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What lies beneath: Singer Mrs Billington was the Taylor Swift of the 1800s

Mrs Billington, the world’s biggest singing star of 1801, was the Taylor Swift of her day 

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‘Mrs Billington as St Cecilia, surrounded by singing putti’, 1786-1789, oil on canvas, by Sir Joshua Reynolds courtesy The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada

‘Mrs Billington as St Cecilia, surrounded by singing putti’, 1786-1789, oil on canvas, by Sir Joshua Reynolds courtesy The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada

The Wanderer with Scratches and Noise (2019) by Niall Naessens

The Wanderer with Scratches and Noise (2019) by Niall Naessens

Cliff Baths 3 by Helen Pomphrey

Cliff Baths 3 by Helen Pomphrey

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‘Mrs Billington as St Cecilia, surrounded by singing putti’, 1786-1789, oil on canvas, by Sir Joshua Reynolds courtesy The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada

Joshua Reynolds

Mrs Billington as St Cecilia, surrounded by singing putti


Taylor Swift, the world’s highest-paid musician, earned $185m in 2019. Last year, despite no concert revenue, she retained that spot, her 2020 albums Folklore and Evermore earning Ms Swift $20.6m.

In 1801 Mrs Elizabeth Billington held that same position of best-paid singer in the world.

She earned £10,000 that year, and was so popular that following a bidding war among promoters, she was contracted to sing at Covent Garden and Drury Lane on alternate nights.

Born Elizabeth Weichsel (circa 1765) in London’s Soho to a German father, an oboist, and an English mother who also sang, the star-to-be studied piano, and by age 12 was composing sonatas. She first sang in public in Oxford aged 14. By her 20th birthday she had married James Billington, a double-bass player.

The couple moved to Dublin where, at Crow St Theatre, he played and she sang. During their three years in Ireland she also performed in Waterford and other Irish venues – but the marriage was an unhappy one. A child died in infancy and they returned to London in 1786, where she devoted herself to perfecting her voice.

An anonymous publication claimed she had many famous lovers, including the Prince of Wales, later George IV. To escape scandal, Mr and Mrs Billington moved to Italy where she enjoyed huge success.

She was in her late 20s when her husband died suddenly. Five years later she married a Frenchman, who mistreated her. She left him, returned to London in 1801, and earned a fortune singing. He followed her, was arrested, and expelled.

Elizabeth Billington retired from the stage in 1811, was reconciled with her French husband in 1817 and went to live with him in Venice – where she died, in suspicious circumstances it was said, in 1818.

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When Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Mrs Billington, Reynolds was then in his 60s, and at the height of his fame. She was in her early 20s and was already a superstar. He spent three years, 1786- 89, working on this magnificently large (239 x 147cm) portrait.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790, ‘Betsy’ Billington stands tall, holds a musical score and is clad in robes with elaborate folds – which with the background of gilded clouds creates a beautiful flowing movement.

Choosing to portray her as St Cecilia (the patron saint of music and musicians, whose feast day is tomorrow, November 22), Reynolds was paying Mrs Billington the highest tribute.

A devout Christian, born in early 3rd century AD, Cecilia took a vow of chastity – but her parents forced her to marry a non-Christian. During the wedding, the story goes that she sang to God in her heart and then asked to her husband to respect her virginity, telling him that if he converted he would see an angel beside her, crowning her with lillies and roses.

He obeyed, was baptised by Pope Urban and saw that angel. But martyrdom soon followed. Their deaths were ordered, for being Christian. Cecilia was boiled in water, and when that didn’t work she was beheaded.

Mrs Billington as St Cecilia looks very safe and far from such atrocities. All is harmonious. And Joseph Haydn, who wrote ‘Arianna Abbandonata’ especially for Billington, on viewing the portrait, complained to Reynolds: “You have made her listening to the angels, you should have made the angels listening to her.”

On show: Two to View

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The Wanderer with Scratches and Noise (2019) by Niall Naessens

The Wanderer with Scratches and Noise (2019) by Niall Naessens

The Wanderer with Scratches and Noise (2019) by Niall Naessens

Niall Naessens

Naessens, in these new works, features both the West Kerry landscape where he lives and the figure of the wanderer by 19th Century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, “a symbol of our curiosity about the physical world”. Naessens, like Freidich’s wanderer, is “curious, just briefly passing through” and is “stimulated by the ocean and the Moon”.
SO Fine Art Editions, until December 4

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Cliff Baths 3 by Helen Pomphrey

Cliff Baths 3 by Helen Pomphrey

Cliff Baths 3 by Helen Pomphrey

Helen Pomphrey

Twelve new paintings capture Pomphrey’s love of different scenes she encountered during her recent travels around rural Ireland. An old building, an abandoned vehicle, a statue at Killruddery, an old piece of discarded machinery, the old baths in Enniscrone, a barn church in Belmullet. "Remnants of the past” interest Pomphrey for the stories they contain about people’s lives.
Wilton Gallery, Sandycove, until November 28


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