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Ellen Terry ('Choosing')

20 of 91 portraits by George Frederic Watts

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Ellen Terry ('Choosing')

by George Frederic Watts
oil on strawboard mounted on Gatorfoam, 1864
18 5/8 in. x 13 7/8 in. (472 mm x 352 mm) overall
Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1975
Primary Collection
NPG 5048

On display in Room 21 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Painter and sculptor. Artist associated with 91 portraits, Sitter in 43 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This delicate yet sensuous portrait shows the seventeen-year-old Ellen Terry choosing between the camellias, which despite their luscious appearance have little scent, and the violets in her hand which are far humbler in appearance but smell sweeter. The choice, which is symbolic of that between worldly vanities and higher virtues, had a personal significance for the artist and the sitter. 1864 was the year in which Terry gave up the stage to marry Watts, thirty years her senior, and to be educated by him. The marriage lasted barely a year, and despite Watts's disapproval, Terry eventually returned to the stage. The portrait is framed in an enriched version of what became known as a Watts frame.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • I-Spy National Portrait Gallery, 2010, p. 39
  • 100 Portraits, p. 77
  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 28
  • Bryant, Barbara, G.F. Watts: Portraits, Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society, 2004 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 14 October 2004 to 9 January 2005), p. 135
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 42 Read entry

    Dame Ellen’s most famous theatrical partnership was with Sir Henry Irving, at the Lyceum Theatre. Her stage career lasted sixty-nine years.

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 79
  • Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 28
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 33 Read entry

    Ellen Terry (1847-1928) first appeared on stage at the age of nine in 1856. Regarded as the greatest English actress of the period, she began performing with Henry Irving in 1867, and played many leading roles in Irving’s productions between 1878 and 1896. Known as Choosing, this delicately sensuous portrait shows the seventeen-year-old sitter choosing between the camellias, symbolising worldly vanities, by which she is surrounded, and in her left hand a small bunch of violets, symbolising innocence and simplicity. She married Watts, thirty years her senior, in 1864, but they separated the following year. Smallhythe, Kent, Terry’s home from 1899 until her death, holds a fascinating collection of her theatrical costumes and is now owned by the National Trust.

  • Gibson, Robin, Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 91
  • Hayward, Tony (foreword), BP Portrait Award 2007, 2007 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 14 June to 16 September 2007), p. 11
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 79
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 133
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 133 Read entry

    Watts first met Ellen Terry in 1862 when she was fifteen and Watts forty-five. She came to his house as a chaperone for her elder sister, also an actress, and Watts fell for her charms, so abundantly evident in her portrait. They were married in 1864, the year of the portrait, but separated a year later and were divorced in 1877. So this image, both poignant and slightly saccharine, and showing her dressed in black and smelling camellias, represents the intense love on the part of a middle-aged artist for a young, passionate and extraordinarily beautiful actress who briefly succumbed to the man she called 'the Signor'. According to Graham Robertson, who had been a friend of Ellen Terry and wrote about the picture in 1934, 'It actually holds the wistful soul of Ellen Terry and is, in a way, prophetic of her life. She spent nearly all her days trying to persuade herself that there was scent in camellias, while the perfume really came from the hidden violets near her heart.'

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 609
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 75, 173 Read entry

    Gilt compo on pine, standard Watts frame construction with the inner and outer mouldings made separately from the middle flat frieze, the outer section mitred and pinned, the middle section keyed and originally fixed by nails to the outer moulding, the frieze gessoed, apparently water gilt in a lemon gold punched and perhaps subsequently sized. 6 1⁄ 4 inches wide.

    The frame on Watts's portrait of his first wife, Ellen Terry, is one of the very earliest of the type and is exceptionally wide in relation to the size of the portrait; like his contemporary self-portrait and his portrait of Tennyson, both in the Tate Gallery, it is decorated with a punched leaf pattern. Rossetti used this type for The Beloved, 1865-6, and Monna Vanna, 1866, also both in the Tate Gallery, and Ford Madox Brown later termed it a 'Venetian' pattern when adopting it for his portrait of Henry Fawcett and his wife. In fact the frame is more akin to Emilian cassetta frames of the early seventeenth century, such as that found on Oswald Birley's portrait of George V (NPG 4013).

  • Truss, Lynn, Tennyson and his Circle, 2015, p. 77
  • Truss, Lynne, Character Sketches: Tennyson and His Circle, 1999, p. 41
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 149 Read entry

    Regarded as the greatest English actress of the period, Ellen Terry played many leading roles in Henry Irving’s productions, such as Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. This portrait was painted by George Frederic Watts (1817– 1904) at the time of his marriage to Terry, when he was forty-five and she was not quite seventeen. She wears her Renaissance-style wedding dress of brown silk (which now appears closer to green) and, according to Terry, it was designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt. The sensuous depiction of pale flesh against abundant foliage celebrates her youthful beauty. This work is at once a portrait and an allegory: Terry must choose between the spectacular yet scentless camellias to which she inclines, and the small bunch of sweet-smelling violets cradled in her left hand. Whilst the latter symbolises innocence and simplicity, the former signifies worldly vanities, in this instance the stage.

    The couple separated a year later and divorced in 1877. The actress’s lifelong friend, the painter Walford Graham Robertson, maintained that ‘to marry Ellen was an absurd thing for any man to do. He might as well marry the dawn or the twilight or any other evanescent and elusive loveliness of nature.’

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1864back to top

Current affairs

First of the Contagious Diseases Act. These acts allowed for the arrest, medical inspection and confinement of any woman suspected of being a prostitute in the port towns. Following huge public outcry over their discrimination against women, notably led by Josephine Butler, leader of the Ladies' National Association, the acts were eventually repealed.
Octavia Hill starts work on slums, and the International Working Men's Association is founded in London.

Art and science

The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell presents his discoveries in the field of electromagnetics to the Royal Society. His paper A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field expresses the basic laws of electricity and magnetism in unified fashion. Maxwell's equations, as his rules came to be known, helped create modern physics, laying the foundation for future work in special relativity and quantum mechanics.

International

Austria and Prussia combine forces to seize Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark.
Britain cedes Corfu, acquired from France in the Second Treaty of Paris (1815) to Greece. Although Britain had vigorously suppressed an uprising in 1849 in Cephalonia aiming to restore Iolian islands, the government changed policy throughout the 1850s and 60s.

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