Wanted: funds to safeguard future of Ellen Terry's shrine

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Lewis Carroll thought her a "beautiful little creature", Oscar Wilde was besotted and wrote her at least three sonnets, and leading artists painted her and designed her costumes.

In the late 19th century, the actress Ellen Terry had not just the theatrical world in her thrall but an impressive cast of friends and admirers from the less transient arts.

Terry's 20-year partnership with Henry Irving at the Lyceum, alternating Shakespeare with melodrama, stands unparalleled in theatre history. Audiences flocked to see them and London's traffic was brought to a halt on first nights.

This year is the 150th anniversary of Terry's birth in Coventry into a family of "circuit players" who went from town to town. Though she would later correspond with literary figures such as Walt Whitman and assemble a heavily annotated library, Ellen never went to school. The stage was preordained for the young Terrys.

The National Trust is using the anniversary to launch a fund-raising campaign for Terry's country retreat, Smallhythe Place, between Tenterden and Rye in Kent. It is also publishing a new glossy guidebook, Ellen Terry and Smallhythe Place.

The house is almost as remarkable as the woman herself. Half-timbered, with a steeply pitched red-tiled roof, it was built in the early 16th century as the Port House. Standing by the garden gate today, it is hard to believe Smallhythe was once a bustling harbour.

The harbourmaster was long gone and the place known simply as "the farm" when Terry and Irving came upon it while driving around the Kent marshlands. According to the new guide, by Joy Melville, the actress immediately declared that this was where she would like to live and die. Irving told her to buy it and in 1899 she did.

Smallhythe was Terry's haven from a busy life - she was lecturing and touring in the United States well into her 60s - and she died there in July 1928. Her daughter Edy made the house a shrine, though there is little sombre about it, displaying portraits, posters, many gifts and mementoes from admirers and other actors and actresses, and also some of the lavish costumes that Terry wore in her prime.

There is the costume for Guinevere in King Arthur designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and the dress for Lady Macbeth made famous in a painting of Terry by John Singer Sargent. It is covered in real green beetle wings.

Oscar Wilde observed that while Lady Macbeth "evidently patronises local industries for her husband's clothes ... she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium".

Ellen Terry and Smallhythe Place; Joy Melville; The National Trust; pounds 2.50.