Beetle Dress returns home to Kent




Over £50,000 has been raised to help restore a dress decorated with real beetle wings.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1888 in the beetlewing dress, credit NTPL-John Hammond

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1888 in the beetlewing dress, credit NTPL-John Hammond

Following a fundraising campaign, 1,300 hours of conservation work has been undertaken to restore the dress, which is over 120 years old.

The emerald and sea green gown, covered with the iridescent wings of the jewel beetle, was worn by Ellen Terry when she wowed audiences with her portrayal of Lady Macbeth at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1888.

Ellen Terry was one of the most celebrated and glamorous actresses of the Victorian age.

Removed from public display in 2006, the dress was designed by Alice Comyns Carr.

Fully restored, the stage costume is now back on display at Ellen Terry’s house,  Smallhythe Place in Kent,

John Singer Sargent immortalised the dress and Ellen Terry in a portrait now on display at the Tate Gallery.

Ellen Terry

Known as the Queen of the Theatre, Ellen was mobbed by fans wherever she went. She played opposite Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre for over 20 years and was famed for her portrayal of Shakespearean heroines.

We had collected the beetle wings that had fallen off over the years so that the conservator was able to re-attach many of the originals.
Paul Meredith National Trust

She made her stage debut at the age of nine, playing the boy Mamillius in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

In 1925 Ellen Terry was created a Dame of the British Empire .

Dress restoration

As one of the most important items in the National Trust’s collections, the Beetle Wing dress was on the priority list to be conserved.

At over 120 years old, the dress had seen many years of wear and tear and was subject to much alteration. It was structurally very weak and a shadow of its original self.

Paul Meredith, House Manager, at Smallhythe Place, said: “We had collected the beetle wings that had fallen off over the years so that the conservator was able to re-attach many of the originals, plus others that had been donated to us – 1,000 in total.

The one hundred or so wings that were broken were each carefully repaired by supporting them on small pieces of Japanese tissue adhered with a mixture of wheat starch paste.

Much of the work has involved strengthening the fabric, understanding the many alterations that were made to the dress and ultimately returning it to something that is much closer to the costume worn by Ellen on stage in 1888.

The beetle wing dress is reinstated at Smallhythe Place, credit NTPL-David Levenson

The beetle wing dress is reinstated at Smallhythe Place, credit NTPL-David Levenson

The conservation work was carried out by Brighton-based conservator Zenzie Tinker and her team.

Zenzie said: “We have restored the original shape of the elaborate sleeves and the long, trailing hem line that Ellen so admired. I’d like to think she’d see our contribution as part of the on-going history of the dress.”

The dress is now in a new display space which also features items from Ellen’s dressing room that have never been shown in public before.

Smallhythe Place – Tenterden, Kent

The half-timbered house, built in the early 16th century when Smallhythe was a thriving shipbuilding yard, was the home of the Victorian actress Ellen Terry from 1899 to her death in 1928.

After Ellen’s death her daughter, Edith Craig, decided that a barn in the garden should be transformed into a theatre.

In 1931 the Barn Theatre Society was established and was considered a dramatic centre for this part of Kent until the start of the Second World War.

The cottage grounds include her rose garden, orchard, nuttery and the theatre.

Edith Craig gave Smallhythe Place to the National Trust in 1939.

Jewel Beetle

Sternocers aesquisignata or the jewel beetle is found in India, Burma and Thailand.

In the rainy season the beetles swarm in search of mates. When mating has occurred and the eggs have been laid, the beetles die and the wings can be easily harvested.

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