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Billington, Elizabeth

Birth date

1765 or 1768

Death date



Born in 1765 or 1768, Elizabeth Weichsel was the daughter of Carl Weichsel, a Freiberg native who was principal oboist at the King’s Theatre, and his wife Fredericka (née Weirman), who was a singer at Vauxhall Gardens. Elizabeth was a prodigy on the harpsichord by 1774, when she and her father performed in a concert at the Haymarket on 10 March. Other concerts followed, and in October 1783 she married James Billington, a double-bass player and one of her singing teachers. While she was performing in Dublin for several years her marriage was threatened by a series of liaisons she had, including one with the Irish manager and celebrated debaucher Richard Daly. She also suffered the death of a daughter. But the marriage held together and the Billingtons returned to London, where at Covent Garden on 13 February 1786 she made her first appearance in a theatrical role, playing Rosetta in “Love in a Village”. Over the next decade she acted little but sang in numerous concerts and oratorios, at Vauxhall Gardens, in the Concerts of Ancient Music and in the successive Handelian Commemorations at Westminster Abbey. While on tour with her in Italy her husband died, in May 1794; she was remarried in 1799, to a young Frenchman named Felissent, who proved to be a blackguard and from whom she remained separated much of the time. She continued performing in operas and concerts throughout Italy, and in 1801 she returned to London to sing alternately at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, appearing as Mandane in “Artaxerxes”. She also sang at the King’s Theatre in the 1802-03 season, becoming the recognized prima donna in the Italian operas and charming audiences with her beauty and brilliant soprano voice. Mrs Billington retired in May 1811 and rejoined Felissent on her property near Venice, where she died on 25 August 1818, some say as the result of a beating by her husband. Reynolds painted her as Saint Cecilia, on a life-size canvas that is now at the Beaverbrook Art Galley in Frederickton, New Brunswick. A portrait of her by Romney as Saint Cecelia is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Her portrait was also painted by other artists, including Lawrence and Masquerier (G0068). In the latter she appears somewhat heavier than in the more idealized images of her, and Gillray caricatured her as a rotund Mandane. For a list of other portraits see the BDA 2: 128-29.
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