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The National Trust announces return of famous Beetle Wing dress


The National Trust has announced that a Victorian dress decorated with 1,000 real beetle wings is set to go back on display following 1,300 hours of painstaking conservation.

A stage costume worn by Ellen Terry, one of the most celebrated and glamorous actresses of the Victorian age, has returned to her home, Smallhythe Place in Kent, cared for by the National Trust.

The emerald and sea green gown, covered with the iridescent wings of the jewel beetle (which the beetles shed naturally) was worn by Ellen when she wowed audiences with her portrayal of Lady Macbeth at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1888.

It 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.

Known as the Queen of the Theatre, Ellen was mobbed by fans wherever she went. 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 collections, the Beetle Wing dress was on the priority list to be conserved. 

At over 120 years old, the dress 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. Two years ago the intricate process of conserving it began. A successful fundraising campaign raised £50,000 for the work to be completed.

Paul Meredith, house manager at Smallhythe Place, said: "We had collected the beetle wings that had fallen off over the years so that 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.

“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 conservation work was carried out by Brighton-based conservator Zenzie Tinker and her team.

Zenzie said: “We have restored the original shape of the elaborate sleeves and the long, trailing hem line 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. I’d like to think she’d see our contribution as part of the on-going history of the dress.”

The dress is now in a new display space which also features items from Ellen’s dressing room that have never been shown in public before.

Paul Meredith added: “There are many reasons why people come to Smallhythe Place. 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 many more people just how special the house and collections are.”

About the National Trust:
The National Trust is a charity with a statutory duty to preserve places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland ’of historic interest and natural beauty for the benefit of the nation’.

As Europe’s largest conservation charity it protect over 350 historic houses, 160 gardens, 1,100 kilometres of coastline, 254,000 hectares of land of outstanding natural beauty, six World Heritage Sites, 28 castles and 60 pubs, including many places to visit in London - and give access to them for people to enjoy.

PR Contact:
Alison Dalby
Senior Press Officer
The National Trust
Kemble Drive
SN2 2NA.
01793 817780


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