Born: Adaline Cort Hinton
Sector: Retail (Apparel)
In Tate Britain hangs a fantastic painting of the actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. In it she is wearing one of the many costumes designed for her by Alice Comyns Carr. However, it was another woman, Ada Nettleship, who made this dress, buying the ‘fine yarn’ in Bohemia, ‘a twist of soft green and blue tinsel’ and, together with her team, sewing on the shimmering wings of 1,000 beetles to create the final iridescent effect.
‘Sweet Nettle’, as Ellen Terry used to call her, has now faded into the historical background, one of the many DNB Ghosts. The entry in the Dictionary of National Biography for her artist husband says nothing about her life and work, despite the fact that for much of their marriage it was her business that brought in the cash, keeping him in canvas and paint and their family housed, clothed and fed. So let’s celebrate Ada’s life and work here.
Born in 1856, Ada was the daughter of a surgeon, James Hinton and his wife, Margaret, née Haddon. Both came from non-conformist families. James’s father was an ‘intellectual dissenting preacher’ and James was equally keen to challenge the social status quo, particularly in the area of domestic and social relations. He was a man of many ideas and supported polygamy but, as Edith Havelock Ellis wryly commented, could never ‘make clear..how a woman can be at once a free personality, a wage-earner, a wife and a mother, and at the same time remain for the world at large a healthy, romantic, joyful, capable and charming human being.’
It was easier for men, or at least or James. He eventually organised his household so that his wife and four children lived in Brighton and he visited at weekends, staying in London during the week where he was free to pursue numerous affairs. It was therefore Ada’s mother who provided both emotional and financial stability to Ada and her siblings, keeping a tight hand on the family purse strings.
Margaret came from a large family that valued girls’ education. Two of her sisters, Elizabeth and Caroline, ran a progressive boarding school in Dover attended by, among others, Henrietta Barnett. Caroline was also a philosophical writer, who published several books about her brother-in-law’s treatises. Another sister, Emily, was head of a school in Penge where Ada was later a pupil.
Ada was creative, musical and good at drawing. In an interview she gave to Harper’s Bazaar in 1897 when she was 40, she is described as a woman of ‘intelligence, education and thought’ who in her youth had been a noted ‘art-embroiderer’ in the style of May Morris. Ada’s artistry and her early exposure to the importance of financial prudence formed the foundation for her successful career as a dressmaker.
In December 1875, just before Ada turned twenty, her father died. Four months later she married John Trivett Nettleship, known as Jack, a 35-year old painter and sculptor who specialised in portraying animals, often on a very large scale. Jack was from a well-educated, high-achieving family. Two of his brothers were Oxford college professors, the third was an eye-surgeon. Jack attended Heatherley School of Fine Art in Chelsea, where John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Crane and Frederic Leighton all trained, and then the Slade School of Fine Art. He also published a study on the poetry of Robert Browning, so sat easily in the worlds of art and literature and Ada’s marriage brought her into the heart of an artistic community.
However, Jack’s profession meant income was unpredictable. In the Harper’s version of events, Ada was persuaded to expand into dress-making by a friend, but it is just as likely that it was her own idea, a practical way of adding to what Alice Comyns Carr later described as ‘a slender income.’ By 1881 she and Jack were living at 2 Melbury Terrace near Marylebone Station, one of the many streets to disappear as the station expanded. Ada was employing ten women and 2 girls in her dress-making business and was also mother to two young daughters, Ida, aged four and Ethel, two. She and Jack would have one more child in 1886, Ursula.
Ada is best known now for her theatrical costumes but whether the dress she was making was to be worn on the stage or in the street, she wanted to make beautiful clothes, ‘each dress..an individual production of real artistic value’. However, she was also committed to combining originality with suitability and was involved in the ‘Rational Dress’ movement, which advocated for everyday clothes that were lightweight and easier to move around in.
In May 1883, there was a large Rational Dress Exhibition in London and amongst the divided skirts and ‘outrageous’ costumes designed for cricketing and boating were Ada’s ‘artistically designed evening and walking dresses’. In the opinion of the St James Gazette, ‘it is more than conceivable that a young woman of good figure would appear to advantage’ [in one of Ada’s evening dresses] ‘without any stays at all.’
This is probably how Ada got to know Constance Lloyd. Constance was an advocate for women’s rights and dressed in the aesthetic style, wearing higher-waisted and looser-fitting dresses. Both Constance and her future husband, Oscar Wilde, regularly spoke on the subject of dress and Constance later edited the Rational Dress Society’s Gazette.
When Constance and Oscar were married on 29th May 1884, Constance was wearing a dress made by Ada, now aged 28. Oscar has been generally given the design credit though it is just as likely that the ideas came from Constance and that she visited Melbury Terrace to work them up with Ada.
Constance was reported to have a ‘happy, hopeful light’ in her eyes as she walked down the aisle in the result: an elaborate dress of ivory satin, ‘the bodice, cut square and somewhat low in front, was finished with a high Medici collar; the ample sleeves were puffed; the skirt, made plain, was gathered by a silver girdle..[and the dress was]…ornamented with clusters of myrtle leaves’.
Ada and Constance continued to collaborate on dresses that turned heads. It was with Constance that Ada first experimented with creating a sequinned effect using beetle wings, the technique she would later use to great effect on Ellen Terry’s stage costume. Perhaps it was the theatricality of these dresses and the publicity they garnered that brought Ada to the attention of Alice Comyns Carr (1850-1927).
Alice is another DNB ghost. She was from a smarter social circle than Ada, growing up in Genoa where her father was the British chaplain. Charles Kingsley, author of ‘The Water Babies’ was one of her godparents. Both Alice and her sister, Alma Strethell, a highly-regarded translator, feature in paintings by John Singer Sargent.
In 1873 Alice married the drama critic, Joseph Comyns Carr. In 1877, Joe turned his hand to gallery management as a director of the new Grosvenor Gallery, funded largely by Sir Coutts Lindsay, a member of the Coutts banking family and an artist in his own right. The Gallery was quickly favoured by the pre-Raphaelites. James McNeill Whistler exhibited here and it was also where Jack Nettleship showed his work.
Alice and Joe’s house in Blandford Square, a stone’s throw from Melbury Terrace, naturally became a meeting point for those with an aesthetic bent. Dinner party guests included the artists Edward Burne-Jones, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John Singer Sargent, the writers Robert Browning and Henry James and composers Hubert Parry and Arthur Sullivan.
Alice’s first major costume design job was for a stage version of Far from the Madding Crowd in 1882, starring Ellen Terry’s younger sister, Marion. Alice already knew Ellen Terry well as Ellen had starred in a play, ‘Butterfly’, which Alice had translated from the original French. Alice soon started designing costumes for Ellen, eventually replacing Patience Harris (sister of Augustus Harris who would later take the English National Opera building off Richard D’Oyly Carte’s hands).
It is likely that Alice and Ada got to know one another through their husbands and in 1885, they teamed up, Alice recalling that she was ‘fortunate to secure the help of Mrs Nettleship, the wife of the well-known animal painter, an old friend of mine, and an extremely clever dressmaker who was anxious to find some means of adding to a slender income.’
The pair had an early high-profile success with the dresses Ellen Terry wore in The Amber Heart, in 1887, deemed to be a good enough reason in themselves to see the play. In August, The Queen went into rhapsodies about Mrs Nettleship’s ‘very original gowns’ and detailed her work on a high-profile wedding trousseau as well as elaborate court dresses of gold brocade. and outfits for Ellen Terry’s upcoming tour of America.
In 1888, the Nettleship family moved closer to the centre of town, setting up in a large house at 58-60 Wigmore Street, where Jack had a studio at the top of the house, the family lived on the next floor down and Ada’s dress-making business operated on the bottom floors. She rang a tight ship, dressing in a practical outfit of her own design made from a single piece of heavy black brocade so that she could move around easily. Women who trained under Ada included Elspeth Phelps, who went on to run her own business, and Sylvia du Maurier, who gave up dressmaking when she married Arthur Llewelyn Davies and had the five sons who were the inspiration for J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ stories.
Ada’s designs, which a few years earlier might have been deemed eccentric, were now instead seen as ‘refreshingly original, delightfully different’ according to the The Queen which rounded off a gushing article on 11th June 1892 concluding: ‘Mrs Nettleship is no slave to Fashion but is a devoted worshipper at the shrine of the beautiful.’
Letters from Ellen Terry to Ada between 1895 and 1901 suggest that if she was not a slave to Fashion, she was at times a slave to Ellen. In public Ada said that ‘actresses are as a rule very charming people to work for’ and Miss Terry was, of all her customers, ‘the sweetest-tempered…and the most easily-pleased’, but Ellen’s letters to Ada show that she could be demanding. This one is begging to be performed at Letters Live.
22 Bankstern Gardens
Earls Court S.W.
Monday one-o-clock in the morning
Would you have a little dress run up for tonight’s wear for Miss Gibson in the Corsicans?
I have told Sarah to send you the dress which is to be copied, first thing in the morning – it is of dark shot silk and is much too funereal for the little lady (Miss Gibson) who wears it. This [a swatch of fabric was attached] would suit the situation much better (this is to be had at Russell & Allen’s).
This – or something like it – only it must be a lighter colour. A white satin dress is already on the stage so that won’t do – and a transparent dress won’t travel for America – so a pale glace silk of some kind best trimmed with Tarlatan (can’t spell it) not Nett festooned at the bust & slightly round the bottom of skirt = Was at rehearsal till past 3 on Sat evening – Am half dead = I hope you liked yr ‘Party’ =
I want a Cheap cloak for Wednesday. Looking like Ermine but really the innocent Bunny rabbit & unlined =
Ellen might have been cost conscious but when Ada and Alice worked with other collaborators on stage costumes for her, Henry Irving and the rest of the company, the budgets quickly increased. Edward Burne-Jones worked on designs for the costumes for King Arthur, which Ada later said generated the ‘biggest bill I had at the Lyceum, when one considers the number of dresses’, coming in at c. £75,000 (equivalent). Lawrence Alma-Tadema designed the dress Ellen wore in Cymbeline. Just the main body of the dress, with its twenty-five pieces of silk in graduating colours took Ada three weeks and in total the dress cost nearly £20,000 equivalent.
By 1897, Ada was making ‘all Miss Terry’s official gowns and many of those which are unofficial.’ With Ellen being so busy, it was worth Ada employing a body-double so costumes could be fitted costumes exactly in Ellen’s absence. Ada was clear that securing a first-rate fitter was a critical part of a dress-maker’s success: ‘the fitter can do more to make or mar a business than even the principal herself.’ A good fitter could earn £500 a year in 1902, equivalent to c. £60,000 p.a.
This was just one of the many insights Ada gave into the world of dress-making in an article she wrote for the South Wales Daily News in January 1902 as part of a twelve-part series on ‘Woman’s Work’, which also featured articles by Margaret Bateson and Florence Fenwick Miller. She laid out the training needed, the initial capital required to survive for the first year or two (equivalent to £60-£120k per annum) and the annual profits one could expect (in the same range). She suggested pricing on a cost-plus basis, with a 50% mark up, though given the dresses were all custom-made, customer-specific pricing was always an option. Pricing was also seasonal – the price for a morning dress in season could be set 50% higher than out of season.
Ada reinforced the importance of connections: ‘the dressmaker who starts with plenty of rich and influential friends has the best chance, provided she has an efficient staff and manages well.’ Just as now ‘some customers..are treated to specially small prices on account of the connection they bring.’ (Indeed, Lily Langtry later boasted that she could always negotiate an 80% discount on her dresses.)
She also highlighted the same issue raised by the photographer Alice Hughes a year later: the risk of bad debts. Regular terms needed to be set for payment, accounts should be sent out quarterly and paid off in a timely fashion. Even then, trade protection societies offered credit checking facilities, where ‘for a fee of a guinea a year’ potential customers’ credit-worthiness could be checked and debts recovered. ‘There are many undesirable customers always ready to try a new dressmaker and it is sometimes hard in the beginning to refuse good orders but it is worse to contract bad debts’
Ada concluded that dressmaking was a ‘pleasant profession and one which a clever woman can take up with every chance of success’, but she also admitted that during the season ‘the strain is very severe’. A few months later the strain Ada started to feel was nothing to do with the season. Jack Nettleship died in August 1902 and at the age of 46 Ada was left responsible for the business and her younger daughters, Ethel and Ursula now aged 23 and 18 and both unmarried. One of the first things the three of them did was move to a smaller house at 28-30 Wigmore Street.
However, it was her eldest, married, daughter Ida, allegedly Ada’s favourite, who was to be the greatest source of worry and, ultimately, grief. Ida had enrolled at the the Slade School of Fine Art in 1892, when she was just 15, winning a scholarship to study for a further three years in 1895. She continued her training in Florence and later Paris where she attended classes taught by, among others, James McNeill Whistler.
Ida and her mother were clearly close. She wrote to her mother from Paris in the autumn of 1898 asking her to send her ‘some sort of evening dress, because there is perhaps going to be a dance at Whister’s studio.’ She also helped Ada with her costume research, writing to her:
“My darling Mother,
Here are some ’54 fashions, & I am going to try for some evening dresses and mantles tomorrow. It is rather hard to get them for the particular dates especially ’55. There is a book called ‘Une siecle des Modes Feminines’,1794-1894. There are two prints each year – all pictures, no writing – coloured & good – price 2frs.50. If I cannot get anything better I will send it to you. What beautiful clothes they are. I can get a fine book for frs.10 with plates from ’53 and ’54. [..] Who is going to dress in that bountiful dress of 1854? Is it for a play?..”
Ada found time to send Ida a story she had written about a rain gatherer and sun gatherer, which both Ida and her friend, Gwen John, who was with her in Paris, were keen to illustrate. A family photograph taken in 1898 shows Ida sitting at the centre of the group, her mother and father both with a hand on her shoulder, her younger sisters to the sides.
This picture of family harmony was soon to be permanently altered by Ida’s relationship with the painter, Augustus John. They met in 1897 and Ida was soon in love. While her father was swayed by Augustus’s talent, Ada disapproved of his unkempt clothing and worried about his roving eye. Aware of her parents’ displeasure, they eventually married in a secret ceremony in January 1901, where artist friends including Augustus’s sister, Gwen, and Ambrose McEvoy acted as witnesses. Ada and Jack were presented with a fait accompli later that day and were less than thrilled but attended a wedding celebration nonetheless.
Ida Nettleship John (1902)
Ida’s marriage to Augustus lasted for six turbulent years. Within three months, she was pregnant and between January 1902 and March 1907, she gave birth to five sons.
The growing family was often on the move, from London, to Liverpool, back to London, out to Matching Green in Essex and finally over to France, living in numerous houses and occasionally a caravan.
Ida’s letters tell of the support her family gave her. Ada rushed up to Liverpool to be with her when her first child, David, was born and Ida wrote to her sister, Ursula, on 21st January 1902: ‘Mother & Gus are downstairs, & Mother is playing all the tunes she knows on the piano, It is so nice to hear.’
Back in Fitzroy Street in August 1903, she wrote to Gwen John that “my tribe came round as usual tonight, & assisted at the bathing etc. Gus lay on the bed – Ursula knelt by me – Mother loomed large on the other side of the bath, sitting on a wooden chair.” However, Ada’s dislike of her son-in-law was ever-present and the feeling was mutual: he described her as a ‘slow-moving dumpling’ with a temper that was ‘certain, but bad.’
From the late summer of 1904, the John household became even larger as Augustus and Ida started living in a ménage à trois with Dorelia McNeill, a beautiful young art student, and, soon, Dorelia’s children by Augustus. Ada refused to visit when Dorelia was in residence and her concerns increased when they all decided to de-camp to France in 1905. She did her best to persuade her daughter to leave Augustus and come back to London, even getting Ethel and Ursula to make their cases to Ida, but to no avail.
Ada must have had the same concerns as any mother watching her daughter make choices she thought were poor but her first-hand experience of family scandal would have made her particularly sensitive to the potential fallout of Ida’s unconventional living arrangements. In 1886, her brother, the mathematician Charles Howard Hinton had been at the heart of ‘an extraordinary bigamy case’. He had married Mary Ellen Boole, daughter of George Boole, whose name lives on in the concept of Boolean logic, in 1880. Three years later, Charles married a second woman under a false name who subsequently gave birth to twins. He continued to live with Mary Ellen and turned himself in to the police in October 1886 ‘as a matter of conscience to them both as they did not want to have a secret in the house.’ Ada was called as a witness when Charles was charged at Bow Street Police Court, the case was widely reported and Charles had to leave the country with Mary Ellen and their children, moving first to Japan and later the United States.
It is hardly surprising, then, that Ada viewed Ida’s increasingly bohemian lifestyle with alarm. Ethel Nettleship later said that her mother went ‘completely haywire’ as a result of and for the duration of Ida’s marriage. This might have been how it felt at home but Ada did a good job of keeping things together on the business front and she and Ida remained close. Ida sent her eldest son, David, to stay with his grandmother from time to time and on the rare occasions she came into funds, she entrusted them to her mother to make investment decisions for her.
However, these distractions at home might have been reason Ada decided to restructure her business. In June 1904 it was set up as a limited company with 8,000 preference shares and 10,000 ordinary shares. Ada retained half the ordinary shares and Percy Anderson (1851-1928), a painter and costume designer who worked closely with the D’Oyly Carte Company, took the other 50%. He committed to ‘do his best to place all orders for costumes with the new company’. Ada was compensated for all the assets and goodwill that transferred across into the new company and she remained in charge as a salaried employee. At that point, the business had a turnover equivalent to £1.5m and gross margins of 34%.
In March 1907, Ada travelled to Paris for the birth of her fifth grandchild. She arrived on the 9th, bringing with her a long list of items Ida had requested: Dinnifords Magnesia, dill water, a beauty book with ‘hair prescriptions’, soap, talcum powder and ‘unbreakable bricks’ for her older grandsons. Ida had delivered another healthy boy, Henry (named at Ada’s request after Henry Irving) but she was in a woeful state, suffering from puerperal fever and peritonitis. Her condition continued to deteriorate and she died five days later.
As Augustus mourned, Ada arranged a funeral and cremation in Paris, returning to London with the ashes of her daughter and her three eldest grand-children. Caspar, the second-eldest, remembered her as ‘a tough, tubby woman with grizzled hair and a round face’ who made them wear shoes and socks and saw to it that they were properly scrubbed in the bath. Ada was soon engaged in a tug-of-war with Augustus over where the children should live and how they should be brought up, culminating later the following summer with him ambushing Ada and his sons in the pelican enclosure at Regent’s Park Zoo and making off with two of them.
No doubt these issues at home were a major contributory factor in the drop off in Ada’s business performance. Turnover in 1908 was nearly half of the previous year and gross profits were just £58,000 (equivalent) down nearly 90% on the 1905 results. Ada’s shareholders were not happy. ‘Have you been able to approach any Paris houses as to amalgamation or some other mutual arrangement?’ asked her solicitor. It was proposed that her salary be cut for a year until the dividend could be re-established.
Ada accepted the proposal though asked for it to last only six months rather than twelve: ‘I have good hopes of a better season and I am doing all I possibly can to work up the business’, she replied. She was overly optimistic and it was not until 1910 that gross margins back to their 1905 levels of 35% and then on a lower turnover.
She receives very little press coverage in the 1910s though she was still interviewed every now and again about her views on dress. Her philosophy had changed little in the intervening thirty years: she was quote in 1914 as saying she was pleased that ‘organs are now allowed free play’ in women’s dresses but once again repeated her mantra that ‘no lady would wear the current fashions if she were not convinced they were the fashion’.
It is likely that the war and Ada hitting sixty combined to put the final nail in the business’s coffin. She turned her attention back to her family, staying actively involved as her grand-children grew up, taking them on holiday and sending Caspar practical presents including knitted scarves and a kettle when he joined the navy aged just 13. He ultimately became First Sea Lord.
Ada died on 19th December 1932 at 45 Weymouth Street and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery. Despite all their run-ins, Augustus John was there at the end, appearing with a supply of beer when he heard Ada was dying, two of her grandsons in tow. It seems fitting that Ada, with all her creative talent, should spend her final hours in the company of another great artist. Augustus sat by her bed all night, talking about French literature and his life in France. ‘Had she [Ada] been conscious she would have vastly appreciated both his presence and the completely unconventional Russian play atmosphere’, her daughter Ursula later reflected.
What struck me in researching the story of this working mother was that she found it hardest to meet the demands of her family and her business when her children were grown up. It was her role as a grand-parent that finally forced her to make changes to her working set up. Her story could not be more relevant today. Recent ONS data showed that more than 1 in 5 families with children aged under 14 had a grandparent involved in caring. Research by Birmingham University in 2017 suggested that support from grandparents raised the likelihood of a woman being able to return to work by 12 percentage points. And if we didn’t give much thought to the role that grandparents played before 2020, surely the events of the last twelve months have given us pause for thought, as millions of parents have had to cope with home-schooling while their normal childcare lifeline has been cut in a bid to protect older family members from COVID.
Many of these grandparents are also still working themselves. Although the age at which women are having children is going up, so is the age at which people are retiring. A poll by IPSOS Mori in 2014 suggested that 14% of grandparents had reduced working hours, given up a job, or taken time off in annual or sick leave to care for a grandchild at some point in their lives – 19% of grandmothers and 8% of grandfathers. Perhaps now is a good time for employers to reflect on their attitude to and policies for grandparents so that they can benefit from their wealth of work experience for as long as possible.
I would like to give special thanks to Rebecca John for talking to me about her great-grandmother and sharing her photographs. Her book with Michael Holroyd on Ida John has been a valuable resource (see below). I would also like to thank Dr Veronica Isaac who generously shared with me her research on Ada’s work. You can read more about Veronica’s work on the history of costume here.
The dress worn by Ellen Terry in the portrait by Singer Sargent was recently conserved by Zenzie Tinker and in normal life you can see it on display at Ellen Terry’s former home, Smallhythe Place, in Kent.
If you enjoyed this story, why not find out about more remarkable women in the monthly newsletter.
St James Gazette 30/5/1883; Dundee Evening Telegraph 7/7/1884; Morning Post 16/10/1886; The Queen 13/8/1887; ‘Ellen Terry’s gowns and the woman who makes them’ by Bessie O’Connor in Harpers Bazaar 9th Jan 1897; ‘What Actresses Pay For Their Dresses’ in New Zealand Herald 25/08/1900 South Wales Daily News 25/1/1902; Leeds Mercury 13/2/1914
Life and Letters of James Hinton’ ed Ellice Hopkins (1878); ‘James Hinton: A Sketch’ by Mrs Havelock Ellis (1918); ‘Mrs J Comyns Carr’s Reminiscences’ (1926)
‘Oscar Wilde’ by Richard Ellmann (1987); ‘Bohemian Lives: Three Extraordinary Women’ by Amy Licence (2017); ‘Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde’ by Franny Moyle (2011); ‘The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John’ by Michael Holroyd and Rebecca John (2017); ‘Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939’ by Virginia Nicholson (2002);
‘A well-dressed actress’: Exploring the Theatrical Wardrobe of Ellen Terry by Veronica Isaac (2018) Costume, Vol.52 Issue 1 P.74-96; ‘A Letter from Ellen Terry’ by Ann Hardie (1999) Costume, 33:1 110-115.
Note: Equivalent costs / prices are calculated using the Bank of England inflation calculator.