10 July 2020

Elizabeth Billington and Saint Cecilia

A collection of stories: weekly, we share a story around the Founder’s Collection. The month of July is dedicated to musical stories.

James Ward after Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘Mrs Billington as St Cecilia’ (detail), 1803 (?). Mezzotint Founder’s Collection

Elizabeth Billington (1765/1768-1818) was a famous English opera singer. The daughter of musicians, Betsy, as she would become known, began her musical training with her father. Her talent quickly became apparent: she began by learning pianoforte and later dedicated herself to developing her voice, making her first public appearance as a singer at just 14 years old. She also had the opportunity to study in Paris with several renowned composers.

Betsy performed on various stages, first in London, in Covent Garden, and later in Italy, appearing in Naples, Florence, Milan, Venice and Trieste. She performed in the famous San Carlo, the oldest theatre in Europe still in operation today. After her return to London, her musical gifts were coveted by the theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, where she performed alternately.

One of the greatest divas of her time, Elizabeth was painted by various artists. In the prints acquired by Calouste Gulbenkian, produced by James Ward after a painting by Joshua Reynolds, she appears as Saint Cecilia, in a reference to her talent for music. Cecilia was the patron saint of musicians and instruments, although the reasons for this association are uncertain. It is said that she married against her will and that as the musicians played at the ceremony, Cecilia sang in her heart to God – however, it is believed that this story could have been a misinterpretation of an ancient text.

Cecilia would always be associated with music: the first festival in her honour dates back to the year 1570 and the National Academy of Saint Cecilia, in Rome, is one of the oldest musical institutions in the world. The saint inspired various masterpieces by great painters, such as Rafael, Rubens and Poussin, and her story gave rise to numerous literary works – by Geoffrey Chaucer, for example – and musical compositions, by figures such as Haydn, Scarlatti and Purcell. 


A Collection of Stories

A collection of stories: weekly, we share a story around the Founder’s Collection. The month of July is dedicated to musical stories.

Other stories