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Ellen Terry

2 of 205 portraits of Ellen Terry

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Ellen Terry

by George Frederic Watts
oil on canvas, circa 1864-1865
24 1/8 in. x 23 7/8 in. (612 mm x 608 mm) overall
Purchased, 1928
Primary Collection
NPG 2274

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Painter and sculptor; Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Artist associated with 92 portraits, Sitter in 43 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Watts married his first wife, the actress Ellen Terry, in 1864 when she was seventeen. The artist was thirty years older than his wife, and later wrote that he had hoped to ‘influence, guide and cultivate a very artistic and peculiar nature and to remove an impulsive young girl from the dangers and temptations of the stage’. Terry inspired Watts’s painting, but the marriage broke down within a year. The pair reconciled as friends in the 1880s and Watts sent Terry this portrait, which he had made during their marriage. It remained in her possession until her death.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 69 Read entry

    Ellen Alice Terry (1847-1928) was the foremost English actress of her generation, known especially for her theatrical association (between 1878 and 1902) with the actor-manager Henry Irving and celebrated in both Britain and America. Born to actor parents, her first stage appearance, at the age of nine, was in Charles Kean’s 1856 production of The Winter’s Tale at the Princess’s Theatre. She remained with Kean until 1859, before moving to Bristol’s Theatre Royal. In 1864, she left the stage to marry painter and sculptor G.F. Watts, for whom she had modelled, but they soon separated (she would marry again twice), and a mutual friend commented that Watts ‘might as well marry the dawn or the twilight or any other evanescent and elusive loveliness of nature’. After a brief return to the stage, she left again to live with the architect and theatrical designer Edward Godwin and have two children. Returning to acting in 1874, her Portia in The Merchant of Venice (1875) showcased her renewed vigour and maturity. But it was as Irving’s leading lady that she excelled, touring nationally and internationally, celebrated for her many Shakespearean roles. In 1899, the leading society artist John Singer Sargent painted her in the role of Lady Macbeth in what has become one of his most famous portraits. In 1906, for her golden jubilee at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, she celebrated with a host of theatrical luminaries. She remained in the limelight for the rest of her life, as a theatre manager and producer, actress, writer and lecturer, and, in 1925, a Dame.

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  • 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. 138
  • Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 200
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 609
  • Truss, Lynn, Tennyson and his Circle, 2015, p. 82
  • Truss, Lynne, Character Sketches: Tennyson and His Circle, 1999, p. 44

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.


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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