Historic costumes at risk as museum runs out of cash

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The Independent Online

A museum dedicated to Dame Ellen Terry, the most famous actress of the late 19th century, is in danger of losing many of its exhibits because of a lack of funds.

Smallhythe Place, Dame Ellen's former home near Tenterden, Kent, needs £90,000 to save its collection, which includes the extensive wardrobe of costumes worn by the actress during her career.

Five hundred photographs and first edition works from playwrights such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw - many dedicated to Dame Ellen - are also at risk unless money can be raised for a conservation fund.

The extraordinary collection of personal mementoes and stage memorabilia is housed in what is believed to be the only museum in the world based in an actor's former home. But the demands of looking after its fragile contents are proving more than the museum's basic budget can cope with.

Theatrical knights Sir Donald Sinden and Sir John Gielgud are heading a campaign to save the museum. Sir Donald has already held a literary recital, as have the actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales, while Dame Judi Dench has committed herself to a fund-raising performance in the future.

Sir Donald, who lives near by and is heading the work, said the collection was important not only in terms of theatre history but as a social record. "The books and the costumes all need conservation work which is unbelievably expensive, otherwise they will just fall to pieces in time," he said.

A fund-raising drive, named the Angel appeal after the theatrical angels who invest in productions, has been launched to raise money for a conservation programme. Sir John Gielgud, Dame Ellen's great-nephew, is its patron.

Among the items on display are the costumes the actress wore to play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Lady Macbeth opposite the great actor Henry Irving, with whom she shared the Lyceum stage in London for a quarter of a century. It was a period of great change in theatre as acting style moved from the declamatory to a more realistic interpretation of roles.

Marc Sinden, Sir Donald's son and himself a theatre producer, said: "I truly believe that every accredited drama school ought to have as part of its course a history of the business because it's terribly important. I think they should all go to Smallhythe. The place has been a mecca for me for years."

But Margaret Weare, the custodian of the 16th-century house for the National Trust, said it could not cope with more than the 15,000 guests a year it now receives without damaging its fabric. A humidity control system is one of the most urgent needs.

Ellen Terry was born in 1847 to actor parents and enjoyed a long career which began when she was only nine. Famed for the seriousness with which she treated her art, she embraced a "natural" style of acting which won her the title "Queen of the Theatre".

She bought Smallhythe Place in 1899 and used it as her country bolthole until her death in 1928. Her daughter Edith handed the property to the National Trust in 1939.