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Lillie Langtry

1 of 56 portraits of Lillie Langtry

Lillie Langtry, by Henry Van der Weyde, April 1885 -NPG P863 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Lillie Langtry

by Henry Van der Weyde
Albumen cabinet card photograph, April 1885
5 3/4 in. x 4 1/8 in. (146 mm x 104 mm)
NPG P863

Inscriptionback to top

On border, lower left: photographer’s blind stamp.

This portraitback to top

This photograph comes from a sequence of five similar images registered for copyright on 23 April 1885, [1] showing Lillie Langtry from the back wearing evening dress and carrying a large ostrich-feather fan. It was described by the photographer as ‘face profile turned to her left, back view showing arms, fan in hands which comes across right arm, face in shadow’. [2] Both costume and pose are as also shown in a photograph by W. & D. Downey, where Langtry is said to be posing ‘as Lady Ormonde in “Peril”’. [3] The same information is given for a close-up image by Sarony. [4] Langtry played this role in the United States in 1884–5, and in London in April 1885, which must have been the occasion for this photograph.

At this date, Langtry was in the fourth year of her stage career, performing annually in the United States, and in a relationship with a rich businessman, Freddie Gebhard. Earlier, when she was intimate with the Prince of Wales, hostile gossip had identified commercial portraits as improper vanity. According to Town Talk:

Mrs Langtry herself cannot assert that there is any modesty in posing to photographic artists in, to say the very least, suggestive attitudes, to leer and wink and simulate smiles that can only be ranked one degree beneath lewdness. [She] has, by some means been raised to a fictitious popularity by means of the photographers’ camera and lens, and for what purpose? To be exposed in the windows of shops with her name attached to the picture, to have her points criticised as if she were a horse for sale, to give ’Arry and Hedward an opportunity of passing indecent remarks about her, and to disgust all thinking women at the public exhibition she makes of her charms. [5]

Langtry nonetheless continued to sit to commercial photographers, including Van der Weyde, and promote her career through portraits. This image, probably taken as advance publicity for her stage performance, is typical of portraits of actresses taken for public sale. Wearing a fashion-plate evening dress with a tight-fitting bodice that displays the sitter’s trim waist and be-ribboned posterior, Langtry holds a large ostrich-feather fan whose luminous shape to the right balances the spread of skirt to the left, creating a dramatic diagonal element accentuated by the back-lit head turned to a ruche of pale chiffon on the left shoulder. The fan appears as a clear allusion to the feathers on the heraldic crest of the Prince of Wales, who remained on friendly terms with Langtry after the end of their affair. She recorded how, for her presentation at Court in 1878, she had obtained ‘three of the longest white ostrich plumes I could find’, to wear on her head – ostensibly in accord with a royal command that any feathers worn be ‘at least visible to the naked eye’, but in actuality an audacious gesture when meeting Queen Victoria. As Langtry also recalled, disingenuously:

As to my appearance, I wondered what Her Majesty thought of my head-gear. I am afraid the waving ostrich plumes may have looked overdone, as the Prince of Wales that evening chaffed me good-humouredly on my conscientious observance of the Lord Chamberlain’s order. At all events, I meant well. [6]

Thereafter ostrich feathers became a Langtry hallmark, visibly deployed here as a fan in what is presented as both an evening gown and a theatrical costume.

From his studio in Regent Street, Henry van der Weyde registered a total of fifty-six photographs of Langtry, of which thirty-five showed her in character as Cleopatra. Illustrating her popularity, the National Archives register of photographs records more than 200 images of Langtry (as detailed in All known portraits); 1885 was an especially busy year as regards portrait photographs.

Another print is held at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, S.143:378-2007, along with two variant poses: (1) three-quarter-length back view, profile perdu to right, holding feather fan, wide satin ribbons (S.143:377-2007); and (2) half-length in same attitude and same costume, without fan and with hair loosely bunched behind head (S.143:379-2007).


Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) National Archives: COPY 1/372/38–42. This pose is 1/372/41.
2) National Archives: COPY 1/372/41.
3) Langtry 1925, facing p.92. See ‘All Known Portraits, In stage character, Peril, Photographs, 1885’.
4) Bridgeman Images MOL227374.
5) Town Talk, 30 Aug. 1879, quoted in Beatty 1999, p.156.
6) Langtry 1925, p.105.

Physical descriptionback to top

Three-quarter-length, from back, profile to left, holding opened feather fan to right.

Provenanceback to top

Purchased 1973