This week for Jo’s Monday Walk we are visiting Smallhythe Place near Tenterden, Kent.
Smallhythe Place, the home of Ellen Terry, is located on a rural road. Coming from a narrow, graveled, country lane from the Bullein Barn B&B, Smallhythe Place was at the end of it. Everyday we were amazed at all the cars parked here and the visitors going to the cottage. It was so convenient we thought we would save it to the end of our stay and walk there! This is not a big estate like some of the other National Trust properties we toured. This was a smallish house sitting on a smallish property. When we did visit, what a delight it was! As with all the National Trust properties, the hosts of this property made you feel so very welcome and were so knowledgable! I did not know a thing about Ellen Terry! First, let’s look at her cottage which is surrounded by flowers! The cottage, which you can also tour, is now a memorial to her.
One day, in 1899, Ellen Terry, the actress, was out for a buggy ride in the country (this is well away from London) with Henry Irving, (the manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London’s Covent Garden), who was also her theatrical partner for twenty-four years. Upon seeing a cottage at the side of the small lane near Tenterden, she made up her mind that this was where she wanted to live and die. So, she bought the place. She lived there until her death in 1928. The half timbered house was built in the late 15th or early 16th century. The house was originally a “Priest House” and then called the “Port House,” because of its location on the River Rother, which is now just a trickle along the side of the house. At one time this place was a thriving shipyard, the Old English word “hythe” means “landing place.” It is far off the beaten track, even now. She definitely wanted her peace and quiet, away from the crowds!
The cottage leans a tad!
The Grounds around her cottage……..
The back door……….
My favorite was the hooked rug……..
We get a view from an upstairs window……you can see the other manor houses along the road as well!
In her personnel life she was very thrifty. She was beautiful until the end and had beautiful clothes, but recycled them, dying her dresses new colors, adding a new feather here or there. Why buy new clothes when the old ones were perfectly fine? One of her most popular dresses, for the theatre, was the “beetle-wing gown.” Ellen Terry wore this green, shimmering dress, made with the wings of 1,000 beetles, as she performed as Lady Macbeth. The dress transformed the beautiful red-headed actress into a cross between a serpent and a medieval knight and was the talk of the town after the first night. John Singer Sargent painted Terry wearing it! Oscar Wilde loved it! Edith Terry commented, “Is this not a lovely robe? It is so easy to wear, one doesn’t have to wear a corset!”
In 2006, the fragile knitted dress with the beetle wings, which had been preserved as part of Terry’s spectacular collection of theatre memorabilia, was falling apart. Beetle wings were regularly found lying at the bottom of the display case. Henry Irving’s, Macbeth, ran for more than six months to packed houses and the costume was re-used on many later tours also. It bore the scars of being tramped on by others, snagged on scenery, and torn from the jewelry Terry wore on stage.
With donations to the National Trust, a 110,000 pound restoration was met and the dress is again on display at her home at Smallhythe Place. Most of the money came from visitors’ donations at her 16th century, chocolate-box cottage. An antique dealer in nearby Tenterden, donated additional beetle wings….. which the beetles shed naturally. The gown arrived at the studio of specialist textile conservator, Zenzie Tinker, in Brighton. She soon realized that she was dealing with the remains of two identical dresses, that had been patched together, when both were too badly damaged to wear. Hundreds of beetle wings were repaired by gluing green-dyed Japanese tissue paper on the reverse side of the gown, and then stitching the beetles in place!
When Terry died in 1929, her daughter, Edith Craig, opened the home as a memorial to her mother and then the National Trust took over the property when Craig died in 1947. Smallhythe Place is filled with mementoes of Terry’s career in the theatre. In 1929, Craig set up a barn on the grounds, as a theater, where William Shakespeare plays are performed every year on the anniversary of her mother’s death. This is continued even today. Now let’s stroll through the small garden…………
I loved the acknowledgement of the unwelcome plant! Silverweed!!!!!
PS Ellen Terry was the Princess Di of her day…….she was a rock star and everyone loved her…..She also had a very soft heart and never cared one hoot about money, and she had plenty of it! When Ellen bought this house her daughter wanted to marry, but Ellen told her she needed her too much (because she worked with her on the stage) Her daughter responded by moving in with Ellen and bringing two additional woman friends, in a ménage a trois. Then, her daughter put up a wall that separated them : a side for herself and her friends and one for her mother. Ellen supported them all, for the rest of her life from her lonely side of the cottage…….
Then there was her son…..He managed to have 13 children with 8 different women and Ellen supported all the women and all the children. When, he finally married and had two more children, she took care of them too. Ellen worked in the theatre as long as she could and in her later years, did lecturing around the world and even took up acting in the film industry in the US. Her only comment, “Am I to do one night stands for the rest of my life?”
Ellen Terry led a remarkable life, becoming one of the premier actresses of her day, admired for her beautiful voice, sensitive interpretations and striking appearance, right up to the end. Her death mask, on display, in her home proves it! She was very generous with her money, tried to help everyone, and was loved by all! Who could fault her? Visiting Smallhythe Place, in Kent, will be an honor you never forget! Enjoy! See you next time!