On January 15, 1879, Ernest Frederic Graham Thesiger was born in Chelsea, London, England, UK. Ernest was the grandson of the first Baron of Chelmsford. His family had many barons, war heroes and a famous explorer among his ancestors. As a young man, Thesiger should interest in painting and would socialize with some of the great artists of England such as George Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham, and John Singer Sargent. Ernest was educted at Marlbrough college and the Slade, he was originally hoping to become a great painter (he would however become an accomplished watercolour artist). He started acting in the theatre in the production of "Colonel Smith" (1909).
In 1914 Thesiger would enlist in the British army during World War I as a private (allegedly hoping to be assigned to a Scottish regiment because he wanted to wear a kilt). While in action he was wounded and joined the Church Army League of Friends of the Poor, helping to form the Disabled Soldiers Embroidery Industry and earning the humorous title of Honorary Secretary Cross-Stitch. His work teaching needlework to severely disabled men was admired by Queen Mary. Thesiger became a lifelong friend to Queen Mary and frequent visitor to Buckingham Palace.
Thesiger moved in several artistic, literary and theatrical circles. At various times, he frequented the studio of John Singer Sargent, befriended Mrs. Patrick Campbell, visited and corresponded with Percy Grainger and worked closely with George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the role of the Dauphin in Saint Joan for him. Somerset Maugham, on the other hand, responded to Thesiger's inquiry as to why he wrote no parts for him with the quip, "But I am always writing parts for you, Ernest. The trouble is that somebody called Gladys Cooper will insist on playing them."
In 1916 Thesiger would return to acting and was in a short film "The Real Thing at Last" (1916), he would portray a witch and appear in drag. In May 29, 1917, Thesiger would marry his first and only wife Janette Mary Fernie Ranken (sister of his close friend and fellow Slade graduate William Bruce Ellis Ranken) and they would stay married until he died. Thesiger retuned to the theatre in "A Little Bit of Fluff" and this play ran for over 1200 performances and he was asked to appear in the film version of "A Little Bit of Fluff" (1919). THesiger would appear in a production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (1919) and he would meet and befriend James Whale. In 1925, Thesiger would show his ability to do camp by playing an eldery woman in Noel Coward's play "On With the Dance", again in drag.
James Whale, an old friend of Thesiger's, request him to come to Hollywood in the early 1930's to be in his upcoming film "Old Dark House" (1932) with Boris Karloff. Whale wanted Thesiger in the role of Horace Femm, Thesiger agreed to do the part and he stole the show. Thesiger would return to England again to make "The Ghoul" (1933) also with Boris Karloff.
Thesiger made "The Only Girl" (1934) and "My Heart Is Calling" (1935). Then his old Friend James Whale asked him to come back to Hollywood to make the role that he would be remembered for, Thesiger would play Dr. Pretorious in the classic "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) (even though the studio wanted to use Claude Rains in the part). Dr Pretorious was only suppose to be a small character, Thesiger again stole the show. Unfortunatly this was the last time Thesiger would work with Whale's again. When Thesiger arrived in America he set up a display of all of his embroideries in his hotel room with price tags, he would work on embroidery during the making of the film.
Thesiger would go back to England and make "The Murder Party" (1935), "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" (1936) and a tongue-in-cheek horror film "They Drive by Night" (1938). He would appear in a few more notable films "My Learned Friend" (1943), "Don't Take It to Heart" (1944) 'Henry V" (1944), "The Ghosts of Berkeley Square" (1947), "The Winslow Boy" (1948).
Thesiger came back to America to appear on Broadway in "As You Like It" (1950) then he would spend his time between theatre and film. He would make notable appearances in "Laughter in Paradise" (1951), "A Christmas Carol" (1951), "The Man in the White Suit" (1951) and "The Robe" (1953). He would make quite a few films finishing with "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" (1961).
In 1960 He was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) ay the Queen's Birthday Honours List for his services to drama. He was a friend (and crochet partner) to Queen Mary.
Ernest Thesiger passed away in his sleep on the eve of his birthday January 14, 1961 (age 81) in Kensington, London, England of Natural causes. Thesiger was interred at Brompton Cemetery in London alongside his father, mother and sister.
Ernest was an accomplished watercolor artist and embroiderer (and even published a book entitled 'Adventures in Embroidery' (1941)).
Thesiger's widow Janette passed away in 1970, aged 92.