Ellen Alice Terry was born on 27 February 1848, in Coventry, England. She was the daughter of Sarah Ballard (1819-1892) and Benjamin Terry (1818-1896). Her siblings included: Kate, Ben, Ellen, Florence, George, Marion, Flossie, Charles, Tom and Fred. According to The Story of My Life by Ellen Terry, "My mother had eleven children altogether, but only nine survived their infancy, and of these nine, my eldest brother, Ben, and my sister Florence have since died. My sister Kate, who left the stage at an age when most of the young women of the present day take to it for the first time, and made an enduring reputation in a few brilliant years, was the eldest of the family. Then came a sister, who died, and I was the third. After us came Ben, George, Marion, Flossie, Charles, Tom, and Fred." Her parents and several of her sibling were actors. Ellen recalls, "I can't even tell you when it was first decided that I was to go on the stage, but I expect it was when I was born, for in those days theatrical folk did not imagine that their children could do anything but follow their parents' profession." In 1856, Ellen made her debut on stage opposite Charles Kean, in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, at London's Princess's Theatre. "It was Mrs. Kean who chose me out of five or six other children to play my first part. We were all tried in it, and when we had finished, she said the same thing to us all: "That's very nice! Thank you, my dear. That will do." We none of us knew at the time which of us had pleased her most." To Ellen's surprise she got the part, "From April 28, 1856, I played Mamilius every night for one hundred and two nights. I was never ill, and my understudy, Clara Denvil, a very handsome, dark child with flaming eyes, though quite ready and longing to play my part, never had the chance."
"From April 1856 until 1859 I acted constantly at the Princess's Theater with the Keans, spending the summer holidays in acting at Ryde. My whole life was the theater, and naturally all my early memories are connected with it." In 1859, she appeared in Nine Points of the Law, by Tom Taylor, at the Olympic Theatre. From 1861 to 1862, Ellen was engaged by the Royalty Theatre in London, managed by Madame Albina de Rhona. In 1862, she joined her sister Kate in J. H. Chute's stock company at the Theatre Royal, in Bristol. In 1863, she played Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Theatre Royal in Bath.
Ellen was introduced to George Frederick Watts (23 February 1817 - 1 July 1904) by Tom Taylor. Ellen and George were married on 20 February 1864, at St Barnabas, Kensington. He was an artist and painted his wife several times, including one with her sister Kate, The Sisters. In 1867, Ellen appeared in A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing at the Adelphi Theatre, The Antipodes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Still Waters Run Deep at the Queen's Theatre. In 1868, she met Edward William Godwin. They fell in love and moved to Pigeonwick, in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. Ellen and Edward had a daughter, Edith Ailsa Geraldine Craig (9 December 1869 - 1947) on 9 December 1869. Then a son, Edward Gordon Craig (16 January 1872 - 1966) on 16 January 1872. Ellen and Edward separated in 1875. Ellen went back to acting. In 1875, she played Portia in The Merchant of Venice, at the Prince of Wales's Theatre. In 1876, Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal, Blanche Haye in Ours, and in Olivia by William Gorman Wills, at the Court Theatre. Ellen and George were divorced in 1877. Ellen married her second husband, Charles Wardell Kelly on 21 November 1877. In 1878, Ellen joined Henry Irving's company at the Lyceum Theatre. In 1878, she played Pauline in The Lady of Lyons by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. In 1879, Portia and Queen Henrietta Maria in William Gorman Wills's Charles I.
"Imagination! Imagination! I put it first years ago, when I was asked what qualities I thought necessary for success on the stage."
In 1881, Desdemona in Othello and Camma in Tennyson's The Cup. In 1882, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. In 1883, Jeanette in The Lyons Mail by Charles Reade. Also in 1883, Ellen made her American debut as Queen Henrietta opposite Irving as Charles I. In 1884, Viola in Twelfth Night. Her husband, Charles died in 1885. In 1885, she played Margaret in Wills's Faust and in Olivia. In 1887, her daughter Edith joined the Lyceum. In 1888, Ellen appeared as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. In 1889, she moved to Barkston Gardens. In 1889, her son Edward joined the Lyceum company as an actor. In 1900, Ellen bought her farmhouse in Smallhythe, Kent. In 1902, she was Portia at the Lyceum Theatre. Also in 1902, Ellen played Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. In 1903, Ellen took over management of London's Imperial Theatre. Her first husband, George Frederic Watts died on 1 July 1904, in Compton, Surrey. A gala performance was held for Ellen Terry on 12 June 1906, at the Drury Lane Theatre to benefit and celebrating of her golden jubilee. In 1907, she toured America. Ellen married her third husband, James Carew on 22 March 1907. In 1908, she was Aunt Imogen in W. Graham Robertson's Pinkie and the Fairies at His Majesty's. In 1911, she played Nell Gwynne in The First Actress by Christopher St. John. In 1913, her son founded the Gordon Craig School for the Art of the Theatre, in Florence, Italy. In 1916, Ellen appeared in her first film as Julia Lovelace in Her Greatest Performance. Also in 1916, she played Darling in Barrie's The Admirable Crichton. In 1918, she starred in The Invasion of Britain, Eileen O'Connor in Denny from Ireland and Widow Weaver in Victory and Peace. In 1919, she was the Nurse in in Romeo and Juliet, at the Lyric Theatre. In 1920, Ellen appeared as Widow Bernick in Pillars of Society. In 1922, as Lady Merrall in Potter's Clay and Buda in The Bohemian Girl. In 1925, Ellen Terry was created a Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. In November 1925, Ellen played Susan Wildersham in Walter de la Mare's Crossings, at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. In Ellen's words, "...I have lived very little in the world. After all, the life of an actress belongs to the theater as the life of a soldier belongs to the army, the life of a politician to the State, and the life of a woman of fashion to society. Certainly I have had many friends outside the theater, but I have had very little time to see them. I have had many homes, but I have had very little time to live in them!" Ellen Terry died aged 81, on 21 July 1928, in Small Hythe, Kent, England. She was cremated at Golders Green. Her silver urn is placed in St. Paul's, Covent Garden, London, England.
"If it is the mark of the artist to love art before everything, to renounce everything for its sake, to think all the sweet human things of life well lost if only he may attain something, do some good, great work - then I was never an artist."
Excerpts and Source: The Story of My Life by Ellen Terry.