Saturday, 31 August 2013

Important chairs 2 - Couthon's wheelchair





Description
 This magnificent wheelchair, upholstered in lemon-coloured velvet, once belonged to Robepierre's ally on the Committee of Public Safety Georges Couthon. The wheels are moved by means of two cranks attached to the arms. It is reproduced to dramatic effect in the film Danton - see below.  (If the chair doesn't appear immediately it is about 1 minute 40 into the clip.)






Provenance
The chair first appeared in July 1899  when it was presented out of the blue to the Musée Carnavalet  by a woman who refused to give her name but identified herself as Couthon's great-granddaughter.  She claimed that it had been in store with the family furniture ever since Couthon's execution on 9th Thermidor.

There is one other piece of information. The Archives nationales  contains (or contained) a letter dated Messidor, an III (9th July 1795) which stated that représentant Couthon had been officially loaned from among the effects of the comtesse d'Artois at Versailles a curious moving chair ("un fauteuil élastique assez curieux") which was now in the Garde-Meuble, place de la Révolution. Presumably this was the same chair - though why the comtesse d'Artois had owned a wheelchair is not clear since she was not herself an invalid. 

Did Couthon use the wheelchair?
The image of Couthon clattering around in his wheelchair in the Convention and the committee room is a tempting but possibly inaccurate one. He probably only received the loan in February or March 1794 and there is certainly no evidence that he used a chair prior to this.  Although he suffered from a chronic and deteriorating condition - polio or some form of tuberculosis or meningitis - he was certainly not completely paralysed, at least until the very end of his life. In October 1791, when he first came to Paris as a Deputy to the Legislative Assembly, he lodged nearby with his colleague Soubrany "chez M. Girot, rue Saint-Honoré, almost opposite the Capucins" and was able to walk to the assembly "with the aid of a stick or two crutches". By May 1792 his legs had worsened but there was still no wheelchair: instead he writes "when my pains allow me to go to the Convention, I am obliged to have myself carried right into the sanctuary"; a report mentions his "gendarme", suggesting  that someone was perhaps officially assigned to the task. His address at this time was closer still, at no.97 cour du Manège. 


Anonymous engraving of Couthon in Lyons


In 1793, at the height of the Terror, Couthon was still strong and active enough to be sent out en mission, first to his native Puy-de-Dôme and then to reek vengeance on the defeated counter-revolutionaries of Lyons.  According to R.R. Palmer, on 2nd October 1793, the "nimble general", as he jokingly called himself, was helped by his wife from a carriage at the village of Sainte-Foy just outside Lyons.  A few days later he entered the city.  On 12th October, following the final defeat of the rebels, came the fateful decree from the Convention ordering Lyon's total destruction. Famously, on 26th October Couthon had himself carried "in an armchair" around the Place de Bellecour where he struck the houses with a silver hammer to symbolise their imminent demolition. He was strong enough to hobble to the rostrum to address the Lyonnais and is usually depicted on this occasion as being borne by sturdy sans-culottes - again no sign of a wheelchair.

Even after Couthon's final return to Paris his use of the wheelchair is by no means certain. It is not entirely clear where he actually resided in his last months. According to Lenotre, a  report mentions a "habitation in Passy and one which he had near the baths, a short distance from the Pont Neuf" but he is also placed in 343 rue Saint-Honoré in an apartment next to Robespierre's. Do we really envisage him trundling to the Convention?   In the Tuileries both the hall of the Convention and the notorious green room where the Committee of Public Safety met had inconvenient flights of steps.  Historians unravelling the confused events of 9th/10th Thermidor often have Couthon toppling or throwing himself from his wheelchair down the steps of the Hôtel de Ville at the same time as Robespierre's suicide attempt, but the idea that he was moved around Paris in this contraption seems improbable.  If it was really with him at the end, how come it turned up eventually not in the official depository but among the family furniture?

References

R.R. Palmer, Twelve who ruled. Princeton University Press, 1969.

G. Lenotre "Couthon's bath-chair" in Romances of the French Revolution. English translation (1909) vol. 2, p.168-180.

Augustin Cabanès,  "L'infirmité de Couthon" in Le cabinet secret de l'histoire (1905).  vol. 3, p.225-280. See p.260 for the letter concerning the wheelchair.


A fragment of material from the wheelchair turned up for sale in a Toulon auction in 2012!. http://www.auction.fr/UK/v18875-hotel-des-ventes-de-toulon-historical-memories/index_p6.html

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Robespierre - the view from Victorian England


William Henry Fisk (1827-1884)
Robespierre Receiving Letters from Friends of his Victims
with Assassination Threats, 1863

Oil on canvas - 64 x 100 cm
Vizille, Musée de la Révolution Française
Photo : Galerie Lécuyer


In 2009, the Musée de la Révolution Française in Vizille acquired this glorious painting by the English artist, William Fisk, which captures perfectly the Victorian stereotype of Robespierre the foppish tyrant, both sinister and faintly ridiculous. Three years later, Fisk painted another equally loaded imaginary Revolutionary moment entitled Waiting for Publication of the Moniteur with News of Robespierre’s Arrest, today in Preston at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/awaiting-publication-of-le-moniteur-for-news-of-the-arrest-of-r





Saturday, 24 August 2013

And it's Frogs for dinner!



Well, eating frogs legs always seemed a pretty naff idea to me! The sophistications of French cuisine were certainly beyond 18th-century Americans.  Apparently the French admiral really was served up whole fresh green frogs by a well-meaning Bostonian.... 

The story is told by Samuel Breck, who was a young boy when the first French troop transport ships arrived in Boston in May 1781.  The colonists, Breck tells us,  were not used to the idea of Frenchmen as allies and had swallowed whole the account of French diet served up by English propaganda.  Everyone, he reports, believed implicitly "every vulgar story told by John Bull about Frenchmen living on salad and frogs".   Most of the town, who had never seen a Frenchman, rushed to the docks.  They were astonished to behold not the "gaunt, half-starved, soup-maigre crews" of English propaganda but "plump, portly officers and strong, vigorous sailors".  

Nonetheless misunderstanding was not dispelled.

Later in the year, Newburyport merchant and privateer Nathaniel Tracy, who had recently acquired a splendid mansion in Cambridge confiscated from the Loyalist John Vassall (now "Longfellow House"), decided to play host to the French admiral, the comte de Grasse and provide him with a taste of home:


18th-century table setting, Carnegie Museum of Art

Everything was furnished that could be had in the country to ornament and give variety to the entertainment. My father was one of the guests, and told me often after that two large tureens of soup were placed at the ends of the table. The admiral sat on the right of Tracy, and Monsieur de l'Etombe on the left. L'Etombe was consul of France, resident at Boston. Tracy filled a plate with soup, which went to the admiral, and the next was handed to the consul. As soon as L'Etombe put his spoon into his plate he fished up a large frog, just as green and perfect as if he had hopped from the pond into the tureen. Not knowing at first what it was, he seized it by one of its hind legs, and, holding it up in view of the whole company, discovered that it was a full-grown frog. As soon as he had thoroughly inspected it, and made himself sure of the matter, he exclaimed, "Ah! mon Dieu! un grenouille!" then, turning to the gentleman next to him, gave him the frog. He received it, and passed it round the table. Thus the poor crapaud made the tour from hand to hand until it reached the admiral. The company, convulsed with laughter, examined the soup-plates as the servants brought them, and in each was to be found a frog. 

The uproar was universal. Meantime Tracy kept his ladle going, wondering what his outlandish guests meant by such extravagant merriment. "What's the matter?" asked he, and, raising his head, surveyed the frogs dangling by a leg in all directions. "Why don't they eat them?" he exclaimed. "If they knew the confounded trouble I had to catch them in order to treat them to a dish of their own country, they would find that with me, at least, it was no joking matter." Thus was poor Tracy deceived by vulgar prejudice and common report. He meant to regale his distinguished guests with refined hospitality, and had caused all the swamps of Cambridge to be searched in order to furnish them with a generous supply of what he believed to be in France a standing national dish.


References

Samuel Breck, Recollections, with passages from his notebooks (1771--1862), p.24-6.
http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/lhbtn:@field%28DOCID+@lit%28lhbtn10144%29%29:

J.L. Bell, "Nathaniel Tracy serves frogs for dinner" Boston 1775 (blog)
http://boston1775.blogspot.co.uk/2006/07/nathaniel-tracy-serves-frogs-for.html

 Traceys of Enniscorthy and Newburyport
http://www.traceyclann.com/files/Traceys%20of%20Enniscorthy%20and%20Newburyport.htm



Friday, 23 August 2013

Another portrait of Adrienne


Adrienne Lecouvreur  as Cornelia, 
widow of  Pompey in Corneille's Mort de Pompée.
Pastel portrait by Charles-Antoine Coypel,
Collection of the Comédie française.



A second pastel by Coypel,
as reproduced in 1927. 
This pastel portrait of Adrienne Lecouvreur in the role of Cornélie is by far the most widely reproduced of her portraits.  It was well-known throughout the 19th century through the engravings of Pierre Drevet, who produced several variations. In this case too, the original has reappeared only recently, being put up for public auction in 2005 at Vichy.  As predicted, the sale was preempted and the portrait acquired by the Comédie française for 30,000 Euros.

According to the Dictionary of pastellists, the portrait originally belonged to the comte d'Argental and was bequeathed on his death in 1787 to Mme de Vimeux, who was possibly his illegitimate daughter.  It later came into the possession of the. Maréchal de Castellane and his descendants.



References


Notice of the sale, 21 May 2005 at Vichy chez Laurent Guy
http://olharfeliz.typepad.com/pastels/2005/05/vente_de_mai_20.html

Entry in Dictionary of pastellists
http://www.pastellists.com/Articles/Coypel.pdf



See Queens of the French stage by H. Noel Williams (1905), p.127.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37618/37618-h/37618-h.htm#page_127


Engraving by Drevet, c,1730.

"The portrait of Adrienne Lecouvreur was painted by several of the leading artists of her time: Charles Coypel, Fontaine, H. de Troy le père, Jean Baptiste Van Loo, and, it is believed, Nattier. None of these portraits, unfortunately, have come down to us, though the works of the two first painters are well known through the engravings of Drevet and Schmidt.[Note]
In regard to the merits of the two portraits, there seems to be considerable difference of opinion. Michelet, in his Histoire de France, speaks with enthusiasm of the painting by Coypel, reproduced in this volume, in which Adrienne is represented as Cornélie in La Mort de Pompée, weeping over the urn of her husband, which she holds clasped to her breast. "She must have exercised a terrible power over hearts, to have been able to transform beasts into men, to have caused the feeble and mediocre Coypel to paint such a portrait. An inspired artist of our time, our first sculptor, Préault, told me that he knew not a word of the history of Mlle. Lecouvreur when he saw this engraving. He was very affected by it, enraptured, and he seized upon it greedily.... It is more than a work of art, it is, as it were, a dream of grief. Those heavenly eyes, suffused with sublime tears, the gesture of those arms clasping the funeral urn, the grief expressed by that countenance, the silent accusation which that whole figure brings against destiny, all make of this picture a unique work, an honour alike to painter and model."
Another engraving, this time
 by Jean-Baptiste de 
Grateloup,c1767. 
 Fitzwilliam Museum,
 Cambridge.
M. Larruomet agrees with Michelet: "I, for my part, am of opinion that if Charles Coypel, as a rule an artist of but moderate ability, invented the pose of this portrait, he had, by chance, an inspiration of genius, and that, if he only borrowed it from the actress, she possessed that innate sense of attitude which we admire in our own day (1892), in M. Mounet-Sully and Madame Sarah Bernhardt, and which alone would have sufficed to make of them great actors." M. Larroumet declares the portrait to possess "the incontestable merit of being a superb work of art," and greatly prefers it to the one by Fontaine, which shows us the actress "en robe de chambre," with her hair dressed in the fashion of the day. In the latter he can see only a "tableau d'apparat" of but little merit.
On the other hand, Régnier, M. Maurice Paléologue, and M. Georges Monval, to the last of whom we owe the publication of Adrienne's correspondence, give the preference to Fontaine's work. "It is a truer, a more human, a more lifelike, a more familiar Adrienne," remarks M. Monval, who stigmatises the portrait by Coypel as "a fantastic and studied picture, a tête d'étude, a banal figure, under which one might equally well inscribe the name of Magdalene repentant, or of Sophie Arnould."
For ourselves, while on the whole inclined to endorse the high opinion which Michelet and M. Larroumet have formed of Coypel's portrait, we cannot but think that the latter has unduly depreciated that by Fontaine, which appears to us both pleasing and natural."

Note:  All four of these attested portraits have been rediscovered since 1905 and can be found on the internet.  I have reproduced them in my posts on Adrienne.






Tuesday, 20 August 2013

An account of the death of Adrienne



The story of the suffering, death and humiliating clandestine burial of Adrienne Lecouvreur highlights very effectively the peculiar combination of luxury, fine sentiment and pointless cruelty that so characterised 18th century French society. The following is translated from Pierre Germain's  Adrienne Lecouvreur: tragédienne (Paris 1983) a book which tries to capture not only the telling details but a little of the emotion of this sad episode.  (The text is freely available as an extract on Google Books, so I hope I'm not breaking any copyright rules!)

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=__mPtvYFjP0C&lpg=PP1&pg=PA11#v=onepage&q&f=false



p. 7-12: The burial of Adrienne Lecouvreur 

In the night of the 22nd to 23rd March 1730, at a little after midnight, two carriages accompanied by a police escort, stop in front of a house in the narrow rue des Marais-Saint-Germain.

A figure dressed in a long dark cloak and wearing a tricorne hat alights from the first coach and knocks at the entrance to the building. Two other men get out of the second coach and wait, immobile and silent.

The door opens, a man appears and greets them.  It is La Roche, Adrienne Lecouvreur's servant.  He ushers in the man who has knocked, who is Voltaire's friend Monsieur de Labinière, and they go upstairs to the first floor. The others, the porters, follow them, trying to keep their heavy footsteps quiet.

On the landing in front of the bedroom door M. de Laubinière is greeted by the comte d'Argental.  Adrienne's devoted faithful and inseparable friend tells them what is expected of them. Then he leaves them and goes back upstairs.

Laubinière, followed by La Roche and the two men, go into the vast, richly furnished room, the walls adorned with red silk.

There on the great bed, with its cover of white cotton with red flowers, wrapped in ones of her dressing gowns, lies the body of the tragédienne.  Her emaciated face and sunken eyes testify to her final suffering, after repeated attacks of the chronic disease which has ruined her health over the past few years.

Antoinette Lenoir, the femme de chambre, gives Laubinière a sheet which she has chosen from the cupboard. With the help of La Roche, who cannot hold back his tears, he carefully wraps the body.  On his word, the porters lift the frail corpse and set about carrying it downstairs. They steady themselves with one hand on the wrought iron banister and reach the courtyard, followed by Laubinière and the servants.

They load their grim burden into the second carriage.  Laubinière gets into the first and, after a discreet farewell gesture to La Roche and Antoinette, indicates the route to follow.

While the porters steady the corpse on the bench inside the coach, the cortège moves away into the darkness of the night, jolting on the cobblestones, which echo under the horses hooves and the feet of the men who accompany the carriages.

They reach the quai de la Grenouillière, on the banks of the Seine.  Today this is the quai d'Orsay.

They look for a deserted sport in the vicinity and stop close to a piece of waste ground. Hastily the men dig a hole in the loose soil. They lower the body of Adrienne, sprinkle it with quicklime, cover it with earth.

Laubinière later remembers a moment when the dawn started to appear over Notre Dame, upstream of the river.

They get back in the carriages and travel off into the last of the deserted and foggy March night.


p. 12-19: The comte d'Argental recalls events,

While the grim task is completed and M de Laubinière returns to his lodgings, silence reigns once more in the house in the rue des Marais where Andrienne Lecouvreur has lived for twelve years. It is a three storey hôtel with a balcony on the second floor where you can see the trees, still bare, in the neighbouring gardens.

The comte d'Argental wanders about the house, prey to sad thoughts.  He goes through the apartment, the chamber occupied by Adrienne's sister, Marie-Marguérite, the rooms where he himself sometimes stayed and, on the first floor, the bedroom where his friend had died and which he watched over without entering all the time that her corpse had been inside.  It was here that Adrienne used to gather her friends around her, making of her bedroom a polite salon for conversation.

The trusted La Roche has opened the curtains to let in the pale light of this Thursday 23 March, the second day of spring. Then he has left to sort out other things in the house.

d'Argental is alone.  With a heavy heart, he reviews the week that has passed.  Adrienne died on the Monday at eleven o'clock.  Maurice de Saxe and Voltaire had been with her at her deathbed, as was the surgeon Faget.


Adrienne in the rôle of Racine's Monime
Oil by  François de Troy [c. 1723]
Comédie-Française

The previous Thursday, although she was exhausted, she had gone on stage as Jocasta in Voltaire's Oedipe.  She had not allowed her tiredness to show.  Failing though she was and weak through loss of blood, she had refused to give in to her friends pleas to interrupt the rest of the programme. They had continued with further plays by Le Florentin and La Fontaine .Without anyone realising her true state, the curtain had fallen on her final appearance.

[There follows some extracts from the correspondance of Mme Aissé giving further details of Adrienne's previous performances and the grim progress of her illness]

d'Argental, who did not leave her side, and Voltaire accompanied her home to the rue des Marais. The comte Maurice de Saxe soon joined them.

They put her in her room on the first floor.

Sylva was her doctor.  He paid a visit and diagnosed a "flux of the intestines".  Sylva was a very famous doctor who had been presented at Court, but it was later said that he had hastened Adrienne's end with his ill-considered prescriptions.

d'Argental sits down on the black Moroccan leather sofa in the corner of the room.  The great clock with its gilded bronze figures marks the hours as they slowly pass.  


Boucher, Woman on a day bed. 
 Frick Collection.
Surrounded by the crimson silk which covers the walls of the room he catches sight of his distorted reflection in pier glasses and gilt framed mirrors.  He glances at the Flanders tapestries with their tiny figures, the day bed à la duchesse where Adrienne, weary with illness and bedecked in one of her thirty two dressing gowns, used habitually to receive her closest friends. Louis XV, represented by a small engraving, bears silent witness to the comte's movements.


The rose-coloured upholstered chairs, with their gold and silver flowers, and green damask borders, are empty forever of their customary occupants.  d'Argental's mind wanders with emotion to the day when, with his advice, Adrienne had chosen the decorative silks from those presented to her by Pierre Fontaine, tapisseur, in the rue Sèvres.

It is the first time that he had gone back inside the room since Adrienne died there.  He had not wanted to see her dead, preferring to preserve in his mind the living image of her beloved face.

Those who were present at her final moments had sent word to him immediately.  He came on the afternoon of 20th March and went straight to the second floor.  From there he gave orders to La Roche and to the femme de chambre.  He told Jeanne Guillotin, who lived a few doors away and had been engaged to watch over the sick woman, that she was to leave the house that evening.  La Roche handed over to him a box containing Adrienne's papers and the keys to her furniture.  With his help he opened the cupboards and checked the linen and silverware - the same silverware that Adrienne had pawned with her jewels to help Maurice de Saxe in his unhappy ventures.

On the Monday morning he refused entry to Macque Carette, Adrienne's first cousin and her husband.  Adrienne's other relatives in Paris, Claude Bouly and her husband André Tramblin, he had not seen. On Monday evening at the request of Marie-Marguérite Couvreur, Adrienne's belongings were officially sealed and inventoried.  Charles Parent, commissaire of the Châtelet, was charged with this task. The long operation was painful for d'Argental; starting at five o'clock, it did not finish until eleven in the evening.  

Now the wardrobe is closed definitively on Adrienne's linen and dresses.  Her bookcase of scented wood is shut forever on the books she loved to read. The old clavichord is sealed, so too the epinette. Yesterday at three in the afternoon the will was read in the presence of various dignitaries and officials. 

[Details of the will follow, including Adrienne's bequest to the Filles de I'Instruction who had taught her as a child, and the 1,000 livres set aside for the poor of the parish of Saint-Sulpice.  d'Argental is named as the residual beneficiary.]

M. Languet de Gergy, curé of Saint-Sulpice


The succour of religion had been refused her. According to some versions M. Languet de Gergy, the curé of Saint-Sulpice "had exhorted Mlle Le Couvreur with the greatest zeal" and refused her Christian burial unless she repent "the scandal of her profession".  According to others, she had told the priest to rest easy since she had left provision in her will for the poor of the parish. Then, turning to a bust of Maurice de Saxe, she had cried out, "There is my universe, my hope and my gods".

Whether true of false, this final cry stands as an epitaph to this theatrical beauty. No such bust of her lover figured in the inventory of her room.  Maybe its presence was legendary, or maybe the comte himself made off with it, as he did so promptly with Adrienne's carriage and horses.

In reality, judging by her will, she expected to die as a Christian.  It would seem in fact, that after an earlier visit from a vicaire, M.Languet had arrived too late; Adrienne was already dead and beyond the consolations of religion. 

Adrienne's failure to reconcile herself with the Church was one thing, to refuse her burial in a Christian cemetery was altogether more shocking.

Without the intervention of the King or his government, her friends would have to resign themselves to a civil interment.  When the question was put to him by the Lieutenant de police Hérault, the comte de Maurepas replied that Cardinal Fleury did not intend to intervene and that they should refer themselves to the Archbishop of Paris and the curé of Saint-Sulpice.  If the latter persisted in refusing burial - as it seemed they would -  there was no choice but to take the body in the middle of the night and bury it with as little scandal as possible.

Since there was no time to deliver a coffin, the remains were simply wrapped in a sheet.

The day after her death, on Tuesday 21st March, the Comédie was closed. Notices were put up edged in black to announce the death of the theatre's idol.

The news broke in an atmosphere of suspicion and excited a great deal of emotion in Paris. There was open talk of poisoning in the face of what was believed to be a sudden death  This commotion persuaded Voltaire and his friends, who did not believe in any foul play, to demand an autopsy.  The thin corpse was "opened" and the report of the doctors immediately published. The text cannot now be found in the Archives, but it was said to confirm the opinion of Adrienne's immediate entourage;  the examination revealed only an inflammation of the intestines, consistent with longstanding and chronic disease.



p.19-20. Adrienne's final resting place

Deprived as she was of any funerary monument, destiny has decreed that the spot "occupied by the remains of Adrienne Lecouvreur remain more or less unknown"

In the eighteenth century, the area between the rue du Bac and the banks of the Seine, consisted only of alleyways. The area bordering the road was known as "La Grenouillère", probably after its owner.

Building was started here about 1708 and a quay begun which was called the quai d'Orsay, after the Prévost des Marchands.  In 1727 d'Argental had a house built there by Robert de Cotte, the King's Architect, on the spot which was later to become number 1 quai d'Orsay.  The hôtel next to it belonged to the comte de Belle-Isle.

There was general agreement that the place where Adrienne's remains were buried was at the corner of the rues de Grenelle and de Bourgogne, today number 115 rue de Grenelle.
D'Argental was 86 years old when, in the course of digging foundations for the hôtel of the marquis de Sommery, the remains of his friend were finally found.  Profoundly moved, the old man was taken there.  He had a marble plaque erected on which were engraved these mediocre but moving verses:






In this place, we offer homage to an admirable actress
In mind and in heart, equally lovable.
A true talent, sublime in her simplicity
Called in our prayers to immortality
The heartfelt effort of a sincere friendship
Has finally managed to gain for her this little corner of earth
And the just tribute of the purest sentiment
Honours at last this spot which has been unknown for so long.



[Note: The plaque is no longer there and Adrienne's grave has again been lost; perhaps she still lies somewhere beneath the pavement of the rue de Grenelle.]


Voltaire and Adrienne Lecouvreur

Oil, Attributed to Jean-Baptiste
Van Loo,
Château de Versaille
The Voltaire who first encountered Adrienne Lecouvreur in 1719 was still very much the brash young playwright, anxious to follow the recent success of Oedipe with fresh theatrical triumphs.  His newest play Artémire was written specifically with the Comédie Française’s latest acting sensation in mind.  It flopped, though  Hérode et Mariamne four years later fared better, again with Adrienne in the lead role. Voltaire struck up an amorous liaison with the Comédienne though – as so often with Voltaire – the sexual component of their relationship does not come down to us in any sharp focus. A couple of decorous complements in verse survive.  In one he assures Adrienne that his heart feels for her only "pure friendship", in another, he more suggestively exhorts her to embrace love in order to take her talent to its true perfection. Much later he described himself, as having been “her admirer, her friend, her lover”. Voltaire’s celebrated showdown with the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, the cause of his imprisonment in the Bastille and subsequent flight to England, took place against the backdrop of their intimacy. Adrienne opportunely swoons to enable Voltaire to avoid a beating; Voltaire taunts his aristocratic adversary from the safety of Adrienne’s theatre box.


Comédie Française in the late 18th century

The story of Voltaire and Adrienne concludes some years later with her death, aged thirty-seven  in 1730. She had been ill for some time, and her last performance - after a severe attack of dysentery - was as Jocasta in his Oedipe on 15 March.  She died five days later, with the playwright and his friend d’Argental, another admirer, at her bedside.   The rumour was that she had been poisoned but the postmortem arranged by Voltaire was inconclusive.  The cause of death was more probably peritonitis, brought on by typhoid.  When her former lover tried to arrange for her funeral at the church of Saint-Sulpice, to which she left 1,000 livres in her will, the curé M. Languet de Gergy refused; she was an actress, and as such excommunicate. Placed in a cab and taken under police escort to a patch of wasteland at the corner of the rues de Grenelle et de Bourgogne, she was cast without ceremony into a pauper's grave and sprinkled with quicklime. Voltaire himself penned her eulogy delivered by Grandval at the  Comédie française.  Seven months later, to Voltaire’s eternal bitterness, her English equivalent, Ann Oldfield  - whom he had seen and described as “Lecouvrier anglaise” - was buried with grand ceremony in Westminster Abbey.


  • Voltaire's poem:  On the death of Adrienne Lecouvreur, a celebrated Actress

  • What sight of woe thus harrows up my soul!
  • Must those love-darting eyes in anguish roll?
  • Shall ghastly death such charms divine invade?
  • You muses, graces, loves come to her aid.
  • Oh! you my gods and hers assist the fair,
  • Your image sure must well deserve your care.
  • Alas! thou diest, I press thy corpse alone;
  • Thou diest, the fatal news too soon is known.
  • In such a loss, each tender feeling heart
  • Is touched like mine, and takes in grief a part.
  • I hear the arts on every side deplore
  • Their loss, and cry, “Melpomene’s no more:”
  • What exclamations will the future race
  • Utter, at hearing of those arts’ disgrace?
  • See cruel men a burying place refuse,
  • To her whom Greece had worshipped as a muse;
  • When living, they adored her power divine,
  • To her they bowed like votaries at a shrine:
  • Should she then, breathless, criminal be thought,
  • And is it then to charm the world a fault?
  • Seine’s*banks should now no more be deemed profane,
  • Lecouvreur’s sacred ashes there remain:
  • At this sad tomb, shrine sacred to thy shade,
  • Our vows are still as at a temple paid.
  • I don’t revere the famed St. Denis more,
  • Thy graces, charms, and wit, I there adore
  • I loved them living, incense now I’ll burn,
  • And pay due honors to thy sacred urn.
  • Though error and ingratitude are bent,
  • To brand with infamy thy monument.
  • Shall Frenchmen never know what they require,
  • But damn capriciously what they admire?
  • Must laws with manners jar? Must every mind
  • In France, be made by superstition blind?
  • Wherefore should England be the only clime,
  • Where to think freely is not deemed a crime?
  • Oh! London, Athens’ rival, thou alone,
  • Could tyrants, and could prejudice dethrone;
  • In that blest region, general freedom reigns,
  • Merit is honored, and reward obtains:
  • Marlborough the greatest general of his age,
  • Harmonious Dryden, Addison the sage,
  • Immortal Newton, charming Oldfield there,
  • The honors due to real genius share.
  • The farce of life had there Lecouvreur closed
  • With heroes, statesmen, kings she had reposed:
  • Genius at London makes its owner great,
  • Freedom and wealth have in that happy state,
  • Procured the inhabitants immortal fame,
  • They rival now the Greek and Roman name.
  • Parnassian laurels wither in our fields,
  • And France no more a crop of merit yields:
  • Wherefore you gods do all our glories fade,
  • Why is not honor due to genius paid?
  • Translated by William F. Fleming in 1901 
Voltaire sent these verses from Rouen to his friend Thiriot in Paris shortly after Adrienne's death.  Frederick the Great later put them to music. It is hard for modern readers to appreciate the emotion underlying the stylized rhyming couplets  (the contrived English translation doesn't help). Voltaire is especially bitter at the perfidy of Adrienne's admirers who in life had bowed to her like "votaries at a shrine"  To Thiriot he commented that such indignation was pardonable in a man who had been her admirer, her friend and lover and who is, moreover, a poet. However, he feared official hostility and met largely with popular antipathy or indifference.  He was nervous about publicising the poem, limiting it to a few copies in private circulation, and only allowing it to appear in the 1732 Amsterdam edition of his works.  

 He embroidered the theme of the contrast between English and French treatment of actors and actresses in his dedication to  Zaire written towards the end of 1732 and also in Letter XXIII of the Lettres anglaises, composed at the same time or shortly before. He later claimed to have intervened with the actors of the Comédie and demanded that they strike, but to no avail.


  • Zaire  Epistle Dedicatory To Mr. Falkener, An English Merchant, Since Ambassador At Constantinople
    .....Your Oldfield, and her predecessor, Bracegirdle, in consideration of their having been so agreeable to the public when in their prime, their course finished, were, by the consent of your whole nation, honored with a pompous funeral, and their remains carried under a velvet pall, and lodged in your church with the greatest magnificence: their spirits, no doubt, are still proud of it, and boast of the honor in the shades below; while the divine Molière, who was far more worthy of it, could scarcely obtain leave to sleep in a churchyard; and the amiable Lecouvreur, whose eyes I closed, could not even so much as obtain two wax-tapers and a coffin; M. de Laubiniere, out of charity, carried away her corpse by night in a hackney-coach to the banks of the river; do you not even now see the god of love breaking his arrows in a rage, and Melopomene in tears, banishing herself from that ungrateful place which Lecouvreur had so long adorned?.


    Letters on the English Nation, Letter XXIII.
    ......The English have even been reproached with paying too extravagant honours to mere merit, and censured for interring the celebrated actress Mrs. Oldfield in Westminster Abbey with almost the same pomp as Sir Isaac Newton. Some pretend that the English had paid her these great funeral honours, purposely to make us more strongly sensible of the barbarity and injustice which they object to in us, for having buried Mademoiselle Le Couvreur ignominiously in the fields.
    But be assured from me, that the English were prompted by no other principle in burying Mrs. Oldfield in Westminster Abbey than their good sense. They are far from being so ridiculous as to brand with infamy an art which has immortalised a Euripides and a Sophocles; or to exclude from the body of their citizens a set of people whose business is to set off with the utmost grace of speech and action those pieces which the nation is proud of.

    References

    Original French text of Voltaire's poem:
    http://www.monsieurdevoltaire.com/article-poeme-sur-la-mort-de-mademoiselle-lecouvreur-73905334.html

    cf. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/ann-oldfield
    "Ann Oldfield, celebrated actress of her day, was buried in the south aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey.... She died on 23 October 1730 and was buried in fine Brussels lace, a Holland shift, wearing new kid gloves and wrapped in a winding sheet. Her coffin lay in Jerusalem Chamber prior to the magnificent funeral on 27 October". 


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

A notable fencing contest




Stipple engraving by Victor Marie Picot (1744-1805) after a painting by Charles Jean Robineau.  The engraving was better known than the original painting which was probably commissioned by George IV and is in the Royal Collection.

This famous exhibition fencing match took place on 9th April 1787 at Carlton House in the presence of the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert.  DÉon’s opponent was an almost equally exotic figure, the mulatto Chevalier Saint-George, intimate of the duc d'Orléans and virtuoso of both violin and épée.



According to the Reminiscences of fencing master Henry Angelo, "the Prince of Wales was much gratified at the performance, and smiled at the violent noises of St. George during his attacks, which resembled more the roaring of a bull than sounds emanating from a human being!"  Despite being seventeen years the elder and hampered by his petticoats, d’Éon trounced his bellowing opponent, hitting him seven times without being touched.


The occasion later inspired a 1789 Isaac Cruikshank cartoon against the Prince of Wales which inverted the legend of George and the dragon by having Prinny and his rakish sidekick Major George Hangar soundly thrashed by a "maid" (d'Éon) and a "dragon" (Saint-George, a former dragoon).
. 

References

Duel of the outsiders ("Shrine of dreams" blog by Mike Culpepper)
http://shrineodreams.wordpress.com/

Henry Angelo's Fencing School
http://www.rakehell.com/article.php?id=165&title=henry

On the cartoon:
Postcript to Chevalier d'Eon and his Worlds edited by Simon Burrows et al.(2011) - previewed on Google books or Amazon.