The portrait was painted at the height of Lillie’s fame, by the most fashionable artist of the day, dressed in the plain black dress that was her trademark. Both sitter and artist were part of the ‘in-crowd’ of fashionable society of poets and artists. Despite both of them having Jersey backgrounds, the lily in the painting is actually a Guernsey lily, not a Jersey lily. Sir John Everett Millais was one of the greatest Victorian success stories. His family had lived in Jersey since before 1331. His father was an officer in the Jersey Militia. For a short time, they lived in Southampton, where Millais was born. When Millais was 4 years old they returned to Jersey. Millais showed a remarkable artistic ability, and in 1840 became the youngest ever student at the Royal Academy at the age of 11. His first picture to be accepted for the Royal Academy’s exhibition was in 1846, when he was still only 16. He joined with William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and four other friends to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Millais’ portrait of Lillie hangs alongside another portrait of her by Millais’ contemporary Sir Edward Poynter (1836-1919). The two portraits are startlingly different, despite both being painted in 1878. Millais portrays Lillie in a demure pose, Millais captured her creamy white complexion wearing a plain black dress and no jewellery. Poynter’s Lillie wears a rich golden gown and a string of pearls and lies in a languid pose. Sir Edward Poynter was a leading member of the art establishment. Like Millais, he became President of the Royal Academy towards the end of his career.
Poynter specialised in paintings of classical subjects, but was also a skilled portraitist. Both this and Millais’ painting A Jersey Lily were displayed in 1878 at the Royal Academy, the most prestigious venue in 19th century London. It is likely that many people would have drawn comparisons between these two portraits and judged Millais against Poynter accordingly. Poynter’s painting is much more colourful and sumptuous. Lillie lies back in a relaxed pose.
Poynter has created a highly sensuous portrait, combining Lillie’s natural beauty with rich fabrics and flowers. Lillie holds a yellow rose and white rose and it is their inclusion that tells us the possible meaning behind the picture. It was in the year 1877 that Lillie became the mistress of the Prince of Wales. In the Victorian language of flowers, the yellow rose signified jealous love or adultery, while the white rose suggested silence or pure love. Lillie holds the yellow rose to her heart, while the white rose is held away in her left hand. Her wedding ring is barely visible. Edward Langtry seems to have accepted his wife’s unfaithfulness and so the portrait might be read as a comment on their current marital situation. The yellow rose stands for Lillie’s adultery and the white for her discarded marriage and her husband’s silence.