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Dame Alice Ellen Terry, GBE (27 February 1847 – 21 July 1928), known professionally as Ellen Terry, was an English actress who became the leading Shakespearean actress in Britain.
Born into a family of actors, Terry began performing as a child, acting in Shakespeare plays in London, and toured throughout the British provinces in her teens. At 16 she married the 46-year-old artist George Frederic Watts, but they separated within a year. She soon returned to the stage but began a relationship with the architect Edward William Godwin and retired from the stage for six years. She resumed acting in 1874 and was immediately acclaimed for her portrayal of roles in Shakespeare and other classics.
In 1878 she joined Henry Irving's company as his leading lady, and for more than the next two decades she was considered the leading Shakespearean and comic actress in Britain. Two of her most famous roles were Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. She and Irving also toured with great success in America and Britain.
In 1903 Terry took over management of London's Imperial Theatre, focusing on the plays of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. The venture was a financial failure, and Terry turned to touring and lecturing. She continued to find success on stage until 1920, while also appearing in films from 1916 to 1922. Her career lasted nearly seven decades.
Ellen Terry by Walford Graham Robertson Oil on canvas, 1923 48 1/4 in. x 30 1/8 in. (1224 mm x 765 mm) overall NPG 3132
Ellen Terry as Macbeth by John Singer Sargent
St. Paul's Church, London
On 21 July 1928, Terry died of a cerebral haemorrhage at her home at Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden, Kent, aged 81. Her son Edward later recalled, "Mother looked 30 years old ... a young beautiful woman lay on the bed, like Juliet on her bier". Margaret Winser created a death mask. Terry was cremated at Golders Green, Middlesex. Her ashes are kept in a silver chalice on the right side of the chancel of the actors' church, St Paul's, Covent Garden, London, where a memorial tablet was unveiled by Sir John Martin-Harvey.
After her death, the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum was founded by Edith Craig in her mother's memory at Smallhythe Place, an early 16th-century house that she bought at the turn of the 20th century. The museum was taken over by the National Trust in 1939.
Terry's daughter Edith Craig became a theatre director, producer, costume designer, and an early pioneer of the women's suffrage movement in England. Terry's son, Edward Gordon Craig, became an actor, scenery and effects designer, illustrator, and director; he also founded the Gordon Craig School for the Art of the Theatre in Florence, Italy, in 1913. Her grandnephew was the actor John Gielgud. Illustrator Helen Craig is Terry's great granddaughter.
Terry is also connected with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
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