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Drama and Desire: “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” by John Singer Sargent

June 22nd, 2010

John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth is on display for a limited time at the AGO as part of the exhibition Drama and Desire: Artists and the Theatre.

John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889, oil on canvas, Tate Britain

Ellen Terry (1848-1928) was the greatest English-speaking actress of her day. “Miss Terry”, wrote artist John Singer Sargent, “has just come out in Lady Macbeth and looks magnificent.” Terry soon agreed to be painted by Sargent in a dramatic pose of the artist’s invention. “The picture is splendid,” commented Terry. “It’s talked of everywhere and quarreled about as much as my way of playing the part…. Sargent has suggested in this picture all that I should like to convey in my acting.”

Ellen Terry, Queen of the Stage

Terry’s London debut in 1888 as Lady Macbeth, in a spectacular dress decorated with beetles, sparked an unprecedented response from artists. Photos of this dress, and Terry wearing it, will be featured in the AGO’s installation. Coincidentally, the Toronto Public Library owns personal archives of Ellen Terry which have been borrowed for the exhibition.

The dress was made from knitted wool and tinsel decorated with Jewel Beetles (Sternocera Aesquisignata). Mrs. Cosmyn-Carr, the designer, commented: “I wanted to make this particular dress look as much like soft chain mail armour as I could, and yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent.” The AGO has borrowed a selection of Jewel Beetles from the ROM to include in the show.

Ellen Terry and Toronto

Ellen Terry regularly toured North America to great acclaim. With the London Lyceum Theatre Company she performed at Toronto’s Grand Opera House at least four times through the 1880s and 1890s. But all was not work. “When we were first in Toronto,” she commented, “I tobogganed at Rosedale. I should say it was like flying! The start! Amazing! A very nice Canadian man was my escort, and he helped me up the hill afterwards.”

  • Rita Lynham

    I saw the show on July 14th. The painting is stunning. It is particularly significant for me because my Great Grandmother, Julia Seaman, played one of the weird sisters in this production. She would have been in her 50's at the time, and almost “over the hill”, but Irving invited three former female Hamlets to play the weird sisters to ensure that they were not portrayed in an amateurish way.
    R. Lynham