Smallhythe Place, Ellen Terry – further Kent explorations.

After the caffeine-fuelled excitement of the Coffee places post, I thought I’d relax a little. Last weekend our friends John and Jan came to stay for a couple of days. John was brought up near Tenterden, so we decided to go on a nostalgia trip.
     First, we had lunch at the Two Sawyers in Pett. The sun had emerged unexpectedly, so we decided to sit outside.
     ‘No tabs in the garden’ snapped the lady behind the bar. We quite understood why this should be, but her approach was a little off-putting. However, after some hissing amongst ourselves in the doorway, which I think the lady heard, we recovered and the food, as expected, was excellent.
     After, we drove via Rye to Smallhythe, a new destination for Philosopher and Battleaxe.
     It is hard to believe that what is now an isolated hamlet twelve miles from the sea was once an important ship-building port on the estuary of the River Rother. The last great ship to be built there was as recently as 1546, the 300 ton ‘Great Gallyon’ for Henry VIII. By then the river had already started to silt up, and in 1636 a great storm finally diverted its course away from Smallhythe.  Today, nothing remains.
     Smallhythe Place was the home of actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928) for the last thirty years of her life.  After the death, the house was preserved as a museum by her daughter before being taken on by the National Trust.

Ellen Terry

     It is a lovely old house, dating from the early sixteenth century, and the garden was looking very fine, particularly the roses. However, the weather was very hot, sultry and heavy, and the light was yellowish, almost sulphurous. Not the best for photos.

Smallhythe Place

     Ellen Terry had an eventful, and in her day, shocking, personal life. She married the well-known painter George Frederick Watts when she was just 16 and he was 46 – the marriage lasted ten months. These days, he’d be all over the telly. (On that theme, Battleaxe has to say that she is fed up of constantly hearing the grisly details of some 70s entertainer’s sex life as the first item on the early evening news. It is both tedious and inappropriate). Watts’s paintings of the young Ellen helped establish her in the public eye.

‘Choosing’ by G F Watts, the young Ellen Terry

     When she was 21 she eloped with the well-known arts and crafts architect Edward Godwin, with whom she had two children. At 30, she married actor Charles Kelly, but he ran off with another woman. Shortly after, she formed a personal and professional partnership with Henry Irving which would last for twenty-five years, during which time they dominated the English stage. When she was 60, she married another actor, James Carew, aged 32, much to the outrage of her children. The marriage only lasted two years.
     One of her children, Edith Craig, lived next-door to Smallhythe Place as part of a lesbian menage-a-trois with painter Clare (Tony) Atwood and women’s suffrage writer and activist Christabel Marshall (Christopher St John). Edith started her career as an actress but was better known as a theatrical director and designer.

The Priest’s House, where Edith lived.
On the Terrace at the Priest’s House, by one of the inhabitants, Clare Attwood

 After her mother’s death, Edith converted the barn at Smallhythe into a small theatre, where plays are still staged.
     Inside the house, there is much theatrical memorabilia, including Ellen’s costumes. We saw the dress covered in iridescent beetle’s wings, which she wore to play Lady Macbeth in 1888, and which features in the famous painting by John Singer Sargent.

Beetle-wing dress, 1888
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, John Singer Sargent

     Like most National Trust places, Smallhythe has a tearoom, with tables in the garden.  The garden itself is quite small, but pretty. I like this picture of Achillea Mollis, or Lady’s Mantle. I always love the way droplets of water catch in the leaves.

Achillea Mollis

     After Smallhythe, we drove into Tenterden via Morghew Farm, where John was brought up. His father was the farm manager on the estate, and with considerable chutzpah, we drove straight in, and found his old house. Braver still, John and Jan tackled the current owners and forged off to look round the house while Philosopher and I hung about.  The estate is a very pretty place, as can be seen from this picture. It seems to specialise in heritage potatoes now as well as huntin’ and shootin’.

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