Skip to main content

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The Gallery’s Acknowledgement of Country, and information on culturally sensitive and restricted content and the use of historic language in the collection can be found here.

Lillie Langtry

c. 1885
W & D Downey

carte de visite photograph on card (support: 10.3 cm x 6.2 cm, image: 9.8 cm x 5.1 cm)

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
Gift of Malcolm Robertson in memory of William Thomas Robertson 2018. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.
Audio description icon

Audio description

1 minutes 49 seconds
Show transcript

Artist and subject

W & D Downey

Lillie Langtry (age 32 in 1885)

Subject professions

Performing arts

Donated by

Malcolm Robertson (16 portraits)

Related portraits