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Dame Ellen Terry

Dame Ellen Terry

Grand dame Ellen put Cov on the map

She was one of the greatest actresses ever, one of the first female stars of the stage and she came from Coventry. Discover more about Ellen Terry.

She took the acting world by storm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and established an acting legacy that would go way beyond her time - that was the influence of Dame Ellen Terry.

Born in Coventry to a family of provincial actors, Ellen went on to become the country's greatest Shakesperian actress and she also popularised playwrights like Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.

Her personal life, though, was almost as colourful as her life on stage and her career was littered with broken marriages and broken hearts.

George Bernard-Shaw

Ellen popularised the work of Bernard-Shaw

Terry was born in 1847 in Market Street and pretty much went straight onto the stage, which was unsurprising considering her parents Sarah Ballard and Ben Terry were in a touring company.

Like her thespian brother and sister, the Fred and Kate, Ellen never went to school and instead made her debut on stage at the Prince's Theatre in London in A Winter's Tale at just eight years old.

Her career as a child actor really took off and she became an integral part of Charles Kean's production company.

She went on tour with Kate in her father's production company before joining the Theatre Royal in Bristol in 1862 and then the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1863.

Just a year later when, aged 16, she left the stage to marry the 46-year-old George Frederic Watts. Not surprisingly, the marriage didn't last long - ten months, to be precise - and she went back to her first love, the theatre.

In 1867, after a sojourn in Paris, Ellen joined the Wigan Theatre Company but perhaps more importantly she starred alongside Henry Irving for the first time. It was alongside Irving that she would become the greatest actress on the world stage - but more of that later.

Dame Ellen Terry

Ellen played almost all of Shakespeare's heroines

Just a year later Ellen took another sabbatical from the theatre to pursue a relationship, this time with architect Edward Goodwin, which whom she co-habited in Hertfordshire and had two children.

The relationship began to fall apart because of financial problems so in 1874 she headed back to the stage and in 1875, after an acclaimed performance as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Ellen and Edward finally split up.

In 1878, Ellen married again this time to actor Charles Kelly but it didn't last long thanks to his heavy drinking, but things took a turn for the better later that year, thanks to Henry Irving.

Irving rented the Lyceum Theatre in London and invited the 31-year-old Terry to be his leading lady. The couple worked together for more than 20 years, staging plays by Shakespeare and other playwrights in a partnership that cemented the pair's position as the most influential actors of a generation.

The company went bust in 1902 but that didn't stop the powerhouse Ellen who took over managaement of the Imperial Theatre with her son, Edward Craig.

London's Lyceum Theatre

Ellen's one-time creative hom, the Lyceum Theatre

Ellen and Edward began to stage new and different works, including those by Bernard-Shaw and Ibsen, bringing them to a new audience and increasing their popularity.

Her fame made her the ideal person, then, to lay the foundation stone of the Empire Theatre in Coventry in her jubilee year as a performer - and a year later she married for the third and final time to James Carew in a relationship that would last for two years.

As well as acting, Ellen travelled the world - particularly the USA - giving lectures on Shakespeare but failing health forced her off the road in 1914.

After a catarac operation that left her almost blind, Ellen made a move into film before she was awarded her Damehood in 1925 just as she retired.

She lived her final years in Smallhythe Place, a farmhouse she bought at the turn of the century, before she died in 1928.

Smallhythe Place is now a National Trust property and home to the Dame Ellen Terry Museum.

last updated: 01/04/2008 at 16:34
created: 02/05/2006

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