Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait drawing of Mrs Elizabeth Billington (1765-1818), as Coraly in The Peruvian, her head almost in profile to left, wearing a turban decorated with ostrich feathers and pearls, and an ermine-trimmed coat, 1786 

Richard Cosway RA (1742-1821)

Portrait drawing of Mrs Elizabeth Billington (1765-1818), as Coraly in The Peruvian, her head almost in profile to left, wearing a turban decorated with ostrich feathers and pearls, and an ermine-trimmed coat, 1786, Richard Cosway
Watercolour with pencil on paper
18th Century
Oval, 81mm (3 3/16 in.) high
Probably the drawing noted in a typed list by G.C. Williamson, ‘Portraits by Richard Cosway’, as ‘BILLINGTON, Mrs. Elizabeth/ S. Kensington Museum’ (undated) (National Portrait Gallery, Heinz Archive)
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This recently discovered drawing by Richard Cosway was taken from life in 1786, just at the point where Elizabeth Billington (née Weichsel) was embarking on her stratospheric rise to fame. Talented, charming and statuesque, her success as an opera singer was almost unprecedented. At her death in 1818, the Gentleman’s Magazine hailed her ‘the most celebrated vocal performer that England ever produced’.

This particular portrait can be precisely dated to March 1786, as the ‘Fair Peruvian’ opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on the 18th of that month. A newspaper report dated 23rd March stated that Cosway had already executed this drawing; ‘The portrait of Mrs BILLINGTON, in the Character of THE PERUVIAN; engraved by BARTOLOZZI, in his best manner, after an original drawing from Life by COSWAY.’

Public interest in Elizabeth had begun when she was a child prodigy, playing the piano and violin. She was clearly musically gifted, composing keyboard sonatas before her twelfth birthday. Her parents were also high profile figures in the musical and operatic world – her father, Carl Friedrich Weichsel (1728–1811), was principal oboist at the King's Theatre and Vauxhall Gardens and her mother, Frederica (d.1786) a much-lauded singer. Her parent’s volatile relationship also caught the attention of the popular press and as Elizabeth’s fame grew rumours sprung up concerning her legitimacy.

After her marriage at the age of sixteen (to her singing teacher, James Billington, in 1783) she virtually gave up playing the piano in public, preferring instead to concentrate on her singing career. Her debut performance was to take place in Dublin, singing in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

By the date of this portrait, yet to reach her twenty-first birthday, she had already suffered the loss of her only child, a daughter born in the summer of 1784. She had also embarked on several love affairs, abandoning her husband at least twice during a tour in Ireland.

With such notoriety already a defining feature of her career, just one month prior to this portrait, she was requested to perform as Rosetta in Thomas Arne's Love in a Village by ‘royal command’. Elizabeth’s introduction to the artist Cosway may have been as part of the circle of George, Prince of Wales – contemporary speculation suggests that the two were lovers. In 1785, the year before this portrait was taken, Cosway had been officially appointed as Painter to the Prince of Wales. He was the natural choice to draw Elizabeth and would have known her well. From the inclusion of the Prince of Wales feathers on the frame it can be suggested that the prince himself commissioned this drawing.

Although, by the spring of 1786, Elizabeth was in demand as a performer musical critics thought her singing and acting lacked grace and passion. Shortly after this drawing was made, she left England for France where she received training from many eminent singing masters, including Antonio Sacchini in Paris. The Cosways were also in France during that summer, and it can be speculated that they moved in the same circles in Paris.

Upon her return to England that autumn, Elizabeth proved her full potential, earning the praise of critics for her exquisite singing. Charles Burney declared that ‘no song seems too high or too rapid for her execution’.

Elizabeth’s career was greatly overshadowed by the publication, in 1792, of her Memoirs, written by her publisher James Ridgway. Full of sensationalist gossip, backed by letters published in full, she brought libel action against Ridgway. Unable to escape the ruckus surrounding the book (Joseph Haydn noted ‘you couldn't get a single copy after 3 o'clock in the afternoon), Elizabeth once again left England and travelled to Italy.

Italy proved fruitful for Elizabeth’s operatic reputation and disastrous for her personal life. Her career flourished via a succession of tours through Italian cities and Sir William and Emma Hamilton, among many other eminent ex-patriots, welcomed her. Madame Bonaparte may have introduced her to her French husband Felican and she moved to an estate near Venice with him. By 1801, however, he had grown so violent that she was forced to flee to England. By this date, she was firmly established as a great opera singer and her performances continued to attract crowds of admirers. In 1817, her husband arrived in London and begged her to return with him to their Italian estate. Regrettably, she agreed and the result, according to contemporary rumour, was that she was beaten so badly by him that she died of her injuries.

Painted by the great artists of the day, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Hoppner and George Romney, Elizabeth proved a characterful and charming muse. This small drawing shows an altogether more intimate portrayal of a woman on the very threshold of eminence. Whilst this image was disseminated into thousands of prints, the original drawing retains the intensity that only an ad vivum sitting can capture.
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