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Ellen Terry: The Painter's Actress

10 June - 9 November 2014
Watts Gallery

“Every famous man of the 19th Century – provided he were a playgoer – has been in love with her” George Bernard Shaw

“A beguiling and illuminating exhibition at the delightful Watts Gallery.”   Daily Telegraph

Ellen Terry: The Painter’s Actress will be the first exhibition to explore how the influence of Britain’s most famous Victorian actress reached beyond the stage to inspire generations of visual artists. Bringing together paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography and film – including material rarely or never previously exhibited – the show will trace Ellen Terry’s journey from emerging teenage starlet to cultural icon.

The exhibition is timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Ellen Terry’s marriage to the great Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904). Although their relationship lasted for less than a year, the artist’s paintings of his young bride have been described as “his most glorious visions on canvas”.

Dame Ellen Terry (1847 – 1928) was born into a theatrical family. From the age of eight Ellen made regular appearances on the stage both in London and in touring productions alongside her parents and older sister, Kate. In 1863, the sisters were appearing at London’s Haymarket Theatre, where Kate’s performance met with such success that, chaperoned by her younger sister, Ellen, she was invited to sit to the great portrait artist of the age, G.F. Watts. The Sisters (1863; private collection) is the result of this first encounter. It was, however, Ellen who captured the artist’s attention, and who appears in the following months in a touching and beautiful series of paintings and drawings reunited for this exhibition.

On February 20 1864, the 46-year-old Watts married Ellen, aged just sixteen.

Ellen herself recalled how the experience of sitting in the artist’s studio made the stage seem “a poor place” in comparison, and indeed Watts had intended that she should – as young actresses typically did upon marriage – renounce the theatrical life, in her case in favour of a new role as muse to a great painter.

For a brief time Ellen’s fate starred in what are some of the great portraits of the Victorian age. In Watchman, What of the Night? (Smallhythe Place, National Trust) Ellen appears as Joan of Arc, a noble-hearted young heroine; while in Choosing (National Portrait Gallery) Ellen wears the brown silk wedding dress designed for her by William Holman Hunt, and seeks to decide between the choice of camellias and violets in a modern allegory of the choice between the soul and the senses. Alongside these paintings the exhibition will include some of the intimate drawings made of Ellen by Watts in 1863/4 – among his most memorable works on paper.  

For more works depicting Ellen Terry, visit the National Portrait Gallery's website by clicking here.

Introductory video - Ellen Terry: The Painter's Actress