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Ellen Terry Exhibition Review by the Art Forum

Posted 2nd October 2014
Watts Contemporary Gallery

This article was written by Watts Gallery's Art Forum.

Watts Gallery opened their exhibition on the life and work of G. F. Watt’s first wife, Ellen Terry in June 2014. Terry was at the centre of culture during the Victorian era as an actress and as a model for painters and photographers. This exhibition combines the story of her marriage with the story of her career across her entire life time. It presents her both on and off the stage through a range of different art forms including paintings, prints, audio and film.

One of the eleven children of her actor parents, Ellen Terry (1847-1928) was born a performer, first being photographed in character at the age of nine. She comes across in the exhibition as an enigmatic character, sometimes appearing confident and image-conscious, and at other times shy and reserved. At the age of 16, Ellen Terry married George Watts who was 46 at the time! Their marriage lasted less than a year before it fell apart although it then took a further twelve years before they officially divorced. The exhibition includes five of Watts’ paintings of the actress which illustrate the history of their marriage, all being painted at different points along the way. The first portrays her with her sister just before she married Watts. The focus is clearly on Terry, suggesting Watts viewed her as captivating and beautiful. But from then on Watts starts to present Terry more negatively. The most famous painting in the exhibition, Choosing, depicts Terry holding violets in one hand and smelling camellias (scentless) which she has in the other hand.

Through this Watts is suggesting that Terry is choosing her acting career over being his devoted wife. Being an actress was a frowned upon profession at the time. Today people write a cringey Facebook status about a failing relationship but back in the nineteenth century Watts expressed the same emotion through a beautiful painting.

The exhibition is overall very varied and multi-sensory, including film, audio, photographs, prints, paintings and even their divorce papers! This is what made it so interesting for us. We felt it was good to include the new technology that was emerging at the time. For us, the exhibition gave us a feel for Terry’s personality in the way of it being dynamic and expressive.

We would highly recommend a visit to this exhibition which closes at the beginning of November.

Ellen Terry: the Painters Actress will be on show until Sunday 9 November 2014.

The Art Forum are young people aged 14-18. We work on projects, write reviews, lead picture talks and meet with professionals to gain insights into gallery and museum careers. We meet twice a month on a Tuesday evening 5.30pm-7.00pm. For more information about joining the Art Forum contact Lauren McCombie Smith Learning Assistant at or 01483 901 808.