I think the best way to describe Smallhythe Place is that it is a museum of Victorian theatre, which is housed in a quaint, 16th century English cottage. Once home to the famed actress Ellen Terry, the house exhibits a vast array of pictures, costumes, accessories and other theatre memorabilia, not only from the time of Ellen Terry and her frequent co-star Henry Irving, but also from earlier days, with a number of items related to David Garrick and Sarah Siddons also on display.
I visited Smallhythe Place the day after a trip to Lamb House in Rye and, although they are vastly different properties in age and appearance, they share the fact of only being significant because of their former owners. In fact, their guidebooks put the names of Henry James and Ellen Terry before the name of the house so as to emphasise the standing of these characters in each property’s story. Another interesting similarity was that both Henry James and Ellen Terry saw their respective houses on a passing visit and then had to wait for them to become available before they could buy them.
As with Lamb House, the Smallhythe Place of today looks quite different from Ellen Terry’s time, with only the bedroom appearing much as it would have done when its most famous occupant was in residence. This bedroom actually serves as a relaxing interlude from all the theatre memorabilia, as does the library next door, which the National Trust created in order to store Terry’s collection of theatrical volumes.
The costumes were among the highlights for me, particularly the beetle-wing dress worn by Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, which is decorated with real green, iridescent beetle wings. This dress is exhibited on a revolving stand so you can see every angle. Some of Henry Irving’s costumes are also on display in the Lyceum Room, which showcases the history of the Lyceum Theatre.
All in all, the Smallhythe ‘museum’ is well laid out, with the Terry Room featuring Ellen’s own personal mementoes and the Dining Room celebrating various other actors, while I have already mentioned the Costume Room and the Lyceum Room. The Dining Room also houses photos, press cuttings and souvenirs from Ellen Terry’s tours of the USA and Australasia.
I have to admit that I didn’t know a lot about the ‘Queen of Theatre’ before this visit so there was much to learn, but I found it all extremely interesting. So much so, that I purchased a book about the lives of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving for future reading. Ellen’s life is bound to be a lively read as she was married three times, while her two children were the illegitimate offspring of Edward Godwin with whom Ellen eloped after separating from her first husband, the artist G F Watts.
We have Ellen Terry’s daughter Edith (or Edy) Craig for the existence of Smallhythe’s museum as she dedicated many of her final years to turning the house into a shrine to her mother and it was then taken on by the National Trust in 1939. It came complete with its own theatre in the grounds, as Edy had converted the large barn in the garden to create the Barn Theatre. This thatch-roofed building has a relatively small capacity but is an atmospheric spot for live drama and many famous names have already trodden its boards, including Sir John Gielgud (Ellen’s great-nephew) and Dame Peggy Ashcroft. The Barn Theatre continues to stage plays and the property hosts a full programme of events across the season, either in the Theatre or the house’s large garden.
Alongside the cottage, there are also display boards about the history of Smallhythe, once a busy port and shipyard until the Great Fire of Smallhythe in 1514, so that should satisfy anyone more interested in the local area than in theatre. Meanwhile, one of outbuildings houses a small tearoom that serves light lunches and the ubiquitous tea and cakes, all served with a friendly smile. The Dusty Jackets found a picnic table in the garden and treated ourselves to a light platter lunch, with springtime background music ably provided by the local swallows and lambs. A lovely end to an enjoyable visit.
Highlights: The costumes, the theatrical information
Refreshments: Cheddar cheese platter with sparkling elderflower drink – perfect for a warm spring day in the garden
Purchase(s): Guidebook, ‘A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families’ by Michael Holroyd
Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets
NT Connections: Sissinghurst Castle Gardens (Vita Sackville-West of Sissinghurst was friends with Edy Craig, Ellen Terry’s daughter, and they visited each other’s houses and Vita and her husband performed on the stage at the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe)