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Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry, by Walford Graham Robertson, 1923 -NPG 3132 - © reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

© reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

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Ellen Terry

by Walford Graham Robertson
Oil on canvas, 1923
48 1/4 in. x 30 1/8 in. (1224 mm x 765 mm) overall
NPG 3132

Inscriptionback to top

Signed, inscr. and dated bottom left: ‘Ellen Terry in her 73rd year. W. Graham Robertson. 1923.’.
Labels on reverse of canvas:
(a) inscr. in ink: ‘Glass broken (struck through) as / received from Cheltenham / G.B. Burton’.
(b) printed: ‘James Bourlet & Sons, Ltd., / Fine Art Packers, Frame Makers, / A 58664 / 17 & 18, Nassau Street, / Mortimer Street, W.’
Label on reverse of frame inscr. in ink: ‘W. Graham Robertson / 9 Argyll Road / Kensington W. 8 / The late Dame Ellen Terry in her 73rd year’.

This portraitback to top

Walford Graham Robertson first met Terry at a dance in the winter of 1887, an event he describes in detail in his published recollections Time Was. [1] They remained firm friends; he would pay visits to her various country homes and she stayed at Sandhills, Robertson’s house in Surrey from 1888. Writing to the artist from America in 1900, Terry described the importance of her visits there: ‘Some of my very peacefullest and happiest hours have been at your cottage. Being a long way off makes one see things so clearly, and some of my memories are rainbow-hued.’ [2]

Two illustrated letters from the artist to Terry, now in the collection at Smallhythe Place, attest to the affectionate nature of their continuing friendship (see ‘All known portraits, I. In private character, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, c.1900’ and ‘?c.1906’). Robertson’s first portraits of the actress date from 1891 and illustrate his fascination with her. In one example she is shown reclining majestically on an ornately carved throne, a fur-lined cloak resting loosely on her shoulders. There is an ethereality to his other composition, which he nicknamed ‘Ellen in Heaven’[3]: a head-and-shoulders pose against a neutral background, accompanied by a single stem of blooming lilies (see ‘All known portraits, I. In private character, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, 1891’).

In a note to the National Portrait Gallery’s Director, Henry Hake, accompanying the painting when it was sent up for inspection by the NPG’s Trustees, Robertson describes the motivation for this portrait of the actress in the last decade of her life: ‘I knew Miss Terry for forty years and made one or two portraits of her; but, towards the end of her life, I felt that there should be a record of her beautiful old age. So far as I know, this is the only portrait of her as an old woman, and it is interesting as showing how little the general character of her face had changed.’ [4]

Although dated 1923 – when Terry was 76 – the artist’s inscription records that the portrait depicts the actress ‘in her 73rd year’. In fact Robertson clearly based his composition on a photograph taken much earlier, in 1914, during her tour of Australia (see ‘All known portraits, I. In private character, Photographs, 1914’). [5] The location for the photographic session was the roof of the Oriental Hotel in Melbourne, where Terry is shown seated in a wicker armchair, surrounded by potted palms. The low ivied wall and the background of coastal landscape are the artist’s own addition to the painting, but the pose, the dress and the manner in which the rug is draped across Terry’s lap are almost identical to the photographic portrait. In both, the eye is drawn to the wide-brimmed dark hat she wears, tied under her chin with a long scarf. It is possible that Terry gave the photograph to her friend Robertson. The print at Smallhythe Place is inscribed to her daughter Edith Craig: ‘Edy – from Mother = Xmas 1914’. [6] The artist certainly selected his reference material effectively; the upright pose and distant gaze are exemplary of the dignified serenity that characterized Terry’s appearance in her later years.

NPG 3132 was donated by the artist to the NPG in 1943, along with a portrait of the actress Ellen (‘Nellie’) Farren in the role of ‘Ruy Blas’ (see NPG 3133). Fragmentary labels written in Robertson’s hand pasted onto the reverse of the Whistler-style frame suggest that the painting was presented already framed. Nowhere in Robertson’s existing correspondence with Hake does he mention that the portrait is after a photograph, a fact which, if known at the time, might have counted against its acquisition.

Elizabeth Heath

Footnotesback to top

1) Robertson 1931, p.139. See also p.338 for a description of their friendship.
2) Quoted in Robertson 1931, p.297.
3) Auerbach 1987, p.337.
4) Note from W.G. Robertson accompanying letter to H. Hake, 14 Jan. 1943, NPG RP 3132. For further portraits of Terry in old age see ‘All known portraits, I. In private character, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, 1919’, ‘1920’, ‘1923’ and ‘1926’.
5) The exact pose from the photographic session, which must have served as the basis for the portrait, is NT, Smallhythe Place, NT/SMA/PH/2574. An almost identical pose, showing Terry facing the front, is at the V&A, London, S.133:535-2007.
6) This print is also inscribed on the verso in Edith’s hand: ‘Don’t know where this came from: Australia? Rather like it.’

Physical descriptionback to top

Three-quarter-length to left, seated, profile to left, against rural landscape, wearing wide-brimmed dark hat with rug draped over knees.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1998; 1999.

Provenanceback to top

Donated to the National Portrait Gallery by Walford Graham Robertson in 1943.

Exhibitionsback to top

Royal Society of Portrait Painters, 1931 (155).

Contrasts: Paintings by Charles Edward Wilson and W. Graham Robertson, Haslemere Educational Museum, Haslemere, Surrey, 1998.

Ellen Terry: The Painter's Actress, Watts Gallery, Compton, 2014 (no cat. no.).

Reproductionsback to top

Gould & Gawade 2014, p.46, fig.34.

View all known portraits for Walford Graham Robertson

View all known portraits for Dame Ellen Alice Terry