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The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Lillie Langtry, 1853-1929

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 1853.10.13
Place of Birth: St Saviour's, Reading
Date of Death: 1929.02.12
Place of Death: Monte Carlo

Identity:

Lillie Langtry, actress and society beauty, was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, the daughter of the Very Reverand W.C. Le Breton, Dean of Jersey. She married Edward Langtry in 1874. Howver the marriage was not a success and after his death, she married Sir Hugo Gerald de Bathe (1871-1946) in 1899.

Life:

Lillie Langtry was a celebrated society beauty; known as 'The Jersey Lily', she became a popular subject with artists like Millais, Frank Miles, Edward Poynter, G.F. Watts and Burne-Jones. She also moved in the circles of high society, becoming mistress of the Prince of Wales for a time.

By June of 1878 she had become a confidante and regular visitor to JW's studio and a guest at his Sunday breakfasts. JW planned to paint her as Arrangement in Yellow: Portrait of Lily Langtry (YMSM 227), and said of her: 'she is perfect. Her beauty is simply exquisite, but her manner is more exquisite still'. In turn, Langtry greatly admired the artist and his 'unquestionable genius', finding his energy and Bohemian attitudes fascinating. She admitted that her table decoration of an antique glass bowl in which a yellow water lily floated was 'cribbed from Whistler', and in 1878, JW helped her decorate a gloomy drawing room in her Norfolk Street house with gold fans and a pair of birds in flight on the ceiling. He suggested that she took up painting, after seeing the caricatures she drew of friends.

However, Langtry's chosen career became the stage, and in December 1881 she made her debut as Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer at the Haymarket Theatre . In 1882, Langtry planned to take the ground floor flat in Tower House, Tite Street, but drew out when her co-lessees, including JW, could not provide deposits; JW was not to live there until 1888. She commissioned Godwin to build her a house in 1882, which was to have lily ornamentation and a Whistlerian colour scheme, but this expensive project was never built.

Langtry was a competent if limited actress; her best known stage roles were Rosalind in As You Like It in 1882 and Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal in 1885. As Mrs Trevelyan in Sidney Grundy's The Degenerates in 1899, she teased the public with biographical glimpses of provocative sin in high society. She was also a shrewd manager of several theatres in London, including the Imperial Theatre from 1901, although it was never a financial success.

Bibliography:

Langtry, Lillie, The Days I Knew, London, 1921; Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912-1976, 4 vols, Detroit, 1978; Beatty, Laura, Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Models, London, 1999; Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2004.