Photos by Zenzie Tinker
It took 1,300 hours and £50,000 ($81,000), but a glittering emerald gown made from 1,000 beetle parts is ready for its stage entrance once more. Decked with the sloughed-off wings of the jewel beetle, and worn by actress Ellen Terry in the role of Lady Macbeth at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1888, the dress was one of the most celebrated costumes of the era. Although it’s immortalized in a John Singer Sargent portrait currently at the Tate, the dress has seen much wear, tear, and alterations in its 120 years, rising to the top of the National Trust’s conservation priority list.
FIT FOR A QUEEN
Work began on the gown two years ago after a successful fundraising campaign, but restoring the beetle wings wasn’t the most difficult task. “We had collected the beetle wings that had fallen off over the years,” says Paul Meredith, house manager at Smallhythe Place, where the dress now resides, “so that the conservator was able to reattach many of the originals, plus others that had been donated to us—1,000 in total.” The restoration team patched the 100 or so broken wings using small pieces of Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.
The restoration team patched the 100 or so broken wings using small pieces of Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.
Most of the labor, however, was concentrated on strengthening the fabric and returning the dress to its original 1888 specifications, according to conservator Zenzie Tinker. “We have restored the original shape of the elaborate sleeves and the long, trailing hem line that Ellen so admired,” she says. “If she were alive today, I’m sure she’d be delighted. She really valued her costumes because she kept and reused them time and again. I’d like to think she’d see our contribution as part of the ongoing history of the dress.”
Its new display space at Smallhythe Place also features items from Terry’s dressing room that have never been seen in public before.