your suggestion for some kind of exchange to the property manager for Smallhythe Place, Paul Meredith, to see what might be possible.

  8. Janet Says:

    I read about this last week, but am delighted to see the dress in more detail here. Just more proof that it is hard to improve on what nature does best.

  9. aalid Says:

    I was directed here from your recent Pinterest post, glad I got the chance to see this amazing dress – really interesting post on Ellen Terry too.

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