Tenterden the Jewel of the Weald

Smallhythe Place Tenterden, Kent

TN30 7NG

Tel: 01580 762334
Web: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/smallhytheplace


The return of the iconic Beetle Wing Dress

After 1,300 hours of work, £50,000 of fundraising, and 1,000 real beetle wings sewn meticulously back in place, the dress that was made famous by Victorian actress Ellen Terry and her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in 1888, has finally returned home to Smallhythe Place, in Kent.

The emerald and sea green gown, adorned with the iridescent wings of the jewel beetle, was one of the most iconic and celebrated theatre costumes of the time, immortalised by the John Singer Sargent portrait now on display at the Tate Gallery. And its wearer, Ellen Terry, was the Dame Judy Dench of the time. Known as the Queen of the Theatre, she played opposite Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre for over 20 years and was famed for her portrayal of Shakespearean heroines.

As one of the most important items in the National Trust’s whole collection, the Beetle Wing Dress was on the priority list to be conserved. At over 120 years old, it had seen many years of wear and tear and was subject to much alteration. It was structurally very weak and a shadow of its original self. So two years ago the intricate process of conserving it began.

Paul Meredith, Assistant Property Manager, at Smallhythe Place said: “We had collected the beetle wings that fell off over the years, so the conservator was able to re-attach many of the originals, plus others that had been donated to us – 1,000 in total.”

The one hundred or so wings that were broken were each carefully repaired by supporting them on small pieces of Japanese tissue adhered with a mixture of wheat starch paste and special glue. But the majority of the work has involved strengthening the fabric, understanding the many alterations that were made to the dress and ultimately returning it to something that is much closer to the costume worn by Ellen on stage in 1888.

The work was carried out by Brighton based conservator Zenzie Tinker and her team. Zenzie added: “We have restored the original shape of the elaborate sleeves and the long, trailing hemline that Ellen so admired. If she were alive today, I’m sure she’d be delighted. She really valued her costumes because she kept and reused them time and again. And I’d like to think she’d see our contribution as part of the ongoing history of the dress.”

After five years away from home, the dress is now proudly back where it belongs, in a brand new display space which also features items from Ellen’s dressing room that have never shown in public before.

Paul Meredith concluded: “There are many reasons why people come to Smallhythe, it’s such an intimate National Trust house, bursting with theatre history and stage costumes. Now the Beetle Wing Dress is back and we finally have a really good contemporary display space, we hope to show even more people just how special the house and collections are.”

Smallhythe Place is open Saturday – Wednesday until 30 October. Find out more at: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/smallhytheplace  

Ellen Terry, Smallhythe Place

Ellen Terry, Smallhythe Place - the Beetle Wing dress

Re-stitching beetlewings to dress at Smallhythe Place

Re-stitching beetlewings to dress

Close up of Beetlewings

Close up of Beetlewings

The Beetle Wing Dress worn by Ellen Terry

Urgent conservation work