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Kean [née Tree], Eleanora [Ellen]locked

  • M. Glen Wilson

Eleanora Kean (1805–1880)

by unknown artist

Garrick Club / the art archive

Kean [née Tree], Eleanora [Ellen] (1805–1880), actress, was born on 12 December 1805, probably in London, the third of the four daughters of Cornelius Tree, an East India House official. Ellen Tree's sisters, who included (Anna) Maria Tree, all went on the stage but retired on marriage. Ellen Tree first acted as Olivia to her sister Maria's Viola in an operatic version of Twelfth Night at a private theatre in Berwick Street, and her official début at the age of seventeen was in the same role for Maria's benefit at Covent Garden in 1822. After touring with Maria she was engaged at Bath, where she opened as Lydia Languish in The Rivals on 7 February 1824 and played leading comedy roles for two seasons with scant success. Charles Kemble acted for her benefit on 6 March 1826, and in the following May she played in W. C. Macready's benefit. After spending that summer in Birmingham, she was engaged at Drury Lane to play twelve leading roles at 10 guineas weekly, where she remained for three seasons while acting at the Haymarket in the summers. She saw Charles Kean's début at Drury Lane on 1 October 1827 and acted with him in Lovers' Vows on Boxing day 1828. The turning point of her career came in 1829 at Covent Garden, where she began an engagement as Lady Townly in The Provoked Husband. Other successes followed, and for her benefit she played Romeo to Fanny Kemble's Juliet. It was a stunning success, but she declined to play it thereafter. Fanny Kemble deemed her the only Romeo with whom she acted who really looked the part. In the summer of 1830 Ellen played in Dublin, Glasgow, and Edinburgh and acted Julia in The Hunchback with its author, Sheridan Knowles, who later wrote, to suit her talents, The Wife, Love, John of Procida, and The Rose of Aragon. At Covent Garden on 25 March 1833 she played Desdemona with Edmund and Charles Kean when Edmund collapsed during Othello, his last performance. On 24 April she acted with Knowles and young Kean in The Wife, and, having declined an engagement at Drury Lane and withdrawn from playing Cleopatra with Macready, she joined Kean for an abortive tour of Germany. There they became engaged, but parental disapproval resulted in termination of the arrangement. In 1834 her Myrrha with Macready in Sardanapalus at Drury Lane was poorly received, but Rachel in The Jewess ran for more than a hundred nights. The Red Mask and The Ransom (as did The Jewess) suited her femininity and evocation of sympathy for suffering virtue. After resigning from playing opposite Macready in Ion in June 1836, she took the title role in October as a breeches part and, despite some controversy, was a success.

Ellen Tree then went to America, and opened on 12 December 1836 at the Park Theatre, New York, as Rosalind, which she followed by Viola, Beatrice, and other established roles. She acted nightly at the Park and toured major cities, from Boston to New Orleans, drawing crowded houses and enthusiastic reviews. She returned to England in 1839 with £12,000 profit. On 3 September she played both Viola (in Twelfth Night) and Pauline (in The Ransom) at the Haymarket. At Covent Garden on 4 November, in Knowles's new comedy, Love, she was a great success, and Leigh Hunt's A Legend of Florence was equally successful. In 1840 at the Haymarket she acted with Charles Kean, now an established star, and then played with him in the provinces, most frequently in Romeo and Juliet, in preparation for Kean's staging of the play at the Haymarket in 1841. In Dublin on 29 January 1842 she married Kean (1811–1868) [see Kean, Charles John], and they acted together that night in The Gamester and The Honeymoon. They first appeared as Mr and Mrs Charles Kean in Glasgow on 27 February. Truly a Victorian, Ellen Tree was thereafter known professionally as Mrs Charles Kean and acted only with her husband. The couple lived in mutual devotion for twenty-six years, with Ellen unfailingly supporting, defending, and protecting her husband in matters personal and professional.

In 1842 at the Haymarket, the Keans brought out Knowles's new play, The Rose of Aragon, as their main attraction. Ellen's repertory contrasted with her husband's previous dependence on established tragic roles, and under her influence his acting style moved towards restraint and realism. For the next two seasons her acting was interrupted by pregnancy difficulties, and on 18 September 1843 their only daughter, Mary (d. 1898), was born. In 1845 they went to America, and acted at the Park Theatre in New York between tours to major cities, again from Boston to New Orleans. Ellen was Constance in Kean's great historical staging of King John, and Evaline in the première of Lovell's The Wife's Secret, both at the Park. On the couple's return to England they produced Lovell's play with great success at the Haymarket, on 17 January 1848; it remained in their repertory thereafter. The Keans were favourites of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and when the royal theatricals at Windsor Castle were initiated in 1848 with Kean as director, Ellen played with him as Ophelia, Portia, and Mrs Haller in The Stranger. She appeared in all Kean's productions at Windsor Castle, except for two seasons when she was ill. In 1857 she indiscreetly importuned the queen in a letter to knight her husband and he was dropped as director.

In 1849 Ellen Kean was well received in the première of Strathmore by Westland Marston. In 1850 Kean became manager of the Princess's Theatre, where Mrs Kean played three to five times weekly in such roles as Ophelia, Viola, Portia, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, Hermione in The Winter's Tale, Constance in King John, the title role in Anne Blake, the Chorus in Henry V, Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Katherine in Henry VIII, Elvira in Pizarro, Mrs Oakley in The Jealous Wife, Evaline in The Wife's Secret, and lesser roles, many of them in light comedy as main or second pieces. Illness kept her from acting from January 1854 to May 1855, but as often as she was able she assisted in stage direction, supervised costuming, and coached young actresses, notably Ellen Terry, Carlotta Leclercq, and Agnes Robertson. Most importantly, she supported her husband during the vicissitudes of his management and furthered his development of 'repressed force', realistic detail, and greater subtlety, in old as well as new roles, both in Shakespeare and in ‘gentlemanly melodrama’.

Early portraits show that Ellen Kean was not conventionally pretty, but she was generally considered beautiful. From the stage her features were strong and expressive. Her aquiline nose was offset by large flashing eyes, abundant brown hair, full lips, and a dazzling smile. She stood 5 feet 4 inches tall, was slender and graceful, with a resonant, musical, and emotively expressive voice. Her unique laugh could set audiences into gales, even from offstage in Much Ado about Nothing. Westland Marston reported she projected gaiety as easily as feminine tenderness and pathos. She was less effective in roles which contravened her staunchly Victorian moral code, such as Lady Macbeth and Gertrude, but as Portia, Viola, Hermione and Queen Catherine she excelled. She was well suited to contemporary comedy, domestic drama, and ‘gentlemanly melodrama’, with a special strength in noble suffering portrayed ideally in a 'new quiet style' with 'sympathetic truth', according to Marston, although she lacked the physical and imaginative powers for great tragic roles. In early years she dressed plainly off stage, but as a matron her wardrobe tended to be eccentric. On stage she persisted with hoop skirts and flowing robes, an obvious anachronism in Kean's antiquarianism, for which she did extensive costume supervision. Photographs during and after the Princess's years show her to be matronly and plain, sometimes even homely. While she still drew warm reviews for her fine voice, excellent diction, and line reading, as well as consummate command of character in established roles, it was in new mature roles that she was later most successful. In private life she was reported to be as engaging as she was on stage.

The Keans left management in 1859 and undertook to recoup losses at the Princess's by provincial tours and limited London engagements in established roles. In 1863 they went to Australia, where they toured for nine months before going to California, Vancouver, and New York. They then toured the American east, the mid-west, and the war-ravaged south before returning to England in July 1866, exhausted, old before their time, their great financial goals unrealized. After a London engagement they played in the provinces until Kean's heart attack at Liverpool in May 1867. After his death the following January, Ellen lived on at 47 Queensborough Terrace in relative seclusion and professional retirement until her own death there, on 20 August 1880. Following a private funeral she was buried beside Charles in the churchyard at St Catherington, Horndean, Hampshire.

Ellen Kean's career spanned forty-five years. In her time she rivalled Helen Faucit as the country's leading actress, the range of her talents perhaps being more suited than Faucit's to the dramatic tastes of the age.


  • J. Reilly, ‘Miss Ellen Tree (1805–1880), actress and wife to Charles Kean’, MA thesis, Ohio State U., 1979
  • J. W. Cole, The life and theatrical times of Charles Kean … including a summary of the English stage for the last fifty years, 2 vols. (1859)
  • M. G. Wilson, Charles Kean: a chronicle of his career (1998)
  • V. Francisco, ‘Charles Kean's acting career, 1827–1867’, PhD diss. Indiana U., 1974
  • W. G. B. Carson, Letters of Charles and Ellen Kean relating to their American tours (1945)
  • J. M. D. Hardwick, Emigrants in motley: the journal of Charles and Ellen Kean in quest of a theatrical fortune in Australia and America (1954)
  • J. W. Marston, Our recent actors, 2 vols. (1888)
  • J. Coleman, Players and playwrights I have known: a review of the English stage from 1840 to 1880, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1890)
  • C. Morris, Life on the stage (1902)
  • E. Terry, The story of my life (1908)
  • d. cert.


  • Folger
  • Hunt. L., letters
  • NL Scot., letters to Elizabeth Rutherford
  • Royal Arch., letters from members of the royal household


  • R. J. Lane, lithograph, 1836, Trinity College of Music, London, Mander and Mitchenson theatre collection
  • R. J. Lane, lithograph, pubd 1838, NPG
  • R. Dadd, double portrait, oils, 1840 (with C. Kean as Hamlet), Yale U. CBA
  • LaRoche, photographs, 1855–9, Garr. Club
  • LaRoche, photographs, 1855–9, V&A, Enthoven collection
  • C. R. Leslie, oils, 1856, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire
  • watercolour drawing, 1858 (with C. Kean), V&A
  • J. C. Armitage, engraving (after W. C. Ross, 1844), Trinity College of Music, London, Mander and Mitchenson theatre collection
  • W. H. Nightingale, pencil drawing, NPG
  • Southwell Bros, photograph, NPG
  • theatrical prints, BM, Harvard TC, NPG
  • three photographs, NPG
  • watercolour drawing, Garr. Club [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

under £3000: probate, 8 Jan 1881, CGPLA Eng. & Wales