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ON DISPLAY

Lillie Langtry
, c. 1885

by W & D Downey

albumen silver carte de visite (support: 103 x 62 mm, image: 98 x 51 mm)

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Lillie Langtry (1853-1929) was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in Jersey in 1853. Aged nineteen she married the son of a Belfast shipowner with whom she moved to London. There, she rose to prominence as a professional beauty and style-setter whose acquaintances included various members of the social and cultural elite. She thus came within the orbit of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (known as Bertie to his family), Queen Victoria's eldest son and heir to the throne, whose dalliance with the Irish actress Nellie Clifden in 1861 had already created scandal. His liaison with Langtry commenced in 1877 and lasted three years. It was an open secret, generating notoriety and cachet for Langtry in equal measure. Around 1880 she began a relationship with Prince Louis of Battenberg (Louis Mountbatten), with whom she had a daughter. This precipitated the deterioration of her marriage which ended in 1881. Being without a conventional means of support she decided to earn a living as an actress and made her professional stage debut in London in December 1881. Capitalising on her beauty and reputation, she then formed her own theatre company with which she toured to the United States several times between 1882 and 1889. That year, having established independent wealth through investments in racehorses and real estate, she returned permanently to England. In 1899 she married the heir to an English baronetcy who was eighteen years her junior. She retired to Monaco after World War One and published her memoir The days I knew in 1925.

Brothers William Downey (1829-1915) and Daniel Downey opened their first photographic studio in 1863 in Newcastle-on-Tyne. In 1872 the business expanded to London, William running the new studio in Belgravia while Daniel maintained the business in Newcastle. The firm became known for carte de visite and cabinet card portraits of celebrities and the aristocracy and is said to have been particularly favoured by Queen Victoria, whom they photographed on many occasions from the late 1860s until the 1890s. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, was also a significant patron. W & D Downey's 1868 carte-de-visite of his wife the Princess of Wales (later Queen Alexandra) piggy-backing her baby daughter Princess Louise was extraordinarily popular, selling some 300,000 copies. William's son William Edward Downey (1855-1908) also became a photographer.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program by Malcolm Robertson in memory of William Thomas Robertson 2018
Accession number: 2018.38.88