Ellen Terry, who became one of the most popular actresses on the British stage, was born in Coventry on 27 February 1847, the fourth daughter in the large family of the provincial actors Benjamin Terry and his wife Sarah (née Ballard). Ellen was the sister of Kate, Marion, Florence, George, Charles and Fred Terry, and the grand-aunt of Sir John Gielgud. She made her debut on the London stage in the child’s role of Mamillius in Charles Kean’s production of “The Winter’s Tale” at the Princess’s Theatre on 28 April 1856. Subsequently, with Kean’s company she was seen in other juvenile parts, including Prince Arthur in “King John” in October 1858 and Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in October 1856. She left the Princess’s when Kean’s management ended in 1859, toured with her sister Kate, was a member of the Royalty Theatre for a while and acted at Bristol and Bath. In 1863 she returned to act in London for a brief period until she retired upon her marriage in 1864 to the painter G. F. Watts, whose model she had been. But she reappeared in 1866, at the Olympic, as Helen in “The Hunchback”. On 26 December 1867 she acted with Henry Irving for the first time, playing Kate to his Petruchio. Soon after, she again withdrew from the stage, this time to live with the architect and stage designer Edward Godwin (1833-1886). With him she had two children, Edith, and Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), the visionary whose concepts about stage design revolutionized methods of presentation in the theatre of the twentieth century.
Terry was persuaded to return to the stage by the producer Charles Reade. After an absence of six years, she was seen as Phillipa Chester in “The Wandering Heir” at the Queen’s Theatre on 28 February 1874. With the Bancrofts in 1875 she was a great success as Portia in “The Merchant of Venice”. After some other appearances in London, including as Lady Teazle in “The School for Scandal” at the Gaiety in 1877, she joined Henry Irving at the Lyceum in December 1878.
Terry’s artistic partnership with Irving began on 30 December 1878 when she played Ophelia to his Hamlet. Her tender and pathetic portrayal of Ophelia was accounted one of her finest. (The Garrick Club painting of her in that role, G0801, is now credited to G. F. Watts [see Index of Artists] and not to Violet Lindsay.) In Irving’s striking and realistic mise-en-scènes she acted Portia (G0800, G0803), Beatrice, Lady Macbeth (G0802), Imogen, Volumnia, Desdemona and Cordelia, and established herself as one of the most popular and intelligent actresses of her time.
She acted Portia in Irving’s final performance at the Lyceum on 19 July 1902. By then her close 24-year personal relationship with Irving was also coming to an end, and a month earlier she had appeared as Mistress Page in Beerbohm Tree’s revival of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Her Majesty’s on 10 June. She had begun in the 1890s a brilliant correspondence with George Bernard Shaw. (The letters from that so-called ‘paper courtship’ were edited by Christopher St John and published, with a preface by Shaw, in 1931.) On 20 March 1906 at the Court Theatre she played Lady Cecily Waynflete in Shaw’s “Captain Brassbound’s Conversion”, a role he had written with her in mind.
Her jubilee of 50 years on the stage was celebrated in 1906 with her performances of Mistress Page, Hermione in “The Winter’s Tale” and Francisca in “Measure for Measure”, among other roles, and she was honoured by the profession at Drury Lane on 12 June. In 1907 she married the American actor James Carew, who was 30 years her junior, but they soon parted. Subsequently, she appeared in the United States, gave lectures on Shakespeare’s heroines, and made occasional appearances in plays at various London venues. Among her later roles were the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” (G0804) at the Hampstead Everyman in 1919 and Mrs Long in “Pride and Prejudice” at the Palace Theatre in 1922. She also appeared in several films. In May 1922 she rece