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Semper Augustus

Flora-Mallewagen.jpgJust as Gaul is divided in three parts, so now everyone also knows that the EU is founded on four pillars: freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and labour. Although “pillar” hardly seems le mot juste for such dynamic concepts. And one would require a lengthy gloss to discuss whether the fourth component is people or just workers. But while we are all focused on the tension between controlling immigration at the expense of suffering barriers to trade in goods and services, very little attention is being given to capital. That’s partly because virtually none of the UK electorate (and almost none of our MPs) understand the issues, and also because there are widely held misconceptions about capital to which even “experts” haven’t fully adjusted.

The Brexit issues for capital are indeed complicated, but there are some serious questions that are easy to grasp even if the answers aren’t knowable. The fundamental issue relates to how far flows of capital might be restricted. It is perhaps easiest to see this in the context of banking, and specifically the interbank trading which has come to dominate the London business. Essentially (unlike traditional lending or trade-related financial services) this is a zero-sum activity (less staff salaries and bonuses). Profitability depends on finding a loser. If that is a Japanese bank or a German Landesbank, then London benefits (and if the winner is the London branch of an American bank, UK taxpayers will still imagine they are ahead of the game through trickle-down from bonuses being spent or taxed in London). It’s a tradition that goes back to Sir Francis Drake. And when, as regularly happens, the loser is an incompetent UK bank, the UK taxpayer simply bails it out and (through the generosity of the Bank of England, labelled monetary policy) feeds it enough cheap money to stay at the table. Most people have only a dim idea of what is involved (how many understand the reason why savings earn nothing?), and the international dimension allows the picture to remain obscure. Mine was a lone voice in asking the various commissions and enquiries after 2008 to investigate the sources of profit in banking before rearranging the deckchairs with ring-fencing etc.

But suppose all interbank activity were restricted to UK banks trading among themselves, and you could see directly that every penny that Barclays made was paid for by RBS shareholders (that’s us, in case you had forgotten). Isn’t it possible that the penny might finally drop?

Or perhaps not. The stubbornness of stupidity in the face of the clearest evidence is of course the basis of populism – the cynical harnessing of prejudice, ignorance and superstition for the acquisition of power by a politician who should (and often does) know better. Like surfing on waves, it is what happens underneath that matters: and where contrary flows are overwhelmed, the resulting tsunami can have catastrophic effects.

There is a similar effect in stock-market bubbles: misdirection causes enough punters to pursue asset prices – be they equities, houses or tulips – to levels unrelated to fundamental value. That dissociation from reality is exactly what started with Brexit and with Trump. (The efficient markets hypothesis is flawed in exactly the same way as the process of democratic election – even if both ideas may be better than all the others.)

I have no predictions for 2017. There are too many moving parts.

This long pursuit

sibyl_domenichinoEarlier this week I was lucky enough to catch a few minutes of Patrick Malahide’s mellifluous readings from Richard Holmes’s new book, This Long Pursuit. I immediately bought a copy, and can unequivocally recommend it. If you haven’t bought all your Christmas presents yet, it will do for almost anyone, whether grandparent or godchild. Most of all, make sure you buy one for yourself.

Holmes – not to be confused with the military historian – is the author of numerous biographies of figures from the Romantic era. I first came across him through his books on Coleridge (the first volume has a German eighteenth century pastel on the cover) which came out in 1989. All his books are intelligent, informative and highly readable, and this can be taken as a kind of anthology of some of the most fascinating passages in his writing (although in fact it is far more than that, being rather an exercise in metabiography). It is the perfect way to wean the public off the diet of biography as served today on innumerable television documentaries, where great lives are reduced to three-minute snippets containing an ambitious puff and a funny anecdote. If the producer permits another three minutes, it is given to another “expert” to repeat the formula: analysis or thought are banished without mercy, as one mustn’t frighten the horses. Instead the television documentary is dominated by the presenter who must be given an absurdly exaggerated attribute of the kind that used to be the preserve of the fictional detective: the Meerschaum can now resurface as a panama hat, a pair of hyperactive shoes or a suitcase (let us not mention the lady who cannot resist dressing up), each to dominate the screen to the exclusion of the subject matter – which is further squashed by the constant intrusion of inappropriate music.

So there should be a ready market for the six-hundred-pager. And Holmes, the arch-professional in his field, knows better than anyone how to do this properly. Foremost among his trade secrets – the rules for biography which he shares with us, making this book so compelling for those of us who labour at the same cliff faces – is the avoidance of the first person pronoun. But if the trick of the biographer is to gain your trust and get you to think that their account is the objective truth, this book is at its most brilliant in showing just what that can mean in different hands. Comparative biography even becomes an academic discipline in itself: the forensic analysis of earlier biographers’ approaches yields insights time and again that I won’t spoil.

Meticulous accuracy is another of Holmes’s hallmarks: woe betide the biographer whose unsure command of his facts undermines your confidence in his research. I came across only a handful of trivial errors, all in the chapter on Mme de Staël where perhaps Holmes’s footing is less secure: Goodden, one of de Staël’s recent biographers, has two ds; Chateaubriand has no circumflex (however tempted we may be to add one, as it “looks” right). More worryingly, Holmes responds to the common bafflement as to how his subject’s name is to be pronounced by telling us it is “style” – perhaps that too “sounds” right, but (in France, at least) it should be “[stal]”.

Holmes’s eye is surer, and there is a strong visual sense throughout. I don’t just mean his focus on Mme de Staël’s famous turbans (instead of thinking about Domenichino’s Sibyl, I couldn’t help wondering whether they had influenced Camilla Batmanghelidjh). Several of his subjects are artists, and two versions of La Tour’s pastel of Belle de Zuylen are reproduced in the context of a discussion of Geoffrey Scott’s biography of her. As for the claim that Sir Thomas Lawrence was producing pastel portraits at the age of five, that belongs perhaps more to the rainbow area than the granite in Virginia Woolf’s opposition between the facts that biographers need to balance against their tendency to flights of literary fancy.

Holmes favours the “footsteps” approach, visiting every physical location associated with his subject, and writes grippingly of what this means – or doesn’t mean, as in his encounter with Coleridge’s initials in a cave. Too often the biographer has been denied this luxury by the bulldozer. Even ardent Supreme Court groupies, who recently latched onto the rare moment of comic relief afforded by the discussion over the pronunciation of the name of a case on royal prerogative, will have been unable to visit Sir Polydor De Keyser’s Royal Hotel as it has been replaced by Unilever’s headquarters. But recent academic art history has usefully turned to the study of artists’ objects as a peg for biography, as for example Hannah Williams’s analysis of Lemoyne’s sword.

Of course Holmes, as a professional biographer, must choose his subjects with care if he is to make a living out of his trade. Statesmen, soldiers and writers have always been grist to the biographer’s mill; more recently the market for studies of neglected women has taken off. But even then there needs to be enough material to work on, particularly if they are to be the subject of a metabiographical analysis.

Holmes has little to say about the plight of the lexicographer, condemned to work with far less (sometimes no) information about his subjects. Here there are no choices to be made: any snippet, however trivial, must go in, in case something can be attached to it by future generations. Instead of reviewing forty recordings of a Beethoven symphony, we might have only a couple of bars scribbled on a torn sheet of paper to work with. And in place of reams of analysis from previous biographers, endless boxes of correspondence from which to select a phrase that provides an insight into our subject’s personality, a biographer of obscure portraitists often has little more to go on than a list of names of customers. Some painters may have been close to some of their subjects – I suspect such claims are often inflated by art historians and dealers anxious to puff spurious life into second rate canvases – but for the most part I think the relationship is frequently superficial. How much would you know about me if you could only talk to my tailor? (No one has a valet nowadays.) My dentist might have a few harder facts, but only extreme personalities (usually defective ones) leave useful records at this level: biography cannot depend on the discovery of petrosomatoglyphs.

So it can be tempting to retreat into the position that an artist requires no biographical study: the work must speak for itself. I don’t believe that; and however imperfectly we go about, and however deficient the ingredients at our disposal, Holmes’s book (and his whole œuvre) shows us just why this pursuit matters. An example to us all.

Jean-Claude-Gaspard Sireul (1713–1781)

SireulThis post was first published on 11 November 2016, with a fuller version (including a transcription of Sireul’s collection) being available on my website.[1]

Ever since the appearance of his collection in the posthumous sale at the Hôtel de Bullion on 3 December 1781 and subsequent days, the Cabinet de M. de Sireul [sic] has been the object of veneration for old master drawings specialists.[2] His special relationship with François Boucher – whose name appears in the first line of the avant-propos to the catalogue – ensured that Sireul not only received “une place entre les Amateurs passionnés & instruits” but would be forever associated with that artist, his cabinet being “le porte-feuille de M. Boucher”. While Boucher was working, Sireul “passoit des heures entieres à voir la toile s’animer sous les crayons heureux de l’Artiste”; after his death, the collector’s devotion became “une passion violante, qu’il satisfaisoit pour ainsi dire aux dépens de sa propre aisance.” His name is recorded as a purchaser in public sales of the time from 1767,[3] and he was still buying until a few months before his death.

All of this is well known, and in almost every book on Boucher or on collecting in the Ancien Régime Sireul’s name will appear, albeit with various spellings. Alastair Laing’s article in Grove and his discussion of Sireul in his catalogue for the 2003 Boucher drawings exhibition[4] have more recently been supplemented by an article by (the aptly christened) Jean-Claude Boyer entitled “Qui était Sireul?”[5] This concentrated on his art criticism and other ephemera but made little advance on the basic biographical details that have been known since 1781: that he had died that year, and had been a valet de chambre du roi. Both articles mention a document acquired in 2002 by the Fondation Custodia which was effectively his inventaire après décès; technically it was the “Liquidation des reprises, droits et créances de la Dame Sireul contre la succession de son mari”, and is referred to below as the Liquidation.[6]

Since its appearance at auction in 1988 a fine pastel[7] by Boucher of his friend has been known (reproduced above), but less attention has been given to the Carmontelle drawing of him (see below). All sources continue to print a variety of guesses for his date of birth, usually between 1720 and 1730, and all simply inferred from his appearance in the Boucher pastel (1761), signed on the mount.

The question of his age can be answered very easily, by reference to the État civil reconstitué: Jean-Claude-Gaspard Sireul was born in Paris on 13 February 1713, and baptised at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois. The remaining biographical facts in this note have been assembled from a wide variety of sources including inventaires après décès, registres de clôtures d’inventaires, registres de tutelles and other notarial documents in the Archives nationales as well as parish records for a number of towns.[8] They have been found by following Sireul’s links with the network of families of marchand merciers and similar trades, many associated with royal service.

A widespread confusion should be cleared up immediately: the office of valet de chambre du roi did not of itself ennoble the holder – although notable families such as the Bontemps were noble, this was through specific royal warrants.[9] Many of the valets de chambre du roi, and similar officers of the Maison du roi, were roturiers, although the valets enjoyed certain fiscal advantages – notably exemption from the droit de franc-fief, the tax that roturiers had to pay if they acquired land that normally belonged to nobles. They also enjoyed the courtesy title of “écuyer”, a suffix which in all other contexts is the clearest indication that the person was noble.[10] In Sireul’s case the notarial documents unanimously give him bourgeois status; they are also unanimous in giving him no particle. Boileau’s title page “M. de Sireul” is simply mistaken. His confusion was not unique: in the 1777 Randon de Boisset catalogue, Pierre Rémy wrote “Les anecdotes suivantes nous ont été données par M. de Sireuil, ami de M. Randon de Boisset pour server d’Avertissement”. The misspelling was widespread (“Sireuil” was a seigneurie held by a noble family to whom Sireul was unrelated).[11]

Sireul’s father was Jean-Baptiste Sireul, recorded in notarial documents as “officier de garde-robe du duc d’Orléans”. In fact he was tailor to the duc, as appears from an insertion in the Nouveau Mercure galant for February 1715 (pp. 298f) under the curious heading “Autre Avis, dont l’usage me paroist assez impracticable”–

Le Sieur Sireul, Valet de Chambre Tailleur de S. A R. Monseigneur le Duc d’Orléans & de Monseigneur le Duc de Chartres, juge à propos de vous apprendre qu’il est l’Auteur des habits ébloüissants de richesses & de diamants que leurs Altesses Royales ont porté le jour de l’Audience de l’Ambassadeur de Perse à Versailles. Il devoit ajoûter à cet avis, qu’il en fait de pareils à juste prix, & vous donner son adresse.

The spectacular reception of Mehmet Riza Beg by Louis XIV on 19 February is commemorated in pictures and in the writings of Montesquieu and Saint-Simon. The king’s outfit was covered in diamonds to a value of 12½ million livres, while the duc d’Orléans wore, according to Saint-Simon, “un habit de velours bleu brodé en mosaïque, tout chamarré de perles et de diamants, qui remporta le prix de la parure et du bon goût”.[12] Saint-Simon also tells us that Coypel was placed near the throne to record the ceremony, but the picture of which there is a version at Versailles seems neither to confirm the description of the outfits nor to be by Coypel:[13]


The ambassador stayed with Alexandre Bontemps, premier valet de chambre du roi, during his visit.

Jean-Baptiste Sireul died in 1720, survived by his widow, Jeanne-Françoise Landot ( –1742). Her family were linked to marchands épiciers and marchands merciers such as the Cochin and Paris families (not to be confused with the homonyms in art and finance). (Thus, for example, Sireul was connected to another famous collector, Jean-Denis Lempereur, who married a Cochin.[14]) A tuteur, or guardian, was appointed to look after Jean-Claude-Gaspard’s interests: he was Martin Thieriot (1698–1770), marchand drapier, rue Vieille du Temple, another figure occupying the grey area of luxury goods. His younger brother Pierre Thieriot (1701–1777) was a conseiller du roi, contrôleur honoraire des rentes, while his elder brother Claude-Nicolas Thieriot (c.1697–1772) was the impecunious writer and friend of Voltaire. Voltaire’s lengthy correspondence[15] in 1754 concerning the inadequacies of Sireul’s libretto (adapting a poem of Voltaire for the composer Pancrace Royer) is mentioned in Boyer’s 2010 article, but it seems that neither Boyer nor (in his 3 December 1754 letter to Thieriot) Voltaire were aware of Sireul’s previous connection to Thieriot’s brother – although the change in tone in Voltaire’s 19 December 1754 letter suggests that Thieriot had revealed his acquaintance. By 25 January 1755, Royer’s death had resolved the impasse, and Voltaire was able to write more generously of Sireul: “C’est un honnête homme, doux et modèste; de quoi s’avise-t-il d’aller se fourrer dans cette bagare?”

The date of Sireul’s appointment as valet de chambre du roi remains unknown (Voltaire contemptuously called him a “porte-manteau du roi”, a somewhat lower rank in the royal household). It was the premier valet de chambre (confusingly there were four, serving by quarter) who slept at the foot of the king’s bed. Putting up foreign ambassadors was probably not a duty for the valets ordinaires (32 in all, eight serving at a time), but in addition to dressing the king they were expected to have a complete understanding of royal protocol such as who could sit where and on what type of chair: all the minutiae that any reader of Saint-Simon will relish. There were also a number of lesser officers of the Maison du roi, such as perruquiers, tapissiers and even horlogers, who could preface their trade with the phrase “valet de chambre” (as also in the d’Orléans household, where Sireul’s father had been “valet de chambre-tailleur”). A long tradition of royal valets de chambre included draughtsmen such as Jean Perréal, Pierre Dumonstier and Antoine Benoist.

Nor do we know when or why Sireul resigned his charge, except that it must have been after his marriage, in 1742 (see below), but before January 1749, when he published some (not very inspired) verses in the Mercure addressed to the future Premier peintre, Jean-Baptise-Marie Pierre, under the signature (at least it was printed thus) “Par M. Sireüil, ancien Valet-de-Chambre du Roi.”

As noted above, Sireul was married in 1742, the contract[16] making the usual provisions under the Paris customs for communauté des biens for the respective dowries of 10,000 livres from each party, the surplus to remain the property of the party providing it. Sireul’s assets included his charge of valet de chambre du roi.[16a] His wife had the expectations of her own family inheritance and 1200 livres of rents. She was Gabrielle-Louise Hamart, born in Paris, where she was baptised at Saint-Eustache on 12 October 1715. Her name too was frequently misspelt: Louise took the curious step of issuing a notarial document[17] confirming her correct names and attaching a certified copy of her baptismal entry.

Louise’s brother Gabriel Hamart (1708–1786) was receveur général des aides à Pontoise, while their parents were a marchand, also called Gabriel Hamart, and Marie Denos, daughter of a marchand maître tailleur d’habits à Paris. The Hamarts were surely related to the family of senior servants in the Orléans household. Louise’s great-great-grandfather was probably Jean Hamart, contrôleur général de la maison et argenterie de la duchesse d’Orléans, while his wife and sisters were femmes de chambre to Henriette d’Angleterre and to the subsequent duchesses d’Orléans. A footnote in the Correspondence de Bossuet[18] relates how Marie-Madeleine Hamart married the baron de Busca, whom she had assisted to flee following a gaming dispute; but she died on 27 March 1711 not in Versailles as the editors have, but in Triel-sur-Seine. There her unmarried sister was supérieure de la communauté des orphelines established by the duchesse d’Orléans.

One of Louise’s uncles, Jacques Hamart (1681–1767), was for 45 years curé of Toussus-le-Noble. Sireul attended his funeral in 1767, signing the register (as Sireul) where he was recorded as “Jean Claude Gaspard Sireuil ancien valet de chambre du roy, son neveu, bourgeois de Paris”.

Mme Sireul was the subject also of a portrait[19] by Boucher which (unlike the pastel of her husband or the Carmontelles below) was included in the posthumous sale, where it was given an extensive description:

47. Le portrait de Madame de * * * en petit & vu de face. Elle est représentée coîffée en cheveux & en habit de Bergere, ayant le bras droit passé dans une corbeille de fleurs. Le fond du tableau offre un paysage.

Ce Morceau précieux & agréable réunit tous les charmes d’une composition heureuse & d’un pinceau le plus délicat. La plupart des Amateurs n’ignorent pas que ce fut un hommage de l’amitié de M. Boucher pour M. de Sireul. Hauteur 14 pouces, largeur 12 pouces

This was withdrawn at 215 livres (or noted pour mémoire).[21] The description is sufficiently precise to leave no doubt that it relates to an oil, signed and dated 1754 (lower left) and subsequently in the collection of Gabriel Cognaq.[22]


The photograph is too poor to judge whether it is the original, or whether it is a copy of Lot 47 (which, although placed in the pastels section among the Boucher drawings, is not specifically described as a pastel). Ananoff & Wildenstein[23] (1976, no. 427) note a related sanguine counterproof (sold 8 November 1924, as of Mme de Pompadour), while a copy in miniature was offered in London, Phillips, 17 April 2000, Lot 48 (reproduced), accompanied by a free interpretation of the Boucher pastel of Sireul on the reverse (not reproduced).[24] Alastair Laing discusses[25] the matter at length, and concludes that lot 47 was probably a pastel of which the Cognacq painting was a version; in support of this he argues that the background of the canvas is too perfunctory to be described as a landscape. My view is that it would be very unusual to have a more developed landscape in a pastel than in an oil version (particularly in a work on this scale); there is no contemporary record of (or obvious explanation for) the existence of a second version; the word pastel is omitted in the specific description of this lot; and the very small size of the oil, 36×28 cm[26] and its domestic character may simply have induced the auctioneer to include it in the “wrong” section. The description in the Liquidation introduces a further confusion:

A l’égard d’un portrait dessin du même F[ranç]ois Boucher representant le portrait de lad. De Sireul et d’un tableau au pastel representant celui dudit feu sieur son mari, il n’en est point fait de prisée comme portrait de famille et le premier article est seulement tiré pour mémoire

The difference in the terminology reinforces the suggestion that Lot 47 was not in pastel (and also implies that the pastel of Sireul himself was not part of the estate at all). While it might logically be possible that the portrait of Mme Sireul was a “dessin” (in chalk? a study for the oil?) rather than an oil, this is most likely an incorrect reading of the phrase which merely identifies the author as Boucher (consistent with Lot 47’s mention of “pinceau”, an equally treacherous term). But unless the date on the canvas is disputed, Lot 47 cannot have been a pendant to the pastel of Sireul, and was made some seven years before.

The couple’s only recorded child, Denis, was born in Paris on 12 August 1749.[27]

Louise Sireul was evidently a lady of determined character, whether from the wording of her notarial documents,[28] or from the description of her provided by the brilliant lawyer Louis-Eugène Hardouin de La Reynerie who represented the poet Lebrun-Pindare in his divorce action.[29] Ponce-Denis Écouchard Lebrun, dit Lebrun-Pindare (1729–1807), was secrétaire des commandements du prince de Conti (a position not unlike Sireul’s), and in 1759 had married a Marie-Anne de Surcoût. She had an affair with a certain Justinien-Victor Grimod de La Loube,[30] intéressé dans les affaires du roi, and the proceedings depended on how conflicting accounts of events in 1774 were to be weighed up. The Sireuls were on the poet’s side, and Hardouin (who had quite a difficult case, since Lebrun’s own mother and sister sided with the wife’s allegations of cruelty) drew on the testimony of Sireul and his wife (“mais celle-ci surtout”), arguing that–

La dame de Sireuil, par son âge, par ses qualités personnelles, par la considération générale dont elle jouit, est trop supérieure à des inculpations de ce genre pour qu’il soit besoin de l’en justifier.

A rather different picture of the younger Mme Sireul emerges however from the secret contemporary reports sent to the lieutenant de police Nicolas-René Berryer.[31] Thus in a letter of 10 February 1751, we learn that the “dame Sireuil” was “environ 28 ans, assez jolie, de l’esprit, et fait des vers” and that she was the mistress of the chevalier Clément-Ignace de Rességuier (1724–1797), who had just been arrested: indeed “il avait même couché avec elle la veille.” He had met her at one of M. Titon’s dinners, through the abbé Raynal, “ami du chevalier et fort lié avec cette dame.” Rességuier was the target of police interest because of his libellous verses against Mme de Pompadour which resulted in his incarceration in the Bastille and then the château d’If. By 1754 he had been released to exile in Malta (he was a chevalier de Malte and would later become général des galères de l’ordre); agents reported on his efforts to recover certain letters he had written to Mme Sireul, “femme mariée qui fait des vers” (in the context this was not necessarily a compliment). “J’ai appris”, the agent continued,

que M. Sireuil son mari est gentilhomme ordinaire chez le Roi, fils d’un riche tailleur, et que Mme Sireul peut avoir 25 à 26 ans, qu’elle a été très jolie et très piquante. Elle est à présent affligée d’une dartre à la partie secrete.

This is perhaps more than we wanted to know (it is curious that the agent had such an intimate knowledge of her medical condition, but underestimated her age by 13 years), but her frequenting the famous salon of Évrard Titon du Tillet and her close connection to Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, editor of the Correspondance littéraire, provide fascinating clues to her social life. Titon’s personal conduct was notorious, and according to Barbier led to his resignation from the Grand’Chambre, since “il vit dans une petite maison sur le rempart dans une débauche publique avec des filles qui sont tous les jours à sa table, ce qui ne convient pas à un magistrat”.[32]

How well had Sireul himself known these major figures? Did Titon du Tillet, author of Le Parnasse françois and himself the subject of a portrait by Largillierre, know Sireul’s Largillierre, of Jean de La Fontaine,[33] the work in his collection singled out for praise in Lebrun’s Almanach of 1777? By the time of the liquidation, however, the attribution had been revised to Rigaud, and the valuation a mere 30 livres.[34] Unlike most of the lots in the sale, however, this exceeded expectations, reaching 130 livres.

We can only speculate whether Louise’s behaviour caused, or was a response to, the long hours her husband spent in Boucher’s studio (the extremely pretty Mme Boucher was her almost exact contemporary), or whether a sense of guilt caused her to testify so clearly in favour of another cuckold, Lebrun-Pindare. Was the unusual commentary added to Lot 47 a hint that the portrait, made in 1754, marked some sort of rapprochement between the Sireuls?

With connections to the Orléans household through his own family as well as his wife’s, it is unsurprising that the Sireul couple were the subject of portraits[35] by Carmontelle (shown below). His is inscribed[36] “en voyant mon portrait, souvenés vous d’un Pere qui vous aime”; their son Denis must have been the dedicatee (the picture did not appear in the 1781 sale or liquidation, perhaps because it already have belonged to Denis). The second Carmontelle, of Mme Sireul, is now in the Morgan Library.[37] Evidently it shows a much older lady than the Boucher portrait, but once again in a landscape setting.

These portraits must date to around the same period when Sireul was involved with a Compagnie pour la réception des rentes à Paris. The original idea, floated by Silhouette in 1760, was to create some 60 new receveurs des rentes, but this was vigorously opposed by the Parlement de Paris. The story is confused by the existence of several rival operations and by a succession of royal decrees concerning the monopolies required. The purpose was to convert rental streams which were in arrears or in default into guaranteed payments. A certain Jean-Bernard Basset issued various notices, for example in L’Année littéraire, 1760, pp. 60ff, describing the project, which had a capital of 500,000 livres (the phrase “recette des rentes” replaced the “reception” of the printed prospectus). Although not one of the five founder syndics (among whom the most important seems to have been Jacques-Sébastien Prépaud, a Maltese financier supported by the Choiseul family and who died bankrupt after the fall of Choiseul), by 1767 Sireul was one of the eleven associates behind the short-lived enterprise which appeared for several years in the Almanach royal; the circumstances were described in a letter to “M. le Chancelier” written in 1769 by Mme Sireul, inexplicably described as the widow of Sireul.[38] (One wonders whether this adventure was more inimical to “sa propre aisance” than his collecting habit.)

In fact Sireul died[39] on 17 August 1781, in the rue l’Evêque, butte Saint-Roch, the same address as had appeared in the Almanach historique. It was probably the same house, and certainly very close to, that described in the 1751 police report: “rue des Moulins, la première porte cochère à droite, par la rue des Moineaux”. These directions can be followed in Lattré’s street plan of 1775:


The locality, with its modest houses frequented by doctors, writers[40] and other professionals, was probably not much changed from that depicted by Étienne Bouhot in a painting of “Le magasin de l’orfèvrerie de Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot” exhibited[41] in the Salon de 1822, no. 146 (below), or from the photographs taken in the 1860s. (It was demolished later in the nineteenth century to make way for the Avenue de l’Opéra.) From the Liquidation we know that the Sireul’s apartment consisted only of several rooms: the salon, looking out over the rue l’Evêque (could this even be the room with a figure at the balcony over Odiot’s sign?), a dining room, kitchen and bedrooms (for M. and Mme Sireul and for her femme de chambre), all on the second floor of the building, while a domestique had a room on the fourth floor.


Immediately after Sireul’s death, no inventaire après décès was prepared, to save costs. But three weeks later a formal valuation did take place – as set out in the Liquidation (and as envisaged by the 1742 marriage contract) – enabling a division of assets between the parties, Louise and her son Denis. This included an inventory of the household goods (amounting to 5094 livres 8 sols 1 denier) as well as a list of his collection (valued at 14,128 livres) prepared by Boileau, which corresponds broadly with the sale catalogue.[42] Louise exercised her right under the marriage contract to reclaim assets she had contributed (mainly from various legacies[43]) amounting to some 70,600 livres; this she then waived in favour of her son against his undertaking to pay her a smaller capital sum of 40,000 livres and an annual amount of 1200 livres representing her 1742 dowry. The arrangements seem to have been amicable, as Denis waived the need for documentation of the sources of assets which Louise was unable to provide, “l’union intime qui a toujours regné entre elle, son mari et son fils, lui ayant fait negliger passer pardevant notaires les actes au soutien de ces differentes reprises.”

Perhaps it should not surprise us that the inventaire listed Sireul’s clothing in some detail:

Quatre habits de velours doublés en satin, dont deux de couleurs et deux noirs, deux vestes et deux culottes de velours de couleur cizelé ; une veste de satin jeaune brodée en argent, une autre de satin cramoisy brodé en or et soye, deux culottes de velours noir, un habit une veste et une culotte de drap noir, un habit, une veste et une culotte ratine d’hollande mordoré doublé de velours noir, un habit de velours mordoré de printems veste et culotte pareilles ornées de boutons d’or en fil, un vieux habit, la veste et la culotte de tricot de filosel, un habit, veste et culotte de drap gris de fer, usé avec un petit bord d’argent, un vieux habit de petits draps rayé bleu et gris, veste pareille, un habit, sa veste et sa culotte de gourgourau noisette doublé de soye blanche, un autre habit de soye puce, veste et culotte pareille, un habit veste et culotte de camelot gris usé, un habit de moëre noisette, la veste et la culotte pareille, un habit, veste et culotte de voile noir, une robbe et sa veste pour la chambre en vieux satin et fleures, une robbe et veste d’Indienne pour l’été.

These alone were valued at 400 livres, with further amounts for his linen, shoes, hats, wigs etc. (It is curious that the two surviving portraits show him in relatively subdued outfits.) In contrast Louise’s dresses were worth only 120 livres. No books were noted.

After Sireul’s death Louise moved to Saint-Denis to be with their son Denis. By a curious irony the notarial document in which Louise so emphatically corrected the spelling of her own name referred to her recently deceased husband as a “bourgeois de Saint-Denis”, but that description applied to her son (and by then to herself). It was Denis, rather than Louise, who attended the rather lavish funeral in Pontoise of her brother Gabriel in 1786.

By the time of his death in 1799, Denis (described simply as a rentier) had moved back to Paris (where he died in the 9e arrondissement; his mother died the following year, also in Paris, but in the 12e). We can however confirm that he resided in Saint-Denis from the entry in the register of the church of Saint-Martin where, on 18 December 1781 (just a few days after his father’s sale), he married a certain Thérèse-Guillemette Kermorrant. Her story is as complicated and obscure as Sireul’s: she was the illegitimate daughter of a Jacobite soldier, Richard Fermor of Tusmore, capitaine au regiment de Lally, conceived while he was serving at Port-Louis in Brittany.[44]

Their son, Denis-Gabriel Sireul,[45] was born a year later: his baptismal entry, while largely obliterated (Saint-Denis, église Saint-Martin, 22 December 1782), nevertheless has the clear instruction: “Sireul sans i à la fin”.


[1] The version of record may be cited as Neil Jeffares, “Jean-Claude-Gaspard Sireul (1713–1781)”, Pastels & pastellists, It contains a number of later amendments as well as a transcript of the 1781 list of Sireul’s pictures.

[2] The collection was first noted in Le Brun’s Almanach historique et raisonné des architectes, peintres &c., 1777, p. 183, where it was described as small. His Largillierre was selected for particular praise, as well as the numerous Boucher drawings which were notably glazed.

[3] This first purchase was of copies of Boucher by Marianne de Villebrune from the sale of her brother-in-law, Johann Anton de Peters (26 January 1767, Lot 91 [part]). He also owned a Liotard pastel which he bought at the Vassal de Saint-Hubert sale (29 March 1779 & seq., Lot 252).

[4] Alastair Laing, The drawings of François Boucher, New York, Frick Collection; Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, 2003–4.

[5] In Séries et variations: Études littéraires offertes à Sylvain Menant, Paris, 2010, pp. 463–75.

[6] 6 September 1781, before Jean Maupas, notaire à Paris. The document has not been indexed online by the Archives nationales, so its existence was only known through the counterpart acquired by the Fondation Custodia (inv. 2002-A.1171). I am most grateful to Mariska de Jonge and Marie-Noëlle Grison of the Fondation Custodia for making it available to me. A transcription by Katie Scott (which I have not seen) is mentioned by Laing 2003 and by Melissa Hyde, in Rethinking Boucher, ed. with Mark Ledbury, Los Angeles, 2006, p. 36.

[7] For details, see Dictionary of pastellists, online, J.173.214.

[8] The key documents include Clôtures d’inventaires après décès, 9 February 1733 (AN Y5324); mariage de Pierre Boulanger & Jeanne Paris, 10 June 1731 (AN mc/xxxix/342); Inventaire après décès François Denos, 4 June 782 (AN mc/xli/666); rectification, 21 January 1783 (AN mc/lxv/461). Detailed genealogies of the Sireul, Hamart and other families are posted on the Pastels & pastellists website,

[9] A useful account will be found in Joseph-Nicolas Guyot, Traité des droits…, Paris, 1786–88, t. i, pp. 521f; see also his Répertoire universel et raisonné de jurisprudence civile, Paris, 1784, t. vii, pp. 600f.

[10] See Pierre Goubert & Daniel Roche, Les Français et l’Ancien Régime, Paris, 1984, I, p. 116. The phrase “noble homme” in documents had become heavily debased by the modern era, so that (for those nobles who were not chevaliers or held higher titles), “écuyer” was the magic indicator of noble status. As Arlette Jouanna put it (La Devoir de révolte, Paris, 1989, p. 26), to join the nobility required nothing more than “persuader les notaires chez qui on passait des actes d’y inscrire l’épithète écuyer.”

[11] The frequency of the erroneous spelling, for example in Sireul’s own publications, suggests that at least he did not object to such a confusion. There is no connection with Jean Jarlan de Sireuil (1749– ), an officier in the garde du corps du roi (compagnie de Noailles) from 1768 (he came from a noble family in the Périgord); nor with the Breton family of Charbonnier de Sireul. The family de Sireuil de Montaudun from Anjou (Touraine) provided échevins of Angers in the 16th century and was ennobled in 1715; Cara D. Denison assumes that the sitter in the Carmontelle portrait discussed below (exhibition catalogue Fantasy and reality: drawings from the Sunny Crawford von Bülow collection, Pierpont Morgan Library, 1995–96) belonged to this family (did this suggestion come from Cailleux or de Bayser, from whom the Morgan acquired the portrait in 1978?), while acknowledging that she was “likely the wife of the collector” of Boucher. The unacknowledged source is Jougla de Morenas (t. vi, p. 229).

[12] Mémoires, éd. Yves Coirault, 1985, t. v, p. 170.

[13] MV 5461; there are versions in Krakow and Saintes. It is rejected in Nicole Garnier’s catalogue raisonné.

[14] Lempereur appeared among the relatives as witness at the marriage of Pierre Boulanger and Jeanne Paris, 10 June 1731 (AN mc/xxxix/342).

[15] Most easily consulted on the Electronic Enlightenment website.

[16] Passed before Lecourt, 4 March 1742, as cited in the Liquidation.

[16a] There is limited evidence for the value of this asset, but an indication may be the 21,500 livres paid for Jean-Philippe Rameau’s son Claude-François to acquire the charge from Louis Tréheux in 1754 (Lionel de La Laurencie, “Quelques documents sur Jean-Phillippe Rameau et sa famille”, Le Mercure musical, iii, 15 June 1907, p. 594).

[17] On 21 January 1783 (AN mc/lxv/461).

[18] Edition 1923, t. xiv, p. 411.

[19] Because of the possibility that it was a pastel, there  is an entry in the Dictionary, J.173.219.

[20] The name Sireul is added to the * * * in an annotation to the copy of the sale catalogue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[21] The copies in the Met and the INHA have slightly different annotations.

[22] It was Lot 10 in his posthumous sale, Paris, Galerie Charpentier, 14 May 1952, described only as “la jolie jardinière”.

[23] Alexandre Ananoff & Daniel Wildenstein, Catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint de François Boucher, Paris, 1976, with a poorer reproduction than the 1952 sale catalogue; it is also reproduced (as no. 448) in the same authors’ L’opera completa di Boucher, Milan, 1980.

[24] I am most grateful to Alastair Laing for drawing this to my attention. The miniatures were not identified in the sale. Their coupling does not of course imply that the Boucher portraits were pendants, as the compositional differences and dates in any case exclude.

[25] In The drawings of François Boucher exhibition catalogue, cited in note 2 above, p. 240.

[26] A&W, close enough to the 14×12 (imperial) pouces size in the 1781 catalogue, equivalent to 38×32 cm.

[27] État civil reconstitué.

[28] See also the reference in the Liquidation cited in a footnote below recording the gratuity of 3000 livres for her success in an unexplained matter.

[29] His lengthy speech, “Mémoire pour Lebrun…”, was included in the selection of famous pleadings Annales du barreau français, Paris, 1824, t. v: see pp. 518ff & passim.

[30] Only the name Grimod is given in Hardouin’s speech; and as he was an amateur artist (his portrait, and those he commissioned from the miniaturist Pierre Le Sage, played a role in the procedings), it is tempting to identify him as the amateur artist Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, but a closer reading of the text corrects this.

[31] See François Ravaisson, Archives de la Bastille, Paris, 1881, pp. 356f, 413f.

[32] Edmond-Jean-François Barbier, Journal historique et anecdotique du règne de Louis XV, Paris, 1847–56, t. iv, p. 259, March 1758.

[33] Was it the picture from the collection of the comte et comtesse de Niel sold recently by Christie’s (Paris, 16 April 2012, Lot 46), now in a private collection (shown above), or that now in Versailles (MV 5749), both oval? The size in the 1781 catalogue, 65×54 cm, is significantly smaller than either.

[34] Sireul’s picture is not mentioned in Ariane James-Sarazin’s Hyacinthe Rigaud: catalogue raisonné, 2016; the identification of the “M. de La Fontaine” P.496 is uncertain, although three répliques are listed.

[35] This was with the Galerie André Weil. It appeared at auction, Galerie Bassenge, Berlin-Grunewald, 27 May 2016, Lot 6586. It was with Galere André Weil in Paris, in the Carmontelle exhibition, 14–28 November 1933, no. 54, as “Monsieur de Sireuil”, “Madame de Sireuil” being no. 31. It and its pendant were in the Collection Albert Meyer, nos. 19, 20 (Seymour de Ricci, 1935), and were sold as successive lots at Sotheby’s, 23 March 1972, Lot 73, 72. They do not appear in Gruyer’s comprehensive account of the collections at Chantilly, nor in Laurence Chatel de Brancion’s more recent monograph on Carmontelle.

[36] Curiously Boyer cites this inscription as attached to the Boucher pastel, I think erroneously, and does not otherwise mention the Carmontelle.

[37] Inv. 1992.3. Again it is identified in the catalogue simply as of “Mme de Sireuil in a landscape”. The drawing was not annotated, and it and its companion were identified only by apparently belonging to the Sireuil family until the twentieth century. See the note above for the entry in the Morgan exhibition catalogue in 1995.

[38] See Michel Bruguière, “Une source méconnue d’histoire économique et sociale: le Bureau de correspondance générale au xviiie siècle”, Journal des savants, 1982, p. 97. The Correspondance Générale seems to have been more successful than the Basset company. A broader account of this intricate episode is in Henri Lévy-Bruhl, “Inventaire sommaire des pieces d’archives…”, Revue d’histoire modern, x, 1935, pp. 488–93.

[39] Journal de Paris, 19 August 1781, p. 932. The exact day is given in the 1781 partage des biens.

[40] Including writers from Voltaire to Piron: “Ce qui primait tout à la Butte, c’était la philosophie encyclopédique” according to Edouard Fournier, Histoire de la Butte des Moulins…¸Paris, 1877, p. 132 & passim.

[41] The picture appeared at auction on 8 June 2016 (Cheverny, Rouillac); it was with Galerie Neuse in 2016.

[42] Some of the attributions were changed (for example a portrait of Largillierre by Tournieres in the Liquidation became a self-portrait of the former in the sale). The values however were rather optimistic compared with the prices realised in the sale: two landscapes by Van Goyen valued at 240 livres achived 100, and others performed similarly.

[43] Among these was 1000 livres from her uncle, Jacques Hamart, mentioned above; 6000 from her parents; and 11,400 livres from her aunt, Mlle Desnos. A M. Daubigny left her 2000 livres, while a M. Delafreté, of Montauban, left 3000 livres. “Trois mille livres pour le pot de vin donné à lad. De Sireul pour la reussite d’une affaire dont a connoissance led. sieur Sireul” only invites speculation (were any of these payments the result of her amours?); as does an unexplained sum of 6000 livres was given to Mme Sireul by an unspecified person; with it she bought an annuity for her son. 9000 livres were with the prince de Guéméné, and presumably lost in his celebrated bankruptcy the year after the liquidation.

[44] Fermor is omitted from most accounts of the Tusmore family, but his 1758 will (proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 11 March 1758, prob 11/842) provides the necessary ingredients to reconstruct this lengthy story. He left the future Mme Sireul £400 in trust.

[45] He became a lieutenant in the douanes royales, and married, in 1827 in Cagnes-sur-Mar, an Eugénie Apollonie Davin. Their son Joseph-Hippolyte was baptised there in 1828, and Paul-Victor elsewhere in 1835. The latter’s daughter Léontine-Appoline-Clara (1865– ) married twice, to MM. Renart and Desmonceau. But there are no records detailing the family member from whom André Weil acquired the Carmontelles, nor has it been possible to trace back the vendors of the Boucher portraits before they emerged on the art market in the early twentieth century.

Fixing Brexit: revocable notice

Readers of this blog will be well aware of the dreadful negotiating position which the UK faces under the terms of Article 50. My cunning plan to get around this has been scuppered by the High Court ruling in Miller v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union: now the legal requirement for parliamentary approval is evident (unless appealed). But curiously this now gives us a different route to turn Article 50 on its head and make it work to our advantage.

Instead of appealing Miller to the Supreme Court, the Government should immediately introduce a short bill to notify the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the EU – subject to a second clause, making this notice expressly revocable by further vote of Parliament. That way negotiations can proceed without the massive disadvantage of the two year fuse set out in Article 50(3). It is hard to see that the EU can reject such a notice. While in theory this could require a succession of further notices until a satisfactory deal is reached, the practical outcome will be that the UK can obtain a far more beneficial exit, quite probably in a shorter time frame as the opportunities for brinkmanship are removed. Parliament can give Mrs May a free hand to negotiate without what she sees as damaging public scrutiny in the knowledge that it has the final say. Leavers and remainers should welcome such an outcome; but not the most ardent Brexiters determined to prefer the will of the people expressed under the veil of ignorance prevailing last June to that of Parliament (with or without further advice from voters) based on a full understanding of the implications.

Postscript, 9 November

For those of you who think that revocable notice isn’t possible, several points should be made. Firstly the matter was not ruled on in Miller, since neither party ran an argument which was unhelpful to their position, and so the case was heard on the common ground of irrevocability (although the Lord Chief Justice questioned Lord Pannick during his submission on this). But the possibility is mentioned in this excellent analysis by Christopher Forsyth which appeared after my post, and which draws attention to the excellent arguments set out by Aurel Sari here. But while the law may be uncertain, the politics I outline are real enough: by passing the Bill with the clause, it is up to the EU to object to a notice given by act of parliament “in accordance with the constitutional requirements of” the member state, which (however much they hate it) they will be unwilling to do. And if they do try to challenge the validity of the notice, there is no time fuse forcing us to concede.

Postscript 2, 20 December

Readers will be aware of more recent developments posited on the same idea, that Article 50 notice may be revocable, and is the best basis for the UK to avoid the impending disaster created by the two year drop-dead clause in Article 50. The question is how to do it. Most attention has been focused on the crowd-funded scheme devised by tax lawyer Jolyon Maugham QC. This involves taking action in Ireland which it is hoped will be referred to the EU courts for a decision that would bind all member states including the UK. Not everyone agrees that this is the best approach: David Allen Green contributed a post entitled “Why the Dublin Article 50 challenge is misconceived” in his FT Brexit commentary on 15 December (online). Among some vigorous debate, I posted this comment (repeated here as there may be a firewall on the FT site):

The difficulty with the Irish route is that it may take some time to get a decision, and it may be inconclusive. A simpler route would be to build the revocability into the UK’s Art 50 notice by introducing a bill with a second clause, making the notice expressly revocable by further act of parliament. This would permit the UK to issue a series of Art 50 notices, revoking (and reissuing) for as long as it takes to get the best deal available, and thus reverse the EU’s negotiating advantage as built into Art 50. Of course the EU will dislike it, but if they start negotiating with us the problem is solved. If they refuse to do so after the issue of a notice valid in terms of our domestic constitution (what better authority than the Queen in Parliament?) we can challenge in the EU court with a strong case (given that Art 50 contains what in effect is an ouster provision). Crucially we have lost nothing by doing so – not even time, since if we lose, the clock wasn’t running, while if we win, we have used up part of our two years – but only of the first of the indefinite series of two year terms this strategy delivers.

Jo Maugham’s response to my scheme on Twitter was

It’s not within the Westminster Parliament’s power. It can enact what it likes but it will make no difference. …an Act of the UK Parliament can no more change the interpretation of Article 50 than it can alter the composition of the moon to green cheese.

But as to deciding what that composition is, the fact that the Lunarians have (through Article 50(1)) a privileged position is at least helpful. It is also relevant that while neither the Irish scheme nor mine may be certain of success, if the Irish scheme establishes that revocability is possible then my scheme would have succeeded too. But the converse is not logically required: in response to the Irish application, the EU might hold that the form of notice was a factor in deciding (possibly even a determinant of) revocability, while my idea comes with the form of notice most helpful to the case. Further my scheme brings clarity earlier, and at no expense, as in my comment above.

What is requires is a political will. Those MPs who know that Brexit is a disaster but are too frightened to speak should insist on this amendment. It is the only way for Theresa May to comply with her promise of triggering Article 50 by March without inflicting the gravest damage on this country.

John Norris Hewett, a singular woman

Browsing through eighteenth century sale catalogues occasionally produces curiosities beyond the works listed for sale. Collectors themselves have long been the subject of scholarly enquiry; but you will find little about the Mrs Hewett of Richmond whose collection was sold after her death by Christie’s in 1792 (she is “unknown” according to the Getty Provenance Index). As the sale included a number of pictures which she herself had made, in various media ranging from oil to watercolour and chalk as well as crayons (pastel), I was obliged to unravel the mystery of who she was. This wasn’t helped by her having the most unusual Christian names, “John Norris”, and of having married three times, each to men called John: and of being absent from virtually all reference books.

My curiosity was whetted when I came across this entry in the register of St George’s Bloomsbury (1773): storr-norris-fisher-marraige

“A single woman” is not a standard phrase encountered in these registers. What we call a single woman is properly termed a “spinster”; the alternative is a “widow”. The entry misleadingly suggests she was born Gordon and had married a Mr Fisher, etc. The name is so unusual that when the Law Commission researcher was compiling the lists of acts of parliament in 1999 she assumed the 1773 divorce bill I explain below must refer to some bizarre homosexual arrangement; and indeed the Journal of the House of Lords attempted to rectify the spelling to “Joan” in its report of one of the committee stages of the bill.

This post would be excessively long if I continue to work backwards through all the confusions I encountered, so let’s start at the beginning – even if it feels as though you are being shown a solved Sudoku puzzle (you can always turn away now).

hudsonMrs Hewett’s grandfather was Sir John Norris (1671–1749), admiral of the fleet, of whose naval career there is a good summary in the DNB (left is his portrait by Hudson from the Government Art Collection). He was a protégé of the wonderfully named Sir Cloudesley Shovell. His successes brought considerable wealth, including Hempstead Park (variously spelt) in Kent. The DNB acknowledges the obscurity of Norris’s family origins: probably Irish, and connected with the Aylmers. You can follow the relevant people in my iconographical genealogy for Aylmer.

One of Sir John’s daughters, Lucy (1705–1793), was married (like so many of her relations) into the Aylmers, to Sir Gerald Aylmer, 5th Baronet of Doneda. Their son was the oddly named Sir Fitzgerald Aylmer who was born eight months after Sir Gerald’s death: perhaps his name should be taken literally rather than as merely indicating his being posthumous (the 3rd baronet was also called Fitzgerald: he also was born in the year of his father’s death). In any case, Lucy, who was just 31, remarried the following year, and as we learn from her father’s will (1749, 12 years after the lapse), without his approval:


She receives only £10 from his vast estate, having “most undutifully and indiscreatly married a second husband without my consent or knowledge to the disgrace of her family.” Little is known about this second husband, one Robert Fisher, other than that he signs one of the documents below in a literate hand and is referred to as “Esquire”. (He is glossed as the “Mr Fisher” mentioned in the correspondence of Pitt, but that is more likely to be a reference to Thomas Fisher, a regimental agent.) Evidently Lucy christened her child (the only one she is known to have had) in a vain attempt to placate her father.  Curiously by the time Lucy’s mother died, in 1763 in Berkeley Square, it seems she was forgiven, as she was named as her mother’s sole executrix and residuary legatee. But bizarrely (perhaps proof of dementia), Lady Norris can remember neither her daughter’s name, calling her Elizabeth instead of Lucy, nor that of her husband, whom she names as “Joseph Fisher of St James’s Square” when he was Robert. Fortunately the errors are corrected in the probatum, but Fisher’s address is not corrected (and may be wrong). Lucy’s response was to disclaim the inheritance.

But I’ve leapt ahead. In 1743 (the year derived solely from her age at death) the future Mrs Hewett was born, and christened John Norris Fisher (for obvious reasons she often dropped the “John”). There seems to be absolutely no trace of any baptismal document, and virtually nothing is known about Norris’s upbringing (perhaps it took place in Ireland?). But on 20 March 1764 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, she married a John Gordon (there are several homonyms, but he was then a captain in the 50th Foot, later promoted to lieutenant-colonel; he was the third son of an Irish family, the Gordons of Ballinteggart; his brother Thomas Knox became chief justice of South Carolina): norris-gordon-marriage

Now this should have been her first marriage, but once again the phraseology is bizarre: “John Norris Gordon heretofore Fisher” suggests that there may already have been some unofficial union. The witnesses were her father, Robert Fisher; her mother (almost invisibly small), Lucy Fisher, while the third, Lucy Fortescue, was her great-aunt. In any case, it seems that Captain Gordon went back to Ireland with his regiment, but on his return found that Norris was having an affair with a senior naval officer, John Storr (1709–1783), vice-admiral of the red.

In the absence of diaries or correspondence we can only guess how things developed from the resulting action for crim. con. and the private bill for “Gordon’s divorce” brought before Parliament, passed by the Lords 31 March and by the Commons 29 April 1773.


For the sordid details you have to refer to the Journals of the House of Lords:


If the purpose of the bill was supposed to allow Gordon to remarry, he did not in fact do so until 1780, when he made the only alliance mentioned in the standard reference works, to Elizabeth Bamfylde, daughter of a baronet. But Gordon died soon after, in Islington, in 1782.

In fact, just a few weeks after the divorce bill was enacted, “Norris Fisher formerly Gordon” married Admiral Storr, the register entry at the top of this post. Here is how the Town and Country Magazine reported it (providing key details which allowed me to pull this story together):


Admiral Storr was by then 64. He lived for another ten years, leaving his house in Bedford Square and a life interest in his numerous estates in Yorkshire to Norris.


storr-westminster-abbeyThere is a memorial (with a bust by William Tyler, left) in Westminster Abbey.

Just a year later, on 13 February 1784, at St George, Hanover Square, Norris married for the third time, again to a figure whose lineage is obscured by changes of name: John Hewett (1720–1787). He was in fact born John Thornhaugh, but by another private act of parliament, 29 George II. c. 53 (1756) he changed his name to inherit an estate. He was subsequently sheriff of Nottinghamshire and an MP. In 1744 he had married Arabella, daughter of Sir George Savile, 7th Bt, and his political affiliations remained entwined with those of the Savile family. His daughter Mary Arabella married Francis Foljambe (who it won’t surprise you didn’t have that surname at birth), and when Mary Arabella died, Francis was remarried to the daughter of the Earl of Scarborough and his wife, yet another Savile.

But of John Hewett’s remarriage to Norris Storr there is no mention in the History of Parliament nor any of the standard volumes. His signature on the 1784 marriage allegation (now conventionally worded as between “John Hewett Esqr, a widower and John Norris Storr, a widow”) is sufficiently shaky to suggest that he was already ill, and indeed he died three years later.


As the Gentleman’s Magazine reported, on 22 December 1790 Mrs Norris Hewett, relict of John Hewett Esq of Shire Oakes, Co. Nottingham, died at Richmond. She was buried at St Peter’s, Petersham, 29 December 1790, aged 47.


She had made her will a few days before, and was hoping to make it to Christmas day where it seems a half-year payment was due. The document (too long to reproduce in full) gives a glimpse into her final state of mind:


And so on.  Her “dear Sir Andrew Ward and Mrs Ward” (who were they? why not Lady Ward?) were to choose four of her best pictures on condition that “they are not to be placed in Bed Chambers” (the usual fate of so many pastels).


The rest were “to become the property of Lady -“, the name omitted. One of the trustees of the will was Norris’s neice, Margaret, Lady Holt; the residual legatee was apparently another neice, called Harriet Hunt, of whom I can find no other trace nor any obvious connection: could it be that “niece” was a euphemism? Unsurprisingly the omission of the name led to litigation between the two nieces (notwithstanding Norris’s plea to Lady Hort “to feel for Harriet’s dessolute situation in point of protection and if it be possible may she find protection with or near” her), as this disguised account of the resulting case of  Hunt v Hort (3 Bro C.C. 311) in an 1804 Treatise on the law of legacies (by the admirably named Roper Stote Donnison Roper) indicates-


The furniture was sold three months after Norris’s death, by Christie’s, but it was not until the following year, after the litigation was settled (the bequest to “Lady -” being declared void, so the pictures fell to Norris’s niece, Harriet Hunt) that her pictures were sold, on 16 and on 20 January 1792:

A catalogue of a collection of genuine and valuable pictures; drawings and miniatures; consisting of a variety of pleasing, historical and other subjects in crayons, the property and performance of the late Mrs. Hewett, deceased, celebrated for her refined taste in the polite arts brought from her late residence at Richmond; the most of which are rich, and elegantly framed and glazed, with large plates of glass. Which will be sold by auction (by order of the Executors) by Mr. Christie, at his Great Room, Pall Mall, on Friday, January the 20th, 1792, at twelve o’clock

Her collection included landscapes by Hubert Robert and Dietsch, an unknown oil of her second husband by John Russell, numerous anonymous flower pieces, landscapes, portraits etc.; copies after Stubbs, Kauffman and Cipriani. Her own work in unspecified media included copies after Kauffman, Reynolds, Guido Reni and several after Matthew William Peters. (Peters was a painter patronised by Norris’s cousins, the Fortescues – as was Cotes.) Subjects such as “a girl feeding a rabbit” might well be after Russell, and the many works for which no medium is indicated might well include pastels. A head of Christ and several sets of oval portraits are mentioned as in crayons. Everything is now lost without trace, including the portraits of Mr and Mrs Hewett.

peters-resurrection-bonhamsem7v2015Or is it? One of the copies after Peters was described as a “very large of angels and spirits ascending” (lot 48 sold or bought in at £11, the highest price for any of her pictures): it sounds as though it might be a copy of his Resurrection of a pious family, an enormous canvas which hung in Totteridge Church in the nineteenth century, and of which a large anonymous pastel copy (123×90 cm) was sold by Bonhams recently. It is not the only recorded copy, and I hesitated to put it forward as Norris’s work, but I recall that the pastel came from Hooton Pagnell. (I was quite sure that it was not by William Peters himself, but had no idea who the copyist might be.)

And then finally the penny dropped: Norris’s dear friends were not Sir Andrew, but the (yet again curiously named) St Andrew Warde (1745-1822) and his wife, née Anne Cooke. (The writing is perfectly clear once you know what you’re looking for.) Who owned Hooton Pagnell at this very time. The pastel, which did not make it into the bedrooms, had hung in the stairwell probably since its arrival until last year.

Perhaps someone out there has a stash of letters, or some enterprising social historian will find this outline of an unusually obscure life worth investigating further. But for the moment this pastel will have to suffice for the Resurrection of a not-so-pious lady.

La Tour’s cousins

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.

Less about La Tour’s family

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.

Maurice-Quentin de La Tour’s parents

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.

Robbing the pensioners – again

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. But even if the law could be amended to permit such a change, how could it possibly be seen as fair to do so?
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Firstly the Government and Bank of England should recognise that this damage is their doing, and that the policies should now be reversed.
  10. 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.

French portrait drawings from Clouet to Courbet at the British Museum

friantI 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.

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