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Photographic Portraits by Lafayette from the Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London


copyright V&A

Negative No: Laf5131
Dated: 23-0-1904

Dressed elegantly in a superb white morning gown, Lady de Grey, photographed in July 1904, stands by one of the couple’s early Napier vehicles, looking as if she is about to be driven to one of her numerous engagement in London. Already, by May 1902, The Car Illustrated reported on her attitude to automobiles that she “was one of the first among great ladies to welcome the innovation, [and who] drove up every evening last summer during the opera season to Covent Garden.”

Her association with the Covent Garden opera house has set her contribution firmly within the history of opera in Britain as she played a large part in the rejuvenation of the operatic scene in London and counted among her friends the Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba, the Russian impresario Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev and ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, as well as the Polish opera-singing de Reszke brothers. As one of the few women who “dazzled every London drawing-room” with her wit, good looks and energy, Lady de Grey was the embodiment of the perfect Edwardian enchantress.

copyright V&A
Negative No: Laf4712

The couple were both fond of the new technologies.  She had a telephone installed in her residence, and he sold off his horses in order to purchase automobiles. Apart from being a person of great wealth, Lord de Grey was the best shot in England and had held the honorary position of treasurer in the household of Queen Alexandra.

When in April 1905 they bought the 40 hp six-cylinder Napier landaulette with a body made by the renowned Muhlbacher firm of Paris (seen in the two Lafayette photographs where Lord and Lady de Grey appear together), they became the owners of the most luxurious car of the time!

The engineering firm of D. Napier & Son Ltd entered the motorcar business in 1899, after a famous racing driver, Selwyn Edge, asked Montague Stanley Napier to modify his second-hand Panhard et Levassor. Edge was so impressed with the new engine designed by Napier that he contracted him to produce more cars and became the Napier’s sole distributor. Edge’s marketing skills (he pioneered the use of owners’ testimonies in advertisements) and his fame, which culminated in winning the Gordon Bennett Trophy in 1902 in the four-cylinder Napier, attracted such publicity for Napier that his machines dominated the prestigious car trade in Britain until challenged by Rolls-Royce after 1906. Moreover, the victorious green Napier of 1902 resulted in green becoming the official British racing colour!
Negative No: Laf4715a

In 1904, persuaded by Edge, Montague Napier built the world’s first successful six-cylinder model, which was soon sold in a variety of motor capacities. The Napier ‘Six’ cars had pressed steel chassis frames and were fitted with the side-valve engines. They were among the fastest, quietest and most sought after automobiles on the market.

In 1912 Napier and Edge parted company. Montague Napier was sidetracked to design aeroplane engines in response to the Air Ministry’s need at the beginning of World War I. Although he enjoyed great success with his 450 hp Lion airplane engine, he was not able to catch up with innovations in the motorcar industry. Production of the Napier car ceased in 1924.
The de Greys’ car, being such a famous vehicle in 1905, was photographed and commented upon in a number of society and professional magazines and Lafayette’s photographs of the de Greys with their Napier were reproduced in The Bystander, The Car Illustrated, The King and His Army & Navy and The Autocar.


All texts copyright Barbara Borkowy and Russell Harris 2007