Edith Villiers, Countess of Lytton

Symbolist, sculptor and portrait painter George Frederic Watts is widely considered to be the greatest Victorian painter.  In an era that produced Edwin Landseer, Frederick Leighton and the Pre Raphaelites that’s no mean feat. During a career that spanned more than 60 years, G.F. Watts was influenced by that avant garde brotherhood of artists, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as is evident in his portrait of ‘Edith.’

In 1862 Watts requested permission to paint a portrait of Edith Villiers, the 21 year old daughter of his old friend Edward.  Edith was at a bit of a low point in her life.  Her twin sister Elizabeth had recently married Henry Loch, a man with whom Edith was also in love.

Edith was sent to Little Holland House, the home Watts shared with the Prinsep family, where it was thought the exercise of being painted would cheer her up.  The portrait was completed in an estimated eight hours across several sittings which Edith apparently didn’t enjoy much. ‘They pulled down my hair and then made me sit to Mr Watts,’ she recalled. ‘It was such a bore.’

Edith was born on September 15, 1841 and on her paternal side could trace her ancestry back through more than two hundred years of Royal favourites.  Perhaps most famous was the Countess of Castlemaine, formerly Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II and mother of five of his illegitimate children.  Edith’s three times great grandfather Edward Villiers 1st Earl of Jersey numbered two royal favourites among his sisters; squinty eyed Betty Villiers who was the unlikely mistress of William III and Barbara, best friends for ever with Queen Anne, that is until they fell out. All these rampant Villiers women trace their lineage back to a marriage between Edward Villiers and Barbara St John, daughter of Sir John St John and Lucy Hungerford, immortalised in the St John polyptych at St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze.

Having recovered from her romantic disappointment Edith married statesman Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton, the son of novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton, on October 4, 1864. Edith was a devoted help mate, supporting her husband’s diplomatic career in Europe and especially in India.  Robert was appointed Viceroy of India in 1876 where in Delhi the following year he proclaimed Queen Victoria Empress of India.

Something of a fashion plate, Edith dragged the viceregal court into the modern era.  But she wasn’t just a nineteen century clothes horse and invested both her time and money in women’s education.

The couple left India in 1880 and in 1887 Robert was made Ambassador to France.  He died suddenly in Paris in 1891 from heart disease leaving Edith in a precarious financial situation from which she was rescued by non other than Queen Victoria.  Invited to attend court as a Lady in Waiting, the Queen later honoured Edith with the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert and, in recognition of the role she had played as vicereine, the Imperial Order of the Crown of India.

Edith went on to serve as Lady in Waiting to Queen Alexandra before retiring to a house on the Lytton family’s Knebworth estate in 1905.

Edith died on September 17, 1936, two days after her 95th birthday.  She had outlived her husband by 45 years and three of her seven children.

Footnote: G.F. Watts portrait of Edith can be seen at the Pre-Raphaelites Victorian Avant Garde exhibition at Tate Britain until January 13, 2013.

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18 thoughts on “Edith Villiers, Countess of Lytton

  1. The Pre-Raphaelites Victorian Avant- Garde exhibition at Tate Britain finishes on 13th January 2013, not 2012 as stated in your article.

  2. Thank you so much. We live in the house her son in law Edwin Lutyens built for her in Knebworth, so finding this ( as pre -Raphealite fans too!) was a godsend.

  3. I became curious about Lady Edith after reading the enthralling bio of her daughter, Constance, via Wikipedia. How odd that this lady, who reportedly spent time and money educating women, refused to let her daughter marry the man she loved, because of the class system.

    I am also interested in my ancestry and have traced it back to 1350 via Ancestry.com. It is a tough job researching earlier than the late 18th century, when we Americans started census records, especially if you don’t have the money to pursue forebears in England. My family was of a different branch, I believe, than the Bulwer-Lyttons, although earlier generations of it can also be seen as residents of Knebworth.

    What has really made me curious is how the Bulwer name got tacked onto the Lytton name. Perhaps one day, given the increasingly rapid advance in computer technology, I’ll discover the answer to that question.

    Watts’ painting of Edith is quite lovely, by the way. Reminds me of a sweetheart of mine during those long ago university years.

    Robert Carl Litton
    Alpine, Texas

      • Bulwer-Lytton was born on 25 May 1803 to General William Earle Bulwer of Heydon Hall and Wood Dalling, Norfolk and Elizabeth Barbara Lytton, daughter of Richard Warburton Lytton of Knebworth, Hertfordshire. He had two elder brothers, William Earle Lytton Bulwer (1799–1877) and Henry (1801–1872), later Lord Dalling and Bulwer..

        They joined the two names together as did my great grand parents!
        I hope this helps!

    • She did allow her daughter Emily to marry the man she loved, the architect Edwin Lutyens, but insisted her
      take out a £50,000 life insurance about £1.5m today!
      However lady Villiers had been Vicereine of iIndia and Lady in Waiting to Queen Victoria,

      • She retired to Homewood built by her new son in law Edwin Lutyens in 1901 not 1905! She died there in September 1936

  4. I was referring to her daughter CONSTANCE Bulwer-Lytton, who, after her mother denied her right to accept the man she loved, swore she would never marry anyone, and she apparently didn’t (unless she did it secretly). Constance became a major activist in the Women’s Suffrage movement. She even donned a dressmaker’s clothing in order hide her identity so she wouldn’t receive any special privileges. She spent a brief time in prison before the authorities discovered who she was and released her. Read her story in Wikipedia — fascinating! She was a true heroine.

    Emily was Constance’s sister.

    I don’t see the relevance of your final sentence. Yes, Emily was a “Lady-in-Waiting” to Queen Victoria, but what has that to do with how she treated her daughters.

      • Yes, she used the name “Jane Wharton” as when she was arrested, the police realised she was the niece of the Home Secretary Lord Lytton!
        There is a document in te Museum of London with her signature along with many other suffragettes..

    • Someone who has the ear of the monarch and Empress of India and had been Vice Reine, in those days must be seen to have a family that complies with convention.Marry a commoner and lose her title for love?
      I can understand your surprise judge by today’s morals, but back then life was very different……
      We had the film “Shoulder to Shoulder” the episode concerning Lady Constance filmed here in her house in 1973, autumn .http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071047/
      They planted plastic roses in the flower beds to make it look like summer, but there were no leaves on the trees in early November!.

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