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Joanna Lumley opens a new display about actress Ellen Terry at her former home, Smallhythe Place, and is made patron of the Barn Theatre

Actress Joanna Lumley has opened a new display about Victorian actress Ellen Terry, and admitted she felt "star-struck".

The Absolutely Fabulous actress, who has been a fan of Ellen Terry since childhood, was at Smallhythe Place in Tenterden, to open the new exhibition at the National Trust property, where she has also been made patron of the Barn Theatre on site.

Joanna Lumley at Smallhythe Place, Tenterden Picture: National Trust/Peter Mould
Joanna Lumley at Smallhythe Place, Tenterden Picture: National Trust/Peter Mould

An A-list celebrity in her day, using a technique ahead of its time, and earning the equivalent of thousands of pounds a week, Ellen Terry was the leading actress of her generation, appearing at London's Lyceum Theatre in London.

The new display at her former home of Smallhythe Place features costumes and memorabilia relating to one of her most acclaimed roles, in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 1882.

The display comes as Joanna became patron of the property’s Barn Theatre, created in the grounds by Ellen Terry’s daughter in 1929 following her mother’s death.

Ellen appeared with her co-star, the actor-manager Henry Irving, delighting audiences with portrayals of some of the greatest Shakespearean couples. Much Ado About Nothing, in the roles of Beatrice and Benedick, was one of the Lyceum’s biggest hits.

A megastar in her day. Ellen Terry pictured as Beatrice in one of her costumes for Much Ado About Nothing. Picture: National Trust
A megastar in her day. Ellen Terry pictured as Beatrice in one of her costumes for Much Ado About Nothing. Picture: National Trust

As new patron of the Barn Theatre Joanna follows in the footsteps of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Donald Sinden.

A fan of Ellen's since she was a child, she said: “When I was eight years old and staying with friends in Tenterden we were corralled into a pageant of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which involved much dressing up. I was a rat or a waif, I forget which: but my sister playing a burgher’s wife went to be dressed by Miss Maud Gibson, whose ancient cottage creaked under a sloping roof, filled with fabrics and costumes…. she was Dame Ellen Terry’s dresser and confidante. We were touching hands that had touched greatness.

Ellen Terry's and Henry Irving's costumes from Much Ado About Nothing Picture: National Trust/David Brunetti
Ellen Terry's and Henry Irving's costumes from Much Ado About Nothing Picture: National Trust/David Brunetti

“We both shivered with the thrill of a Real Actress looking down over us in a ghostly way. Did she cast a spell on me then? I always felt a secret affinity with her. I could not be prouder or happier. The world turns round, and here I am 65 years later, with that rat (or waif) still inside me, still star-struck.”

Katya Fowler from KMTV was at Smallhythe to see the display opened.

In the display, visitors can see costumes along with other Ellen Terry mementoes for the first time, including her play script with handwritten notes.

Susannah Mayor, senior house steward, said: “Ellen was a megastar in her time, mobbed by fans wherever she went, receiving the kind of adulation that is more commonly associated years later with the great names of Hollywood. Her popularity owed much to her tremendous stage presence; she was an instinctive, emotional actress, who painstakingly researched her characters and their motivations, bringing a truth

and depth to her performances long before method acting was recognised as a technique.

Items belonging to Ellen Terry Picture: National Trust/David Brunetti
Items belonging to Ellen Terry Picture: National Trust/David Brunetti

"Her stage costumes were a vital part of that process, and she was closely involved in their design, seeing them as integral to evoking the personalities of the women she was portraying.”

Two of the costumes from Much Ado About Nothing, in sumptuous gold velvet, worn by Ellen and Henry Irving from the wedding scene, are shown against a backdrop reproducing the church set. The third elaborate costume with feather fan, was worn by Ellen in another scene from the production.

The costumes now on show have been in storage for 15 years. Meticulous conservation has been undertaken by specialist Zenzie Tinker and her team while other memorabilia on show for the first time include Ellen’s script for Much Ado About Nothing, with her handwritten notes in the margins, and an original programme for the show.

Joanna Lumley on the Barn Theatre stage at Smallhythe Place Picture: National Trust/Peter Mould
Joanna Lumley on the Barn Theatre stage at Smallhythe Place Picture: National Trust/Peter Mould

Susannah Mayor added: “Whether you are discovering Ellen Terry for the first time, are learning more about her, or visiting us to enjoy a show in our theatre, we hope that people of all ages will be captivated by one of history’s most fascinating stars.”

Smallhythe Place opens for the season from today. Find out more at nationaltrust.org.uk/smallhythe-place

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