Smallhythe Place is a two-storey, half-timbered house built in the late fifteenth century. It was bought by the well-known actress Dame Ellen Terry (1847–1928) in 1899 and is full of memorabilia of her profession. She was encouraged to buy Smallhythe by her acting partner, Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905), with whom she shared the stage for 24 years, playing many parts, from Ophelia to his Hamlet to Portia to his Shylock. Ellen Terry was first immortalised in art before she ever attained great fame on the stage. Her first husband, George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), painted her in the symbolic ‘Choosing’ (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London) where she is seen in the act of sniffing a camellia whilst holding the sweeter-smelling violets. He had wanted her to give up the idea of acting. He painted her again in ‘Watchman, What of the Night?’, now on private loan to Smallhythe. Originally titled ‘Joan of Arc’, he finished it after she had left him in 1867. The new title alludes to a passage in the biblical book of Isaiah: ‘the morning comes for those who inquire and repent, the night for those who do not’. The couple finally divorced in 1877. She had two children, Edith ‘Edy’ Ailsa Craig and Edward Gordon Craig, with the architect Edward Godwin, who had built a house for them at Fallows Green, Harpenden before disappearing. After Ellen’s death, her daughter transformed the barn into a theatre, establishing the Barn Theatre Society. By 1939, she gave Smallhythe to the National Trust, whilst preserving a life interest. In her last years Edith lived in a ménage à trois with the artists Chris St John (Christabel Marshall) and Clare Atwood, known as ‘Tony’, whose pictures remain at the property, including the portrait of their neighbour Vita Sackville-West in Ellen’s Portia costume, which she once borrowed for the Shakespeare masque at Knole in 1910.
National Trust, Smallhythe Place
Smallhythe, Tenterden, Kent TN30 7NG England
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