Ever since the publication of La Tour’s wills, there has been something of a puzzle concerning the beneficiaries he describes as his “cousins”, among them the tailor Raphael Joret whom I mentioned before, but also (from the 1768 will, as transcribed by Maurice Tourneux):
A mon cousin Deschamps, chanoine de Laon, à la fille de son frère, à ses sœurs Masse et Mauclair, mes cousines, à chacun cent pistoles; deux mille livres à mes arrières petittes cousines Beaudemont, qu’elles partageront, et [à] sa sœur Joseph, rue du Petit-Pont, à Saint-Quentin, et à leurs cousins Dominique et Jean Baptiste Devrin
The fact that La Tour leaves money to these relatives suggests that the exact relationships are worth exploring. As you will be aware from my last two posts (more or less about his parents), I have been spending time in the parish registers of Noyon, Laon and Saint-Quentin looking into his family, and I think I have unravelled the connections that previously eluded my research.
You can find the key documents once again set out in the chronological table, with a number of further dates of actes for individuals in the genealogies for La Tour, Deschamps, Garbe, Havart, Joret, Masse. I wish there were a simple visual to present all these connections, but the genealogy software on the market is tedious to use and childishly simplistic in the graphical output; and my patience doesn’t stretch to drawing an old-fashioned pedigree on a very large sheet of paper. But here’s a terribly oversimplified version:
Armed with the dates in these genealogies you can find the deeds online (in the Archives départementales de l’Aisne ou de l’Oise), with my transcriptions in my table. I will only burden this post with what turned out to be the hardest to find (since I didn’t have the dates or parishes for any of these documents), but which is touching in its way.
It is the baptism of the daughter of the niece of La Tour’s mother, who you will recall was named Reine Havart or Avart (curiously in Laon the spelling Havart is standard; in Saint-Quentin, Avart is used). Reine’s niece married Louis Deruys (sometimes Deruis or Deruis; but previous scholars have settled for Dervet or Devrin), who was, it turns out, the son of a Latin tutor (“répétiteur de Latin” in another document). Louis himself was a humble manouvrier or labourer, but later became a jardinier; his son Jean-Baptiste (who appears in La Tour’s will), remained a mulquinier, or weaver. So some of these families went down as well as up.
Anyway: you can see that little Marie-Anne-Reine Duruys, who was given the name of the pastellist’s mother, could not be held over the font by her, as Reine Havart was dead; but La Tour’s stepmother, Marie Francoise Duliège, was in effect step-god-mother to the girl.
Further down the same page there is another event, which unlike the baptism was attended as was normal only by father and curate, its sadness only partly dimmed by the passage of nearly three hundred years and the knowledge of the frequency of infant mortality:
Here however is a summary of the key relationships as they emerge from dozens of similar documents (the majority far less legible than these two).
La Tour’s mother was the niece of Charles Havart, a tapissier from Noyon who settled in Saint-Quentin. As we have seen his daughter married Louis Deruÿs, while her brother Pierre Avart was also a manouvrier; Pierre’s daughter Agathe married Claude-Nicolas Baudemont, a mulquinier: they were the parents of the young girls Angélique and Victoire Baudemont who were mentioned in La Tour’s will, as also was Agathe’s twin sister Joseph [sic, both in the registers and in La Tour’s will].
On his father’s side there were several connections with the Garbe family of blacksmiths. La Tour’s paternal grandmother Marie was the daughter of François Garbe (1610–1678), maréchal ferrant in Laon; her brother Nicolas married Elisabeth, Jean de La Tour’s niece (La Tour’s father was parrain to one of her numerous children), while Marie’s sister Marguerite married Pierre Caton, a tapissier in Laon; their daughter Anne-Françoise married écrivain Denis Deschamps, father of La Tour’s subject chanoine Claude-Charles Deschamps; one of the canon’s half-sisters, Noëlle, married an Augustin Masse, marchand de tabac à Paris: their daughter Charlotte Masse (pictured) married Jean-Robert Dorizon, the son of a tailor. Finally, “la petite-cousine Morelli, vitrier, à Sceaux” is Louise-Catherine , daughter of the chanoine’s brother Pierre-Denis Deschamps; she married Pierre Morel, vitrier-peintre at Verrières-le-Buisson.
Confusingly (although this has been known for some time) Augustin Masse was not related to the marchand orfèvre, Grégoire Masse, who, in 1752, married the sister of Dufloquet, comte de Réals, a senior cavalry officer (from an altogether different level of the social hierarchy): that Mme Masse was another La Tour subject, but not a relative.
The family circumstances, on both sides, were clearly artisanal, not even bourgeois. What is remarkable is that La Tour – an artist who chose his clientele with a close eye on their ability to pay, if not with outright snobbery – retained contact with so many of these people who worked with their hands and owned little. It is not that they were simply mentioned in the 1784 will, made when he was senile, had returned to his native town, and may have been in contact with them; but they mostly appear in the 1768 will, alongside calculations of his annual income (a formidable 19,975 livres). One might cynically conjecture that his impoverished relatives badgered him for money, to which he developed a standard reply: I’ll mention you in my will. Or one may guess that he felt a real sense of family loyalty, akin to the motives that led to his charitable foundations. Documents can only take us as far as they go.
In my last piece I added a little about La Tour’s mother and her background which I hope was of interest. But sometimes it is the duty of the researcher to call into question parts of a story which have been repeated so widely as to seem beyond doubt. Several niggles while I was revising my chronological table seem to fall into that bracket, each perhaps because they seem so plausible but also because you find them in printed books that are nearly a century old – and then in more recent ones by scholars whose thoroughness is otherwise exemplary. And as so often it turns out to be harder to prove a negative, I put these out in the hopes that one of you can provide the missing evidence that will allow me to restore these parts of the conventional narrative. You may however remember my earlier analysis of how the mythology around La Tour spread from even earlier sources, and I fear we have more trips to London here.
The first point is a very small one about La Tour’s father François. In Besnard & Wildenstein’s chronology, the section on the first page (B&W p. 27) headed 1596-1704 appears to reprint Georges Grandin’s 1894 notice. But silently and unsourced they introduce this sentence, after the correct statement that François was chantre at Saint-Quentin:
L’extrait baptistaire de son fils François le qualifie d’ingénieur-géographe (corps créé en 1696)
Three of his sons were called François, and perhaps there were others (although I have been through most of the parish registers without finding another); but none of these entries indicates his profession as “ingénieur-géographe”. One wonders if there is a confusion with the unrelated Louis Brion de La Tour. This sentence has however been universally repeated, possibly because an interest in cartography demonstrated in his aerial view of Saint-Quentin and his military background would seem plausibly to support the idea.
But what about this military background, even more widely repeated? And no less plausibly given my recent discovery of the fact that he was living in Noyon in 1699 when he married the pastellist’s mother; soldiers were so often stationed in such places. But as far as I can see no document mentions this apart from the evidence first published by Grandin (in the same 1896 article where he misidentifies La Tour’s mother, as discussed in my last post). This document is the record of a law suit taken in the Tribunal civil de Laon in 1694 by one “Jean-François De La Tour, trompette de la compagnie de Monseigneur le duc du Maine, au régiment des carabiniers”.
It does not seem to have troubled Grandin (or any subsequent authors who have republished this without question that while de La Tour is rather a common name, nowhere else is the pastellist’s father given the forename Jean: he is everywhere simply François – including on his 5 January 1670 baptismal register entry. (You will of course find this and the 1694 transcript in the chronological table I mentioned before.)
Further the social question arises of how the son of a humble mason could enter this élite regiment, founded by Louis XIV personally and entrusted to the command of his favourite son, the duc du Maine. You might say that perhaps a musician was allowed in on the basis of skill, the social rank overlooked; but in 1694 people of such quality did not sue officers. Further nowhere does François de La Tour cite his former rank in any document. In the absence of more evidence I’m inclined to think that La Tour’s father was not in the army at all.
Finally I turn to the sad story which appears in every account of La Tour’s life, and which isn’t in dispute. This concerns his liaison with his cousin Anne Bougier, her pregnancy and the birth of her illegitimate child (details again in my table), for which as we all know La Tour felt permanently guilty, and for which he made amends through his philanthropic donations many years later.
But one aspect of this does seem to be another myth. Tourneux this time was responsible, although it again is widely repeated by modern authors – including by me (though not by B&W). And again it makes us feel better to be told that the unfortunate girl did marry, soon after the affair with her cousin, and settled down with her husband, a workman called Bécasse, in the parish of Saint-Thomas in Saint-Quentin where she died in 1740. I compounded this by finding an earlier register entry for the baptism of a child from this legitimate marriage, in 1728. But examining these entries carefully, they don’t refer to a Marie-Anne Bougier at all, but to a Marie-Anne Bruge or Bruche: the writing in each case is quite clear. It’s neither a likely phonetic mistranscription nor a likely pseudonym if she wanted to disguise her past; nor do the witnesses seem to have any connection with the pastellist’s family. And the age given at her death (unlikely to be exaggerated) was 45, so that she would have been born in 1695.
Now it’s true that we have not yet found Anne’s own birth certificate, although I’ve scoured the registers at La Fère for 1701 (the age and place she gave her tribunal) and years on either side, back to 1695. (I could find no entry for her stillborn child in the hôpital de Laon either.) But I fear that Anne’s illegitimate child did indeed remove her chances of legitimate union.
There is however one further discovery, which I find almost as disconcerting: as we know she was the daughter of the pastellist’s aunt, Marie-Anne de La Tour, who married a Philippe Bougier, a fellow chantre in the church. The marriage took place in Laon in 1695 (17 mai) when Philippe, a widower, was 26 years old (which was one of the reasons I continued to believe Tourneux’s identification). But I’ve since located Marie-Anne de La Tour’s baptismal entry:
She married Bougier when she was barely twelve years old. This was no dynastic match in which contracts were entered between children to be consummated when they reached adulthood. There is likely to have been a pressing reason, but whether it was Anne Bougier or an unrecorded sibling the registers do not vouchsafe.
Nearly two years ago I posted a piece with some trouvailles concerning Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, introducing the Chronological Table on my website in which I am updating the table that was originally published by Georges Wildenstein and which forms the main structure of the text of Besnard & Wildenstein’s 1928 monograph (apart from the catalogue). The format has always struck me as a particularly useful way to present complex, untidy information so that readers can find what they want. I have tried to show the extent of additions to the 1928 edition by printing the original text in Times New Roman and new material in Garamond (you can ignore the typeface quite easily if the progress of scholarship is of no interest).
Several important documents were still missing in 2014. Firstly, although we knew the dates of the birth of La Tour’s father François and of his grandfather Jean’s marriage to Marie Garbé, these came from Georges Grandin, former conservateur du musée de Laon, who omitted to tell us the parish for these documents or to provide transcriptions with the details that (occasionally) make such research illuminating. As it happens the parish was Saint-Michel, Laon, and you can find these recent additions in my revised table (which also has the dates, document codes etc.). François’s baptism (Laon, Saint-Michel, 5 janvier 1670):
Jean de La Tour’s marriage to Marie Garbé (Laon, Saint-Michel, 2 février 1669):
Incidentally proponents of the “Delatour” spelling will find no support here.
Grandin also searched in vain for documents relating to La Tour’s mother, Reine Havart. He came up with a silly theory that she was the Reine-Françoise Havart, daughter of François Havart, avocat au parlement, gouverneur, maire perpétuel de Bus and Marie Cressonnier, who appeared in a 1691 document when she already had legal rights (and so could not have been born in 1673 as other documents suggested). In any case this is wrong (“Reine-Françoise” Havart even appeared in Debrie & Salmon 2000). Grandin, and all other researchers who (as far as I am aware) have been unable to take this further, were looking in the wrong place. Courtesy of Geneanet (where it has recently been indexed by Christophe de Mazancourt, to whom we should be most grateful), I found the key document – the marriage of François de La Tour and Reine Havart. It took place neither in Laon nor in Saint-Quentin, but in Noyon (parish of Saint-Germain) in 1699 (20 mars). Here it is:
Again you will find the transcription in my table. What emerges is that François de La Tour was living in Noyon, the town where Reine was born. Further searches, now knowing where to look (what town at least: unfortunately there were a number of different parishes), elicited the parish register entries for the marriage of Reine’s parents, Louis Havart and Anne Joret, in 1669 (11 novembre), this time in Saint-Martin de Noyon:
And for Reine’s baptism, in 1673 (5 janvier) at Noyon, Saint-Hilaire:
From these we can establish a clear picture of Reine’s background. Her father’s family were tapissiers, while that of her mother, Anne Joret, were tailors. Hence we can see, for example, how Maurice-Quentin was related to the Raphaël Joret, tailleur, described as a cousin in his will, a statement which had mystified us until now (Anne’s brother François Joret moved to Beaune and, despite having raised himself to the level of “grammarien, écrivain et arithméticien” married into another family of tailors called Terrion; their son Raphaël stuck to the trade). From Reine’s parents’ marriage we see that she had an uncle, also a tapissier, who lived in Saint-Quentin. While barely legible, his name is Charles; and he was evidently the godfather of the pastellist’s brother Charles, baptised at Saint-Quentin (Saint-Jacques) 14 avril 1702.
All three towns were not far apart (about 50 km) by today’s standards, but distant enough for the connection to be possibly significant. Noyon also perhaps provides a clue to another puzzle. The pastellist’s own baptismal entry is well known (the Goncourts printed the transcription first provided by Desmaze; it was reprinted in B&W, and so is in Times Roman print in my table; there is a facsimile in Debrie), but nothing is said about his godparents:
son parrain, Me Maurice Mégniol; la marraine, Damelle Marie Meniolle, épouse de noble homme Mr Jean Boutillier l’aîné, ancien mayeur de [Saint-Quentin]
I provided a gloss on Boutillier, a marchand drapier, mayeur en 1682, anobli par lettres patentes de juin 1696; but did not until now make the link with the Maurice Méniolle (c.1685-1761), bourgeois de Noyon who was a member of an influential family with links in both towns.
Another document shows that Reine’s sister Anne married just a few months later in 1699; her husband, Joseph Callais, from Aumale, near Rouen, was greffier et receveur de l’évêché et comté de Noyon; their son became receveur général des aides au département de Charly, thus illustrating a pattern of ascension which was not uncommon in the ancien régime.
None of these documents has the significance of say the apprenticeship deed published by François Marandet in 2002, but cumulatively they contribute to a picture of the artist’s social situation – and reveal just how far his extraordinary genius took him. But it is I think of interest to learn just how deeply La Tour was connected with the world of tapissiers and tailleurs (just as, you will recall, Perronneau and other pastellists were brought up among perruquiers; the greatest French portraitist of the previous century, Hyacinthe Rigaud, was the son of a tailor): he was surrounded from birth by textiles and patterns in an age when people spent a vast percentage of their means on clothing (and wardrobe items were listed in detail in estate inventories), and this must have influenced his eye.
Some of my transcriptions contain errors for reasons which will be obvious from the images above: I shall of course be grateful for corrections, and also for any further documents which relate to La Tour or his pictures. Actually let me rephrase that: I shall be genuinely pleased to be told of the mistakes in my clumsy attempts to render these documents into something a computer can cope with, and I shall be thrilled if anyone can direct me to what I’ve missed. There must be invoices and bills and other material out there which I’m not going to come across without your help, and I hope the sight of these examples will make you share my enthusiasm for gathering them together.
You’ve probably seen in the newspapers various calls for the law to be changed to enable companies to renege on promises to current and pensioners in defined benefit schemes. The idea is that when companies get into difficulties they should be allowed to do a Maxwell and help themselves to the pensioners’ money. It’s disguised to some degree, but your reaction should be the same as to the disgraced publisher. Come to think of it, Gordon Brown’s reputation never really recovered from taxing pension funds’ dividends. But there is a need to scotch this one right now.
The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee is holding an enquiry on Pension Protection Fund and the Pensions Regulator and has invited submissions on this subject to be received by 23 September. So no time to lose. Here is the substance of what I’ve sent in, urging the Committee strongly to resist any changes that would permit companies unilaterally to avoid obligations under DB schemes.
- It is unnecessary to rehearse in detail the background to the current enquiry. Suffice it to say that recent Government and Bank of England policies such as QE have resulted in a financial environment of ultra low interest rates. Despite little if any evidence that these policies are having any of the hoped-for benefits of stimulating growth, they have resulted in artificially inflating the values of equities and real estate, and artificially depressing the yields on debt instruments. The government nevertheless appears set on continuing this policy. This has penalised elderly savers and pension funds who have pursued prudent long term protection with a higher percentage of bonds and cash than those in employment or active trade. Companies which sponsor DB schemes therefore face a requirement to increase their contributions to maintain the schemes.
- Some DB funds are sponsored by companies which themselves face financial difficulties. Astonishingly it is being suggested in the media that they can alleviate these difficulties by altering the terms of their obligations to existing pensioners. Those companies and their shareholders are of course those who have most benefited from the artificially low interest rate environment.
- Most of these suggestions surround the idea of replacing an RPI uplift obligation with one linked to CPI. This trades off the cognitive error that pensioners may make in failing to understand the precise cost of that. But just because the numbers are variable and uncertain does not change the fact that this is a transfer of wealth from the pensioners to the company (indeed the benefit shown in the companies’ accounts of a reduction in the estimated liability is of course precisely the estimated appropriation from the pensioners). The uncertainty of a future calculation does not alter the fact that such a change would be retrospective, in breach of fundamental constitutional principles.
- Without a change in the law this appropriation is illegal. With a change, it may still be; as it would appear to engage issues under Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is because the imposition even by law of such a penalty on the pensioners can only escape A1/P1 if it is in the “general interest”: it is hard to see why the benefit of the company’s shareholders is a more general interest than those of the pensioners. No doubt this can be argued either way; but expect challenges to be made.
- But even if the law could be amended to permit such a change, how could it possibly be seen as fair to do so?
- There are many good reasons of public policy why pensioners should enjoy greater protection than shareholders. (The Committee will hardly need to be reminded of the special public outrage associated with theft from pension funds.) Pensioners are retired, have based decisions on reasonable expectations and are unable to take action to remedy their finances, while active companies can (indeed that is what Government policies are supposed to achieve).
- There is a particular irony here for those of us (I am one) who held with-profits policies in Equitable Life. That company promised uplifts in a different class of product it had also sold which it turned out it could not afford. The with-profits policyholders were effectively in the shoes of the shareholders, and would have benefited had the courts decided to release Equitable Life from the obligations. This did not happen. Nor were we bailed out by the tax-payer or compensated for the failings of the regulators for allowing the problem to grow. Instead we lost money. Now we are on the other side with legitimate expectations from our DB pensions which are also threatened.
- This is not to deny that there are issues for sponsors of DB funds. But there are I believe quite different responses to be pursued.
- Firstly the Government and Bank of England should recognise that this damage is their doing, and that the policies should now be reversed.
- Secondly we should ask whether companies should ever be allowed to sponsor pension schemes. For the reasons set out above, the risks to the pensioners from company default are too high, and I would argue that pension obligations should be underwritten by government or at least divorced from sponsoring companies.
I was very much looking forward to this exhibition which is now on at the British Museum until January. There are as you would expect some wonderful sheets which justify a visit (or many). You might remember the excellent 2005–6 show of the BM’s French Drawings: Clouet to Seurat held first at the Met in New York, with a beautiful catalogue by Perrin Stein, which set expectations at a very high level indeed, but of course the scope of that was broader than portraiture. But the new exhibition raises some questions which puzzle: about the BM’s holdings, about the presentation of drawings in exhibitions, and about what an exhibition actually is, as opposed to a group of drawings on show.
The website tells us that the drawings are “selected from the Museum’s unparalleled collection”: the BM drawings collection is of course unquestionably world class in many ways, but as this exhibition demonstrates, its holdings of French portrait drawings are not in the league of say the Louvre.
In the exhibition’s favour is a coherent theme and manageable size. Some 47 drawings are included, which I think is a far better number than so many exhibitions where one is exhausted half way through. The focus on portraiture, rather than drawing in general, is not restrictive in period: “from Clouet to Courbet” is both alliterative and prosodic, but short-changes the show by half a century: the exquisite drawing by Émile Friant, above, dates from 1900, and is one of the unexpected delights. And I welcome the curator’s chronological arrangement, although several labels caused some tut-tutting: not simply because of the their inexact placement among the objects, but because some pictures (such as the curious Debucourt, which is decidedly dix-huitième) seem to be in the wrong grouping. The most alarming gear-change was the juxtaposition of the 1793 Isabey sheet (surely drawing its inspiration from French artists such as J A M Lemoine rather than Gainsborough or Reynolds) with one by Marcellin Desboutin, separated by a few inches of space, and a century of time.
I can see how this happened, which brings me to one of the problems at the heart of this show: Room 90 itself. The display cabinets which occupy three sides impose the severest constraints on the curator. They separate the viewer from the drawings (what a delight when we finally get to see the four Carmontelles which are framed and hung vertically on the fourth wall, with no physical barrier – and provide both colour and a partial antidote to the rococo vacuum I mention above), and they create impossible lighting problems. The extremely low light levels I found made it impossible to examine the drawings properly. I understand the need for conservation, but I’d rather the show were properly lit and ran for one month rather than five when I can’t see it properly. And I’d suggest that an evening for pensioners with stronger lighting would be a simple but real contribution to disability inclusion.
But the lighting problems are not just about levels: the dazzling reflections are probably an insoluble consequence of the display cases. The horizontal tables in the middle of the room are no better: the shine of the graphite on the Nanteuils is inescapable.
The cases reflect a type of thinking about display which I believe is outdated and in need of reconsideration. It is of course unlikely that any decorative arrangement (or even choice of typeface for wall texts and labels) will be equally suited to both Maggi Hambling and old master drawings. By pinning mounted but unframed sheets to inclined interiors of fixed cabinets the Museum not only economises on exhibition costs, but complies with its own I suspect deeply held conviction that drawings belong in boxes of uniform sizes like stamp collections. Once acquired they are to be removed from frames and given severe, off-white museum board mounts (fortunately this hasn’t been done to the Isabey). Nothing could be more antithetical to the Rococo in particular.
That brings me to perhaps the greatest weakness in the exhibition. Half-way along the south wall we reach (c.1720) two lovely Watteau drawings (one surely isn’t a portrait, but I only make that point because a glaring omission, on precisely those grounds, is the BM’s fabulous Lemoyne pastel, the star of the 2005 show), and then, only one sheet in between, we reach a Trinquesse sanguine counterproof from c.1770. (Before I get taken too far away by that question, let me note that the rest of the show has some fantastic nineteenth-century drawings: for example, the superb Lafitte sheet, overshadowed only by its neighbour, Ingres’s portrait of Sir John Hay and his sister. It steals the show, even though I’m not sure that either sibling is actually carrying flowers as the label states: they sport them – attached to their clothing – as the collection database correctly has.)
Virtually the entire reign of Louis XV is represented by that sheet. And it is not by Boucher, Chardin, Greuze, Fragonard, La Tour, Coypel, Portail, Saint-Aubin, Van Loo or the many other great French draughtsmen of the Rococo who are simply not represented in the show at all. Nor (in my opinion) is it by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau despite it being labelled as such. It is a weak, not terribly well preserved portrait drawing which we are told was “probably” made “as a preliminary sitting for a pastel portrait.” But that isn’t how Perronneau worked, and that should have raised alarm bells. The drawing was bought in 1927 no doubt as by Perronneau, and presumably this hasn’t been thought about since. But (although not cited in the BM online catalogue) I think it is probably the sheet that was mentioned in the old Perronneau catalogue raisonné by Vaillat & Ratouis de Limay, where a footnote on p.81 of the first 1909 edition states: “Le portrait au crayon noir et à la pierre d’Italie de la collection de M. Wauters, est un peu endommagé; on n’en peut juger qu’imparfaitement.” But in the 1923 edition the note and any reference to the drawing is omitted, nor does it appear in Dominque d’Arnoult’s 2014 catalogue as far as I can see.
Which brings me to the third issue. The show is uncatalogued. Seven of the sheets were in the 2005 exhibition, and their exemplary catalogue entries are worth rereading. Of course I understand fully why the economics of book production prohibit printing a catalogue to the BM’s high production standards, but there are plenty of simple, virtually costless things that could be done with the website. A straightforward listing of all the exhibits, including the label texts with links to the BM’s online collections database, would be an enormous step forward (have I simply missed it?) – although some of those entries could usefully be improved.
The pedant in me (never far from the surface in any lexicographer) is tempted to list points that will interest no one else – for example the charming Cochin portrait of Chardin, juxtaposed with its print, properly identifying the subject as “Jean Siméon Chardin”: but underneath the curator labels it “Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin”: thus “on l’a souvent prénommé à tort” as Pierre Rosenberg noted in his 1979 Chardin exhibition catalogue.
But what really would be helpful is more about the drawings. The descriptions of media, for example, could be considerably expanded: how the early Clouet portraits achieved such a range of colour using only black and white chalk is a fascinating topic – and would perhaps merit a technical display in one of the mid-room cabinets that would seem to me rather more relevant than some of the coins, medals and other objects chosen from other BM departments whose links with the show seemed at best tangential. (No doubt some quiz programme could stump most people by asking: where do you find Marie-Antoinette and Franz Liszt together and why?)
But let me take just one example to illustrate how I think a little more information could enhance our enjoyment of these drawings. There is a fine plumbago drawing by Nanteuil of Rollin Burin de La Grange. The caption tells us:
This preparatory drawing for a print dates from only three years after [Nanteuil’s] arrival in Paris, but shows that he was already working for some of the most powerful men in France. Rolin Burin was Grand Audiencier, the chief official of the chancery, who was responsible for reviewing petitions, appointments and permissions before passing them on to the King. Yet Nanteuil represents Burin without any attributes of his high status, instead creating a warm and affable portrait of his sitter.
The collections database credits a researcher with identifying the entry for the sitter in d’Hozier (I’m not quite sure how Audrey Adamczak missed this in her catalogue raisonné where the drawing appears as no. 23, although her book is ignored by the BM database), and transcribes the inscription as “forori Amantissime Rol. Burin/ D.D. Dicat[qz?]./ 1650.” (sic, at the time of writing this post: I hope it will be changed by the time you read it).
But there are numerous things these entries don’t explain. It is unimportant that there were several grands audienciers, or that they presented documents to the chancelier, not the king, or even that Nanteuil portrayed most of his sitters without the trappings of high office (unless they had the Saint-Esprit, whose inclusion was mandatory) – since at the date this portrait was done, Burin wasn’t a grand audiencier, or even a secrétaire du roi. Those offices were acquired later, with the funds he continued to embezzle from the offices he did hold, those of maître des courriers de la généralité de Bretagne et du bureau général des dépêches de la poste de Paris. In breach of repeated judicial decrees, Burin notoriously charged money for private use of the royal postal service.
This drawing was not (as far as we know) engraved, or intended to be such. It was a presentation drawing. The explanation (and for me a good part of the delight in the sheet) rests in the faultily transcribed inscription: for it is dedicated to Burin’s dearest sister [sorori, not forori; D D Dicatq with a terminal squiggle, not a z, stands for Dat, donat, dicatque, or sometimes Donum dat, dicatque with essentially the same meaning: Rol. Burin gives, presents and dedicates to his most beloved sister]. And there were two sisters (although I think Hilliard Goldfarb is mistaken in translating sorori in the plural: each dedication is just to one of them): there is a second, identical drawing, perhaps in slightly better condition, with exactly the same inscription, in the Horvitz collection in Boston. This is what an exhibition should tell us, whether in a label or by a link. Otherwise our engagement with these extraordinary, beautiful objects is liable to be superficial.
Postscript – 29 September 2016
If you’re reading this post now, to avoid confusion, I should explain that a number of the labels and collections database entries have now been changed. My post refers to those displayed at the opening of the show.
If you share my interest in Perronneau’s work, and have been driven to read his few surviving letters to glean more of his personality – or better still, have read the monumental and immensely thorough monograph by Dominique d’Arnoult which came out at the end of 2014, you will perhaps have wondered about his poor wife, née Louise-Charlotte Aubert (1741–1817). His long absences and her frequent illnesses will be familiar – although perhaps the former precluded the frequent pregnancies that most married women of this period will have endured. In fact we know only of three children: Jeanne-Sophie, born in 1756 and died soon after; Alexandre-Joseph-Urbain (1766–1831) and Henri-Louis (1773–1812). You will also know that Louise-Charlotte was much younger than the pastellist: a mere 13 when they married (he was it seems 38), and only 42 when he died. (Her age is also a little uncertain, inferred from that given in the partage des biens of her father; while the age given on her death certificate in 1817 suggests she could have been a couple of years older. That however is difficult in view of her parents’ marriage.) So it is no great surprise that she remarried, or that her second husband was a painter – one Jean-Baptiste-Claude Robin (1734–1818), who d’Arnoult suggests may have been Perronneau’s pupil for portraiture, and who she argues justly was closely connected with the family. Personally I can’t say I warm greatly to Robin, either in his painting (which seems to me to show little influence from Perronneau) or his art criticism (which feels rather pompous, as you might expect from a censeur royal); but I hope he was nicer in person.
But when did this happen? An old study on Robin, by Charles Marionneau (1894), states that the marriage took place in 1796, when Robin had retired to his château at La Pigeonnière, Chailles (near Blois), although a quick perusal of the parish records does not confirm this. Indeed d’Arnoult cites what seems to be a complete rebuttal: the marriage contract, executed in Paris on 13 février 1784 (AN MC CXIX/474); and other documents seem to confirm they were married then.
But this is not the whole story. In among the files of Dispenses de consanguinité (to which I have already alluded) is a curious, and rather sad, document suggesting that they were stopped at the altar. For the very next day after the marriage contract, they appeared before church officials to obtain a dispensation they had obviously overlooked (and one I confess in my ignorance of Catholic doctrine I too didn’t realise was required): a dispense d’Affinité spirituelle.
You can find my (rather imperfect) transcription of this document (whose legibility you can assess from the snippet above with the parties’ signatures) in my chronological table of documents relating to Perronneau (pp. 14f; it is AN Z10 183). It is as with so many such documents couched in formulaic, repetitive terms, and involves each of Robin, Louise-Charlotte and their witnesses being interrogated by the Vicar General, a doctor of theology from the Sorbonne, in a catechism to which their answers have clearly been rehearsed. But the essential facts are easily summarised.
The impediment arose because Robin had acted as godfather to one of the Perronneau children (confirming d’Arnoult’s suspicion of a close family relationship). We aren’t told when, but as the child was a boy we can assume it was called at least one of Jean-Baptiste or Claude: and as neither of the recorded children bears this name, this must have been a different, hitherto unknown birth. Such a relationship amounted to a “spiritual affinity” that barred marriage without dispensation.
The proper form of dispensation was to send to Rome, but this had several disadvantages which had carefully to be presented to the Vicar General to allow the matter to be considered instead by the Archbishop of Paris. First, the costs of going to Rome were obviously substantial: the parties accordingly pleaded poverty, each stating that “ils sont pauvres ne vivant que de leur travail et industrie et hors d’etat de faire les frais.” Was this strictly correct, in view of the information d’Arnoult has uncovered on the unexpectedly large estate that Perronneau left?
Secondly, and trickier: the urgency and need to get married (often with other dispensation cases this involved pregnancy). Here the argument was that “ils se sont promis la foi de mariage et qu’ils se recherchent et frequentent dans cette vue depuis deux mois environ en sorte que si leur mariage ne pouvoit eté celebre il pourroit s’elever des bruits nuisibles à leur reputations.” (A curiosity here is how they each responded to the question of their residence: for Louise Charlotte, this was “à Paris rue des Bernardins paroisse de St Nicolas du Chardonnet”, while Robin answered “à Paris cloître des Bernardins paroisse &c.”: was this the same house, which they seem to have bought outright the following year, from the daughter of the marquis du Breuil – see the document cited on p.15 of my table?)
A further argument they deployed was based on the two young children Louise-Charlotte had to bring up on her own “auxquels elle ne pouvait donner l’education convenable pour les faire reussir au mettier de peinture dans lequel s’est distingué leur pere et que led. suppliant professe”: so she was determined that both should become painters. (One did; the other became a printer. Did his step-father influence this?)
There followed the usual formula concerning any other impediments; had the man “forced or seduced” the woman’s consent; and did they both profess the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion (here the clerk’s abbreviations become so perfunctory that one detects a whiff of Gallicanism).
As so often with these documents, it is the witnesses who can tell us so much more about the social standing of the parties than the stereotyped formulae. One imagines they were there for a wedding. Chief among them (and leading the oath) was Robin’s brother, Joseph-Pierre, a priest and curate of Cingueux who had travelled up for the event: was he the objector? The others were all humble: a bourgeois de Paris; a tourneur-machiniste and a maître cordonnier.
Was the dispensation forthcoming? Did the church wedding take place immediately, or was Marrionneau right after all? Were there any damaging rumours?
I don’t know. It probably doesn’t matter to us; but I suspect it mattered to Louise-Charlotte, whose portrait above you will remember was “mislaid” by her first husband in Orléans in 1766.
While researching the work of Jean-Baptiste Perronneau one might be excused for not looking in the reserves of a museum in Lisbon (where I found the curious work I described a year ago in this post), or for not examining unpublished material in Bedford Archives where he isn’t even named. But it was there that I recently came across this further clue to the pastellist’s activities in Spain – in the correspondence of Lord Grantham’s brother Frederick “Fritz” Robinson to his sister Anne, writing from Madrid on 6 February 1775:
We have a French painter in Crayons lately arrived here, he is much cryd up by the Embassador, but I have not seen any of his performances, which are a much surer test of a Frenchman’s merit than the opinion of his countrymen.
When I first saw this, I assumed the reference might be to Pillement, although Gordon-Smith does not mention him as in Madrid that year. He was there, however, as we learn from a later letter from Fritz to his sister (15 July 1775): “M. Pillement has come to try his fortune in Spain after a year in Portugal”; Fritz added that he may be disappointed, noting however that his landscapes in crayons are beautiful. But Pillement can’t be the pastellist who arrived in February, as Fritz had seen none of that artist’s work, while he knew Pillement well: in a letter of 18 September 1763 to his brother, he reported that he had seen drawings by Pillement “some sold very cheap.”
If the February 1775 letter does indeed refer to Perronneau, it puts him on the scene even earlier than that pastel from last year’s blog. The French ambassador in Madrid was Pierre Paul, marquis d’Ossun; his secretary was the French painter Charles de La Traverse (1725–1787), a former pupil of Boucher, who had been in Madrid for some years. It is clear that the Paris–Madrid axis was of considerable interest for artists.
But these links have not always been correctly reported, and my recent review threw up a number of further examples.
I had for some time been suspicious of the curious coincidence that a Spanish pastellist called Faraona María Magdalena Olivieri (supposedly the daughter of the Italian sculptor working in Madrid Giovan Dominico Olivieri, and wife of the architect Jacques Marquet; she was admitted to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in 1759) should share exactly the same forenames (Faronne-Marie-Madeleine) as the wife of the painter Michel-Barthélemy Ollivier: I wondered if there was some family connection – until I realised that this was simply a confusion, and that she was not the daughter of G. D. Olivieri at all, despite the multiplicity of recent academic references which asserted this. I wish I could claim credit for this discovery, but actually it had been published by Alisa Luxenberg in an article printed in a 1996 exhibition catalogue that seems to have been completely overlooked. This is a shame, because her work is evidently of considerable quality, as her very French self-portrait in the Madrid Academia demonstrates:
For some of us thinking of Franco-Spanish links brings to mind Philip V or Saint-Simon’s embassy. Others perhaps will think of the Barber of Seville and Beaumarchais. I won’t reproduce the pastel said to be of him, as it surely isn’t, and anyway Nattier’s painting is so much better. You will of course know that he was a clockmaker, and you may even know that his family name was Caron (“Beaumarchais” was made up, not purchased like most French names): but you may not know (unless you are a specialist) that he went to Spain to protect the honour of one of his sisters, Lisette, who was jilted not once, but thrice by a Spanish official named José Clavijo y Fajardo. The story is far too complicated to summarise (you can read Goethe’s 1774 play if you have an appetite for that sort of thing, but it’s not historically accurate): but the girl had gone to Spain in the first place as companion to her elder sister, Marie-Josèphe.
Historians of art and literature seem to have failed to connect this sister with the “Doña María Josefa Carrón” who was appointed académica de mérito at the Academia de San Fernando in 1761, just two years after Faronne Ollivier; her morceau de réception was a pastel of an architect and professor at the academy. Born in 1725 (seven years before her famous brother), Marie-Josèphe Caron married a French architect, Louis Guilbert, in Paris in 1748. They settled in Madrid when he was appointed architecte du roi d’Espagne. While her younger sister was getting into trouble, she was running a fashion shop. Her husband however went mad and died. In 1772 she returned to Paris, penniless, and relied upon her brother for support until her death in 1784.
Beaumarchais, you will recall, acquired a reputation for supporting the underdog, just like Voltaire. Indeed you will probably know of Beaumarchais’s project to publish Voltaire’s complete works. But you won’t I think know of a more obscure connection which I discovered recently while delving through the archives but which I think has eluded Beaumarchais and Voltaire scholars hitherto. Among the dustier files that are now accessible for those with the patience to decipher the writing are the wonderfully curious “dispenses de consanguinité” granted when people wanted to marry their cousins. This happened in 1733 when a certain Pierre Caron, orfèvre, lapidaire-joaillier, quai des Morfondus was granted the dispensation necessary to marry his second cousin, Madeleine-Suzanne Longelet. From the brief pedigree recorded by the notary on the document:
it is possible to connect up the various parts of the Caron genealogy, which you can find here, here and here, on my site. Madeleine-Suzanne Longelet’s great-uncle was Isaac Thuret, horloger du roi (see my article on the Vivien pastel), while Pierre was a first cousin of Beaumarchais’s father André-Charles Caron (who converted to Catholicism: the family had been Protestant, which almost certainly explains the difficulty in reassembling their genealogy). Pierre’s business included several boutiques on the quai des Morfondus or de l’Horloge (its alternative name).
This address is the key to two remaining pieces in the jigsaw puzzle. One is a second Caron pastellist: Marie-Josèphe’s cousin, Susanne Caron. She is mentioned in an article in Mme de Beaumer’s Journal des dames (iii, .xi.1761, p. 191):
That success, it must be admitted, was modest: she went on to The Netherlands, where she copied Liotard, and is best known for a chalk portrait of Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican patriot who inspired James Boswell and has a memorial in Westminster Abbey.
At the time that that Mme de Beaumer was writing, the address of “chez M. Caron, quai des Morfondus” was also that of the unfortunate and impecunious Mme Calas (née Anne Rose Cabibel), widow of the executed Protestant cloth merchant falsely accused of murdering their son in Toulouse; she had come to Paris to seek justice with the support of Voltaire. Every aspect of the Calas affair has been rehearsed time and again, but here I think is one more footnote. In even smaller print I can add her age (nowhere given in the extensive literature, at least as far as I could see): she was in fact born in London, on 11 January 1708/9, and baptised in the French church in Spitalfields three weeks later:
If there is name dropping in this post, it is perhaps a reminder that, whatever the limitations on physical transport at the time, the eighteenth century was a small world in which paths from London to Corsica, from Madrid to The Hague crossed in ways that can still surprise and inspire our researches. But it must be conceded that religious intolerance contributed as much to this as Enlightenment values.
While my time might better have been spent at the beach, during the quiet period this summer I’ve taken the opportunity to do some housekeeping on the online Dictionary of pastellists. Many of you won’t notice: that’s a good thing, as radical changes of occasionally used websites are a growing nuisance for us all. A dictionary in which the additions are immediately obvious cannot have been much good in the first place. But while language lexicographers have developed a marketing patter that seems to revolve around the twenty most trivial, irritating or ephemeral neologisms spotted during the year (the latest being something of a damp squib), the art history dictionary-maker (particularly one specialising in times past) has even less opportunity to demonstrate his industry without revealing his prior failings.
We’ll come to some of those later. But first I should explain that I’ve addressed something that’s been niggling me for some time. The entries in the printed dictionary (2006) could be cited by the time-honoured page number. That could be refined to include column and even which image in the column (so p. 339Ci takes you straight to the Getty Liotard of Mountstuart). But the online articles keep being updated, and the layout changes; so unless you have the exact version of my article another author is using you won’t be able to follow the citation. I’ve now dealt with that by introducing individual numbers which will allow them to be identified rapidly. I ought to call them “digital object identifiers” or something equally highfalutin, but you get the idea: they take the form J.123.4567, appear at the start of each entry, and are invariant (once assigned, the numbers won’t change).
The digits are a double decimal system, each element (.artist.pastel) infinitely subdivisible so that new items can be slotted in anywhere – there is no limit to the number of decimal places, and the numbers indicate sequence only (so, for example, J.123.46 follows J.123.455 and precedes J.13.51 – which is by a different artist). Unlike the cardinal integers which typically appear in catalogues raisonnés, this system has no sense of finality or completeness: which is just as well.
These J numbers are readily searchable online using Google or at the search box on the home page of the Dictionary. You can try Googling “J.49.1175”: this should go straight to the Getty Mountstuart (you shouldn’t even need the quotes, but whether you get to the entry in one click depends on how your browser/Acrobat are set up; you should get immediately to the pdf, but may have to reinput the number in the search box within that document). So citation is simple: Dictionary of pastellists online, J.49.1175.
You’ll see the numbers at the start of each entry in discreetly small blue type, to compensate for what some will see as the gross immodesty of the chosen prefix. Believe me reader, I resisted: I needed to find a distinctive letter that people wouldn’t forget, that wasn’t P (too many responses to Google searches for P numbers) or a symbol like ψ, as people can’t type this directly into search boxes (I tried all those first before adopting J numbers).
My penance was rapidly imposed: I thought I could make all the changes automatically with an ingenious macro, but more tedious manual intervention was inevitably required (there is a bug in the interface between Word and Acrobat which neither Microsoft nor Adobe can cure). It doesn’t solve the problem of where the pastels should go, but it does solve the problem of where did I put them.
You’ll see too at the end of each entry a summary of the Dictionary’s view on attribution and identification which hitherto has depended on reporting the views in the literature and noting dissent somewhat cryptically; now the Greek letters (the full explanation is set out in the abbreviations tab) make this clear. I’ve also noted where of interest which pastels I have personally examined in case this affects your confidence in my assessment. These symbols were largely generated automatically from my hidden notes: I have of course seen many more pastels (almost everything for example sold in London since the late 1980s) which are not noted as such. But none of us has ever seen enough.
I’ve also taken the opportunity to update almost every article, mostly with minor but new biographical details. You can check the overall progression by comparing individual articles now online with the original Dictionary, or with the UK Web Archive six-monthly snapshots of the site. As a rough indicator of the expansion of the Dictionary, the 2006 print edition included nearly 600 pages of artist articles (including anonymous articles); laid out continuously in the same format without gaps, the articles online in 2016 would occupy some 2150 pages. (Before you complain, remember my publisher’s advice in 2006: add any more, and the book will be unpublishable in printed form. And reflect on the 80:20 rule: the print edition has most of the important stuff, in far more convenient form.) These files include records of more than 36,000 pastels, of which roughly 16,000 are known at least from photographs. But there is also a great deal more biographical information, often about completely unknown artists: there was never a need for the Dictionary to repeat information about well-known artists who happen to have turned once or twice to pastel, although of course major pastellists get comprehensive coverage, but sometimes entirely new findings about very minor artists will look disproportionate.
Where has this material come from, apart of course from new pastels coming onto the market? There is a rapidly increasing amount of genealogical material accessible online, comprising not only original documents but records of others that would previously have been impossible to find and for which paper copies can now be ordered. The Archives nationales are now better indexed online, although the delays for getting documents copied has increased proportional to the ease of identifying the documents in the first place. A vast number of parish registers outside Paris are now fully digitised. And in England the instant availability of most wills has transformed the work. (Conversely the explosion of amateur genealogy has led to a proliferation of guess-work and fancy that may not always be obvious: but then, as I showed in a recent post, the old standard works were not error-free either.) Of course this mostly relates to minor artists whose entries no one is likely to consult. And each of these “discoveries” will seem of little significance unless you happen to have a particular interest in that artist.
Since there are several hundred such changes in the last update alone, I’m not going to list these individually trivial changes. Thus for example we now know the dates of La Tour pupils like Montjoie or Vernezobre, who sat to him and made pastels. Mlle Navarre has acquired her correct forenames: Antoinette-Geneviève – but only because her brother’s mysterious disappearance triggered notarial attention. Some of Labille-Guiard’s nine pupils emerge (at least partly) out of the darkness: Mlle Frémy, etc.; some, for example Mlle Verrier, now have forenames (Angélique-Louise), while others (including the elusive Jacques-Charles Allais) now have dates. I’ve even had to move Victoire Davril from d’A to D to accord with contemporary documents. Among the stories with a whiff of scandal, see Victoire Clavareau.
With others the inventaires après décès provide a snapshot of their lives. Mlle de Briancourt, for example (who strictly speaking I should have moved to Oyon, but after a life of total obscurity, can I sentence her again to further oblivion?) was, despite her social condition, reduced to painting fans. But the Davesne family, whose potato suppers Vigée Le Brun so cruelly cites as evidence of their penury, were actually rather comfortable: the pastellist had already bought some of the series of pension annuities that figured in his inventaire. Perhaps he was a miser; or perhaps his pupil was once again gilding the story of her own progression. Step by step the artist Léon-Pascal Glain is emerging from the darkness, although I still haven’t found the proof that Vigée Le Brun was godmother to his daughter Louise-Élisabeth born in 1774.
Nor are the discoveries confined to the pastellists themselves. Much of the story of their interconnections is revealed only in the genealogies, to which I’ve added more (but still incomplete) hyperlinks. The sections on collectors and that on inventors, suppliers &c. (which didn’t appear at all in the 2006 edition) are greatly expanded (I suspect these sections are underused, and have toyed with the idea of integrating them in some way: suggestions welcome). Does it matter that we now (as of last Monday) know Jean-Claude-Gaspard Sireul’s date of birth? (It does of course matter that he was the great patron of François Boucher, whose 1761 pastel of him is above; its authenticity was once questioned, but not by me. It’s J.173.214, if you want more information – although you may need to help Google by putting this in quotes, as it happens to resemble an IP address.) Or a number of other new biographical details which I shall publish in a forthcoming note. You may think this is at many removes from what belongs in a dictionary of pastellists. But is it? It was after all the passion of people like Sireul that led to the creation of these works, and what influenced his taste and trained his eye are I think a proper part of the prosopography of the phenomenon.
All these examples are French, but there are many more from other countries. (I sent a list of last year’s significant English changes to the Oxford DNB which they have so far ignored.) But that’s enough for this post.
My mother would be 100 today – if she hadn’t died 30 years ago. Today she is completely forgotten. I hadn’t intended to write anything until, after our recent referendum, my thoughts turned to how and why the result would have horrified her. I still take up my pen with great reluctance: I may spend my time writing the biographies of artists who are “oubliés ou dédaignés”, but I’ve never regarded my own family as a proper target for research. And anyway a child is the worst possible biographer, open to the most profound biases – and even when conscious of these, prone to overcompensating adjustments. I share neither my mother’s politics nor her view of painting as an intellectual tool, and I have retained none of the materials a biographer would normally draw upon, still less a hidden cache of her work. (I don’t even have a reproducible photograph of her, so the alleged self-portrait above will have to do.) But I am also conscious that she deserved more, and that no one else will do it. And that the story will only illuminate her work if I tell you more than I might otherwise want to.
So here is a brief and flawed account of her life and a few images of her work (mostly from ancient family snaps of lamentable quality that do the œuvre no favours, further filtered by the tendency for an artist’s worst pictures to be those that remain unsold).
Marian Bragg was born in 1916 in south London. Her father came from a Cumberland family with no social pretensions, but with some intellectual credentials: among his cousins (I have never determined the exact degree of consanguinity) were the Bragg father and son who won Nobel prize for their work on x-ray crystallography. Grandfather was however largely self-educated: a product of the late Victorian civil service examination system which secured him a position in the Post Office, and allowed him the leisure to read voraciously. He had complete sets of everything produced by Everyman or Tauchnitz (the Penguins of their day, at a time when people struggled to afford books) – and he had read them all, as one can tell from his autodidact’s annotations. Successive moves after he retired diminished his library as fast as Lear’s retainers, but a few volumes survive. His tastes included English essayists such as Hazlitt and Lamb, as well as writer–artists from Blake to Morris. A lifelong atheist, his ethics were strictly Roundhead. I have before me his Ruskin (the Routledge Universal edition, which is still better produced that many books today), and cannot help but wonder what sort of conversation he might have had with Proust about their mutual hero, seen from such radically different perspectives. But of course they never met.
Marian’s mother was from a similar family, the Collars, and although she died shortly after my mother was born, her widower – Marian’s father – soon after married her sister. There were no other children in the family, but for much of her childhood my mother was brought up with her Collar cousins (first this time), among them another mathematician, Roy Collar – who as Senior Wrangler in Cambridge had got a better degree than William Bragg, and went on to a distinguished career in aeronautics.
Despite this background my mother was not in the least mathematically inclined. From an early age she knew she would be a painter. And so she went to Blackheath School of Art, and then (in October 1935) on to the Slade, where she was trained to draw by Randolph Schwabe. Allan Gwynne-Jones taught her painting, and the legendary figure of Tancred Borenius was in charge of history of art. What sort of work was she doing then? My recollection of some of the student drawings she had kept were that they showed the characteristic assurance of line that remained throughout her work, and that they showed a receptivity to the movements of the day. Here for example are a couple of very early (possibly from Blackheath?) watercolours that come close to Edward Burra – perhaps mixed up with Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (a film which enjoyed considerable popularity in my mother’s circles at the time):
After her diploma in Fine Art (1938) she progressed to the Courtauld to study history of art, where she was taught by Anthony Blunt. At various stages of her career a fascination with old masters – from Jan van Eyck to Rembrandt and Velázquez – emerged into her own painting, though not always obviously (one of the more direct visual quotes will be found below). The influence of some modern masters is more apparent, as you will see from some of the work below. But she always had a blind spot for the French dix-huitième, regarding it as frivolous and unworthy of attention: a view she told me had been instilled in her at the Courtauld, and which she imposed upon me with equal rigour. I bought my first eighteenth century pastel soon after she died: but that is another story. And although Marian read widely I don’t recall Proust appealing to her any more than he did to her father: she would prefer Zola or Dostoyevsky.
Blunt had nothing to do with my mother’s interest in politics. That came not only from her family background, but also from her affair with a man I shall call T, whose parents were important members of the Fabian Society. T was also a Cambridge mathematician, and in the world he (and Blunt) inhabited, left wing ideas were the blindingly obvious necessary response to the growing threat of Fascism. My mother took part in the Battle of Cable Street, and the scenes were permanently etched in her mind as a reminder of the dangers and horrors of right-wing populism. For the rest of her life she would be committed to that struggle, one way or another.
Her painting continued meanwhile. Of course the war dominated everyone’s lives, but there is no doubt that for many – my mother included – the febrile atmosphere was immensely stimulating. With the Blitz came Myra Hess concerts at the National Gallery, and both had a powerful effect on my mother’s imagination. Here’s an architectural study of wartime destruction (1944), with echoes of Graham Sutherland:
I don’t need to spell out the imagery of the straight-edged stone and the molten lead guttering. It was not until much later that she began to incorporate images from the Holocaust into some of her paintings: these are too dark to show here.
Things with T did not however develop as she had expected: they did not marry, but the understanding was broken off abruptly for reasons that must remain secret (but were far from the common story). This left Marian greatly shaken; and soon after she made a hasty and unwise marriage to E. This was in 1940. She didn’t see her husband for the rest of the war, but realised her mistake when he returned in 1947. The following year my half-sister Clare was born. They were living in Devon in 1949 at a time when a strong wave of anti-communism took hold. E lost his job in the civil service; and at a public meeting arranged to seek E’s reinstatement, George Jeffares – bravely or foolishly – spoke in E’s favour, thus revealing his own political affiliations.
This had calamitous consequences. My father-to-be, who was then a lecturer at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth with a promising academic future, was in turn dismissed (the circumstances ensured that he would never again hold proper employment). My mother decided to leave E and run off with George. A divorce ensued: but English family law then was cruel, and Marian was denied access to her daughter for the rest of Clare’s minority. Until recently I neither understood nor even thought about just how painful this must have been for mother and daughter. I can remember once a year Clare was allowed to write to her. But the girl had a deeply troubled childhood, and, despite a level of IQ that promised as much as her brainiest cousins, never realised her potential. I met her only twice, many years later, when eccentricity had developed to an extreme level. Her travels in Afghanistan and Tibet in her youth led to a volume of poetry and, just a few years ago, a play on Radio 4 (in which her part was taken by Harriet Walter) which might have been interesting had I not been furious at what I saw as the misrepresentation of my mother’s role in the account of an understandably unreliable witness.
But back to Devon in 1949, with a lot of people suddenly out of a job and with nowhere to hide. Since my father was Irish, that seemed the only direction to turn; and with a grim inevitability of the choices she had taken, a woman who had been brought up in a vibrant London ended up in the country which she disliked but where she would spend virtually the rest of her life.
But not before one further adventure, which was crucial for the development both of her politics and of her art. In 1952 my parents decided to go to China. The communist revolution had very recently taken place, and this was long before the cultural revolution. My parents saw China as an exciting place with enormous potential, and they were happy to contribute to its reconstruction. My father taught languages while my mother worked with great intensity, capturing everything she could of Chinese culture on canvas and in sketchbook. She painted Chinese buildings and drew an impressive series of Chinese workers and engaged in traditional occupations. Here for example: a craftsmen applying a lacquer, a girl folding laundry and a child in traditional clothing:
Such exquisite drawings reveal just how talented she was, and how successful her work was when its object was direct representation. The politics were confined to the fact of her being there, not what she then put on the sheet.
But after two years it was time to come back – probably the thought of giving birth to me in primitive conditions was a hint. So armed with a portfolio of exotic canvases and drawings she returned to Dublin.
It is impossible to exaggerate just how grim Ireland was in the 1950s. Local colour was no doubt provided by the likes of Brendan Behan, whom my parents knew well; but a culture based on drink, Celtic mysticism and peasant ignorance was dominated by an institution of which my mother had a life-long abhorrence: the Catholic church. In particular, my mother, who was a feminist to her core, objected to their role in the subjugation of woman: by imposing the views of the Catholic hierarchy on all citizens, divorce, abortion and even contraception were illegal in Ireland, and astonishingly have remained so until very recently. Today we read of the scandal of the religiously run Mother and Baby programme, and the appalling treatment meted out to unmarried Irish women whose illegitimate children were the consequences of these laws. But it was my mother who sought to expose this in letters to The Irish Times, which were simply ignored. I think she viewed the hierarchy as equivalent to Mosley, the difference being that they enjoyed the support of 95% of the population.
Meanwhile she continued painting. She had already shown in the annual Irish Exhibition of Living Art (from 1950 on), and from 1957 she was included in the Oireachtas Art Exhibitions, with paintings with titles like “An Bhean i Sráid Sheáin Mhic Dhiarmada” or “Vótaí do Mhná”. These titles must have been provided for her (perhaps by my father) as my mother spoke not a word of Irish: yet this was the language in which her strident feminism had to be described to appear in Dublin’s equivalent of the Royal Academy summer exhibitions.
Her Peking Courtyard was shown at the Leicester Galleries in their 1957 exhibition of Artists of Fame and Promise, alongside work by artists who are now far better known, among them Louis Le Brocquy, Keith Vaughan and Ivon Hitchens:
Soon however she was taken up by one of the leading Dublin dealers, the Ritchie Hendriks Gallery. She held a number of solo exhibitions there (1956, 1958, 1960 &c.), and participated in a group exhibition in San Francisco in 1960: the reviews were largely favourable, if occasionally baffled. For example, The Irish Times critic (December 1960) praised one of her heads:
which “had the sculptural force of a Chinese Buddha achieved by the use of surface tones which suggest stone rather than flesh”, noting that she “pursues her simplified cubist course through a number of landscapes and still lifes”; but then added “surprisingly she makes little concession to the misty atmosphere of Ireland”.
But her work did not sell to a conservative audience that largely wanted just such views of Galway or Connemara.
The difficulty my mother faced – with commendable perseverance – was what she felt as a complete cultural vacuum in Dublin in the visual arts. Most of the practitioners were content to produce exactly what the market wanted; my mother would not do this. She found herself increasingly isolated, and even her closest friend – Anne Yeats – while supporting her in some ways, nevertheless had a quite different idea of what it meant to be a painter (Anne’s uncle Jack, for example, produced paintings which were and remain very popular). It’s easy to see both sides of this, particularly since my mother’s concept of art as part of the class struggle had become bogged down in a version of what can only be described as Socialist Realism. What had worked in China ceased to have any real interest when applied to drab 1950s Dublin.
Curiously the old lady in Sean MacDermott Street (1958) turned up at auction a few years ago (I had never seen it); it’s her Burra-type surrealism recast in the style of Harry Kernoff (an execrable painter who was highly regarded in Dublin at the time), and it’s so bad I’m not going to reproduce it. Most of her work was better than this example.
She turned with some interest to lithography which she practised at the Graphic Studio in Dublin, run by the talented printmaker Patrick Hickey. Here, as an hommage à Picasso, she worked up The Cock in wax crayons, and printed a simpler, less angry version in an edition of 70:
Out of this struggle – in which she drew heavily on inner resources – emerged a more sophisticated art in which the bleaker aspects of modern life, and in particular the predicament of women, emerged:
There are hints perhaps of R. B. Kitaj and Richard Hamilton in some of these canvases:
While she was very familiar with Bacon’s work and admired what he did with Velázquez, she never set out to follow him directly. Rather, taking Piero della Francesca as her model, she recast the Flagellation of Christ in a picture called Two Worlds expressing how she thought women were treated at the time:
Others use the vocabulary of Otto Dix, updated to 1970s Ireland:
Who knows how she might have developed had she still been working in London? She started to exhibit again in the 1970s: again the critical response was more favourable than the market’s. Her final solo show, at the Lincoln Gallery, took place in 1981: it was a broad retrospective including early, transitional and recent canvases. The critic in The Irish Times was not unfair in noting that the middle period work was “intricate ad heavily symbolic with echoes of Rivera-type realism and surrealism”, concluding that this section was “confused and rather laboured.” She was more positive about the new direction shown in “far stronger” recent pieces: a girl looking into a mirror with a blank face, and a man in a dead, featureless room: they “amount to a careful study of anomie”.
The word I have consciously avoided so far is alienation, and if you wanted to pursue the intellectual roots of her world-view, you should start with Antonio Gramsci and his Prison Notebooks. But I think these paintings should be left to speak for themselves: you know the themes by now.
A few years after this last show, a lifetime of smoking and drinking caught up with her, and she died of cancer, just short of her 70th birthday. I don’t know how many marks out of ten she would have given her life, to reduce this account to the lowest type of journalism. She knew she had made bad choices, and had paid the price; but she was never one for the easy path. Whatever you may think of her views, her sincerity was not in question, and you may even feel that there was something noble in her sacrifices. Her background ensured that she would have made the same choices again; events which were not within her control defined a fate which was neither inevitable nor inescapable, but was nevertheless for her unavoidable.
She had lived to see her socialist ideals disintegrate: first as China fell into the darkest abyss; then as Russia too revealed its ugliness by invading Hungary – for which the Left tried to find excuses – and then Czechoslovakia – for which it couldn’t. Although she wasn’t around to see the fall of the Berlin wall, she would by then have welcomed it. She probably thought the world had been rid of fascism as well, and would have regarded that as a fair trade-off (which is why she would have been so distressed by the resurgence of populism today). For much of her early life she would probably have been appalled to learn that her son would give up mathematics and become a merchant banker: but she bore this, when it came, with equanimity.
But she would never have been happy with the developments taken by contemporary art: not so much its vacuity and continued divorce from serious content, although this would not surprise her; but its reduction to trophies for the superwealthy at prices puffed by a small cadre of élite dealers (all artists hate dealers). Many of her attitudes to these developments were echoed in the articles of Brian Sewell (he was 15 years younger), although not of course his views on women artists. Of my mother’s pictures however no one could say (in Reynolds’s phrase) that they “are just what ladies do when they paint for amusement”.
The full horror of Gove’s legacy has yet to strike most people, although what we did on 23 June was so monstrous that many of us remain in shock, unable to work through our feelings on social media in any coherent way. There has however been some excellent journalism in response to the national auto-da-fé, and in such volume that there has seemed little point in adding to it.
One area that is beginning to dawn on people (although in fairness UKIP pointed it out years ago, and I’ve been tweeting about it for some time) is just how disadvantageous to Britain’s position are the terms of the exit procedure under Article 50. The 2 year deadline to the abyss is appallingly asymmetric. It was of course designed thus, to make exit through this procedure highly unattractive. Lord Howe’s remarks about sending in the batsmen with their bats already broken by the team captain come to mind. No wonder Europe has made it clear that they won’t commence negotiations until we invoke Article 50: otherwise we could ensure we have a fair and balanced deal before the fuse is lit – with the walkaway option which many in Europe think we are sensible enough to want up our sleeve.
But one recent initiative, however well intentioned, seems curiously misconceived. A number of different groups of lawyers are seeking to force the House of Commons to vote before Article 50 is invoked. The idea is that the prime minister (contrary to what David Cameron has said) does not have the authority (under the Royal Prerogative) to serve notice under this article for a number of technical reasons which are analysed at great length (perhaps too great length, as certainties rarely require such detailed exposition) in several legal opinions and open letters which are now circulating on social media.
But what are these groups seeking to gain? By forcing the Commons to vote now they hope to have the referendum reversed. Wishful thinking. What politician would dare to participate in a vote to overturn the will of the people only weeks after it was expressed? And while legal steps might compel the Commons to hold a vote, it is hard to see any compelling legal argument as to why that should be a free vote. Which of the Tory leadership hopefuls would dare to suggest that the vote not be whipped – and enforce the new Government policy, which they have all acknowledged must be to execute the will of the people?
The result of this intervention, even if successful, will be to ensure that the Article 50 notice served within a few months is properly lawful.
Here’s a better idea. Let the new PM serve the notice without the vote. Give it two years to see how the negotiation develops. If to our satisfaction, let us take the result. If not (as many of us believe is inevitable), let us then point out that the notice was ultra vires. Hold the Commons vote then (end 2018), by which time the mood in the country will surely have changed so that both law and politics will permit the only way back I can conceive. Europe won’t be happy: but since Article 50 will be deemed not to have been triggered they will have no say in the matter.