Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Today marks the birthday of John Singer Sargent in 1856. So I thought I’d share one of my favorite works of his, Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth.  Victorian actress Ellen Terry fascinates me and in a previous blog post about her memoirs, I shared her own words on the Lady Macbeth costume, which I will also include here.

It is her role as Lady Macbeth that captures my attention.  For one reason and one reason alone.  Her famous beetle-wing dress.

Ellen Terry's 'Lady Macbeth' dress prior to restoration.
Ellen Terry’s ‘Lady Macbeth’ dress prior to restoration.

When it came to costuming, Dame Ellen Terry paid attention to the smallest detail.  Her desire to create a gown for Lady Macbeth that would have a shimmering, serpent like appearance led to the design of this gown.  It’s iridescent green comes from thousands of beetle wings, a fragile affair that was recently restored.

Right: The gown during restoration. Left:  Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth.
Right: The gown during restoration. Left: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth.


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent

As I read her memoirs, I was excited when I reached her performance as Lady Macbeth.  The gown is so famous due to Sargent’s painting of it and I was eager to see if she would mention it.  I was not disappointed.  Not just because of the mention of the dress, but because of a brief glimpse into the production.  Here is her description on Henry Irving as Macbeth:

“His  view of “Macbeth”, though attacked and derided and put to shame in many quarters, is as  clear to me as the sunlight itself.  To me it seems as stupid to quarrel with the conception as to deny the nose on one’s face.  But the carrying out of the conception was unequal.

When I think of his “Macbeth”, I remember him most distinctly in the last act after the battle when he looked like a great famished wolf, weak with the weakness of a giant exhausted, spent as one whose exertions have been ten times as great as those of commoner men of a rougher fiber and courser strength.

“Of all men else I have avoided thee.”

Once more he suggested, as only he could suggest, the power of Fate.  Destiny seemed to hang over him, and he knew that there was no hope, no mercy.”

And the portion I was waiting for.  Ellen Terry on the ‘Lady Macbeth’ gown:

“I am glad to think it is immortalized in Sargent’s picture.  From the first I knew that picture was going to be splendid.  In my diary for 1888 I was always writing about it:

“The picture of me is nearly finished, and I think it is magnificent.  The green and blue of the dress is splendid, and the expression as Lady Macbeth holds the crown over her head is quite wonderful.”

Later, she continues:

Excerpt from Ellen Terry’s diary:  “The picture is the sensation of the year.  Of course opinions differ about it, but there are dense crowds round it day after day.  There is talk of putting it on exhibition by itself.”

It was satisfying to see that she mentions Burne-Jones, a favorite artist of mine:  “Sargent’s picture is almost finished, and it is really splendid.  Burne-Jones yesterday suggested two or three alterations about the color which Sargent immediately adopted, but Burne-Jones raves about the picture.”

Further on, she shares her correspondence with her daughter concerning the gown:

From a letter I wrote to my daughter, who was in Germany at the time:

“I wish you could see my dresses.  They are superb, especially the first one:  green beetles on it, and such a cloak!  The photographs give no idea of it at all, for it is in color that is so splendid.  The dark red hair is fine.  The whole thing is Rossetti- rich stained-glass effects, I play some of it well, but, of course, I don’t do what I want to do yet.  Meanwhile I shall not budge an inch in the reading of it, for that I know is right.  Oh, it’s fun, but it’s precious hard work for I by no means make her a ‘gentle, lovable woman’ as some of ’em say.  That’s all pickles.  She was nothing of the sort, although she was not a fiend, and did love her husband.  I have to what is vulgarly called ‘sweat at it’ each night.”

The ‘Lady Macbeth’ gown has been mentioned online extensively:
Ellen Terry’s beetlewing gown back in limelight after £110,000 restoration
The Archeology of a dress

More on THAT dress:  Victorian era dress, made with 1,000 beetle wings

And if the movie Brave is an indication, the ‘Lady Macbeth’ gown continues to inspire:

'Queen Elinor' in Pixar's Brave, voiced by Emma Thompson.
‘Queen Elinor’ in Pixar’s Brave, voiced by Emma Thompson.
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