Saturday, 28 September 2013

Watteau's Persians

During the Persian ambassador's six-month stay in Paris, Watteau produced a number of fine drawings of members of his entourage in red and black chalk.  

There is no information about the exact circumstances under which they were created, though 18th-century annotations always state that they were "from life". Details of the costumes - the cloak, the breeches and shoes of the servant -  have occasionally been disputed, and it is sometimes said that Watteau used models rather than "real" Persians.  However, he was a close friend of Antoine Coypel, (painter of the Versailles reception) and could well have arranged for individual Persians to pose.

The drawings were created as finished studies rather than preliminary sketches for paintings and are normally grouped with a set of "Savoyards" of the same period as modern character studies. The exact details of how many exist and where is difficult to unravel without access to the full catalogues. According to the Louvre there were nine drawings - seven in red and black, one in red only and a final one in trois crayons (ie. red, black and white).  A set of six were later engraved by Boucher as part of Jean de Jullienne's collection of engravings after Watteau,  Figures de différents caractères (the "Recueils Jullienne").

Here are some of the better-known drawings:

A seated Persian (Louvre)

Seated Persian 
Louvre, Cabinet des dessins
301mm x 197mm

Engraving by Boucher

An old annotation on the back of this drawing identifies the sitter as Mehemet Reza Beg himself, clearly a mistake to judge by other depictions of the slight and bearded ambassador. This individual clearly fared rather better on the Persian diet!  Note though the man with a very similar moustache in Antoine Coypel's picture of the embassy's presentation at Versailles.

Seated man with fur hat

As engraved by Boucher

Seated man with fur hat
Teylers Museum, Haarlem
250mm x 212mm
This picture looks like the same man.  The fur cap is certainly authentic - the ambassador is wearing one in the Coypel miniature (where it contributes greatly to his surprised air).

A member of the Persian embassy

A member of the Persian embassy
Thaw Collection,
Pierpont Morgan Library New York
293mm x146mm
Seated Persian
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
276mm x 194mm

This second model is a more slender, almost feline, young man.  It is thought that the two drawings were once part of a single sheet of studies.

An Oriental servant

Oriental servant holding a plate
British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings
201mm x 101mm

Finally, the disputed Persian servant.  I don't know about the costume, but such serving men were certainly a conspicuous feature of the ambassador's entourage.


Notice for the "Seated Persian" in the Louvre. (in French)

Website to accompany the Louvre exhibition Antoine Watteau et l'art de l'estampe: recueils Jullienne, which includes a full e-version of the volumes of engravings after Watteau.

Study guide to the Royal Academy Spring Exhibition 2011 Watteau: the drawings. Contains a detailed discussion of the Louvre Persian.

Notice of a drawing sold by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at Sotheby's in 2007.  This is the drawing with white as well as red and black chalk, and features the same two models.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Persian ambassador - again

In the official view the Persian ambassador long outstayed his welcome.  Diplomatic negotiations concluded and he should have been ready to leave  - the gazettes affirmed it, the Court wished for it, the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles was left in a state of readiness for his departure.  But, happily ensconced in the Hôtel des ambassadeurs, rue de Tournon, on expenses of  500 livres a day, Mohammed Reza Beg was in no hurry at all - to the exasperation of the duc de Breteuil, he and his entourage of forty men proceeded to make themselves thoroughly at home and managed to remain in Paris for a whole six months.

Parisians, of course, had an insatiable curiosity about this exotic personage and many picturesque details of his everyday life during his stay in Paris survive. The following is summarised from M. Herbette, Une ambassade persane sous Louis XIV  (Paris, 1907) a old  book based on original memoirs which picks up nicely the harried bemusement of the French officials charged with the Persians' care.

1. Furnishings
Every effort had been made to make the Hôtel conform to Persian tastes. His Excellence demanded certain modifications.  The tapestry which adorned the room set aside for prayer had to be changed because it had human figures.  

The beauty and softness of the bed reserved for the ambassador persuaded Reza Beg to keep this piece of furniture which was unknown in his country.  His men in contrast remained faithful to Persian customs and were each furnished with a mattress which could be laid out on the carpet, with sheets, covers and pillows.  The oriental custom of sitting cross-legged on the floor with cushions  simplified the problem of seating.  Divans were placed along the walls for the ambassador's guests to sit on.

To provide illumination His Excellence brought with him his own lamps, in the form of huge goblets filled with pieces of wax "like sugar in coffee" which were constantly replenished by a valet. The resulting smoke did not inconvenience the Persians seated the floor but caused terrible suffering to their French guests who were that much higher up on the divans.

2. Baths

More costly to the Royal Treasury was Reza Beg's demand for frequent baths, a extraordinary custom which Courtiers and enlightened spirits soon desired to imitate. On 10 Febuary he was taken to the public baths "chez le sieur du Buisson, baigneur" but the charge of 100 livres a time soon proved excessive and Breteuil reluctantly consented to installing facilities in the Hotel itself.  Creating a branch on the main water conduit from Arcueil to Paris cost a cool 100,000 francs.  Such was public interest that an engraving was produced of His Excellence in his bath.  Reza Beg is depicted emerging from a sort of oblong case, with two servants in attendance with towels and clothing.  His pipe and coffee await him on a table.  The caption reads: "Mehemet Riza Beg, Persian ambassador, baths frequently and in very hot water: he stays there for six hours.  He goes in naked and gets out the same, apart from a little pair of shorts;  he is bareheaded. At this moment they are building baths for him in the Hôtel des ambassadeurs."  

3. Food

Even more amazing was the Persians' food consumption.  According to official accounts the king furnished the household each day with "three sheep, a lamb, twenty chicken, all still alive, 50 pounds of butter, 50 pounds of rise, 25 pounds of honey, 10 pounds of apples, six lemons, 10 pounds of salt, 30 pounds of flour, 10 pounds of cheese, 6 dozen eggs, 3 pounds of spices, 8 pounds of coffee, 8 pounds of chocolate, half-a-pound of tea, 15 pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of tobacco, a pound of saffron, 100 pounds of bread, 10 pounds of suet, 30 pints of milk".  This gargantuan list appeared to confound Chardin's observation that Orientals, in their hot climate, ate less than Europeans, though the cause was more the size of the Persian entourage than the heartiness of their appetites.  Nothing was allowed to remain indoors overnight; all the leftover food was thrown away, or resold (the Persian cooks soon gained a reputation for profiteering). The meat was slaughtered en place according to strict Muslim rules of purity and only Reza Beg's own men were allowed to serve him. 
The ambassador's personal consumption was modest.  The duc de Breteuil, who often dined with him, remarked that he had never known a man finish a meal so quickly.  He was indignant  that the Persians had no knives and forks but ate with their fingers.  From time to time a servant would present his master with a sorbet in a porcelain bowl with a wooden spoon.  After the meal the ambassador would wash his hands, then his mouth in a silver basin and finally carefully wipe his beard.

4. Prayers
 French observers soon found that ritual and prayer, rather than food, were His Excellency's main preoccupation. They suspected that the obligation to pray five times a day was a convenient pretext to eject abruptly unwelcome visitors. 

The ceremonial attending prayer was long and complicated.  The ambassador passed into a specially reserved chamber, took off his shoes and undressed to his shirt, pulled up the sleeve to the elbow and donned a plain white cotton turban.  In the cold of the Parisian winter he allowed himself a lamb's wool jacket over his arms.  After suitable lustrations, he proceeded to prostrate himself on his prayer mat, with its depiction of Mecca.  The paraphernalia of Muslim prayer was entirely novel to French observers, but they were generally impressed by the zeal and humility of his devotions.

5. Out and about

Even in 1715 a curiosity about everything and a hunger for novelty readily gripped educated Frenchmen and they viewed with incomprehension Reza Beg's total lack of interest even in the splendours of Versailles and Paris. The duc de Breteuil declared that it was difficult to understand how a man from a distant land with such different customs could show so little curiosity and concluded that he feigned indifference out of vanity. 

After the audience at Versailles, there was little reason to reserve forty horses for the ambassador, so a coach was placed at his disposal.  This did not go down well - whenever he sallied forth Reza Beg insisted on his full entourage of guards, mounted standard-bearer, pipe bearer and the rest.  This was all very well for a carnival, remarked the duc de Breteuil; for a trip to the baths, it was simply ridiculous. An itinerary of outings - to Les Invalides, Vincennes, the Louvre - met with little enthusiasm.  At Saint-Cloud he abandoned the duc d'Orleans as soon as dinner had finished.  A tense moment ensued at the Opera when one of the Persians refused to disarm, threw the hat and wig of the guard to the ground and drew a knife on him.  Louis XIV himself intervened to insist that Reza Beg should control his men better in future.

6. Sport

 The Persians much preferred to pass their time in their native sport of djeryd baz, a game played on horseback which involved opposing sides launching javelins at each other.  The crowds of spectators who gathered on the walls to watch resulted in unfortunate incidents which required all Breteuil and Saint-Olon's diplomatic skills to resolve and even excited the intervention of the king.  Reza Beg demanded redress when a Persian servant was beaten about the face by an infantry lieutenant that he had insulted (15th March).  In another a spilled coffee led to a fracas in which swords were drawn (23rd May.)  As a result Parisians learned to keep their distance.

6. Amours
Visitors continued, however, to flock in abundance, among them many "women of quality" whom our ambassador was happy to entertain.  At these receptions men and women were admitted separately, coffee and sorbet were served to the sound of violins, with the host seated on the carpet smoking his pipe.

His Excellence, it would seem, was not immune after all to one French tradition, the "intrigue galant".  His most scandalous liaison was with a certain Marquise d'Epinay, a pretty - and possibly married - young woman of seventeen, whose mother abetted the liaison in mercenary fashion. At first conducted quietly the affair was soon the subject of gossip and public notoriety. 

However it must have been true love, for the ending is the stuff of fairy tales!.  When the embassy finally left France it was feared that Madame d'Epinay, by now in the early stages of pregnancy, would attempt to follow;  d'Argenson, the lieutenant de police was tipped off by her mother to intercept. The lovers hatched a subterfuge;  Madame d'Epinay took the stagecoach to Rouen where she met up with the boat carrying the Persian luggage and managed to get herself smuggled on board ship at Le Havre in a great chest.  The pair then embarked together on the epic return journey via Hamburg, Berlin and Danzig,then overland across Poland and Russia and finally to the frontiers of Persia .In January 1716 Madame d'Epinay gave birth, though the fate of the child is not recorded. In May 1717, following a palace revolution in Persian, the unfortunate Reza Beg took poison and committed suicide.  But Madame d'Epinay did not give up She converted to Islam and is last glimpsed in the company of her lover's brother heading for Isfahan to deliver to the Shah what remained of the Sun King's gifts.  What finally happened to her, I wonder?


M. Herbette, Une ambassade persane sous Louis XIV.  Paris, 1907.

Un ambassadeur persan à la cour de Louis XIV  -  Figaro supplement litteraire:

For Parisian inquisitiveness, see the comments of Montesquieu's Rica, in Persian letters:
"The inhabitants of Paris carry their curiosity almost to excess. When I arrived, they looked at me as though I had been sent from Heaven; old men and young, women and children, they all wanted to see me.  If I went out, everyone stood at the windows;  if I was in the Tuileries, I immediately became the centre of a circle; even the women surrounded me, like a rainbow composed of a thousand colours.  If I was at a show, I would see a hundred lorgnettes focused on my face straight away.  In a word, never was a man seen as much as I was.  It made me smile sometimes, to hear people who had hardly ever been out of their rooms saying to each other: "You've got to admit, he really does look Persian". It was incredible: I found portraits of me everywhere; I saw multiples of myself in every shop and on every mantelpiece, so greatly did people fear that they had not had a good enough look at me" (Letter 30)

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Another miniature - the Persian ambassador (1715)

Oil on paperboard. 9.4cm x 7.5 cm.
Inscribed on verso: 
Ambasadeur [sic] / de Perse / present a Louis XIV

This striking miniature by Antoine Coypel, sold at Sotheby's in New York in 2007, and posted on Wikipedia in 2011, depicts Mohammed Reza Beg (or "Bey"), an ambassador from the Shah of Persia sent to the Court of the Sun King in 1715. 

To early eighteenth-century Frenchmen Persia was a semi-mythical country which was almost impossibly far away. They had little information beyond the seventeenth-century merchants' tales of Chardin and Tavernier. Popular curiosity had been piqued by publication in 1704 of a translation of the Arabian Nights which, with its tales of eunuchs and harems, only further shrouded the Muslim East in a further aura of exoticism. Small wonder then that the ambassador's arrival caused a furore of excitement.

The arrival of the Persian embassy in Versailles (from a contemporary print)

Here is the description of François Pidou de Saint-Olon. who was one of the officials charged with the ambassador's care:

"Ten Persians or Armenians on horseback carrying long ornate rifles. Two Armenians in charge of the care of the presents of the Persian king. Two pages of the ambassador, his master of ceremonies, his secretary and the interpreter. The ambassador on a horse harnessed with the shutter. Persian and Armenian lackeys of the ambassador around his horse. The shield bearer of the ambassador carrying the standard of the Persian king, marching immediately behind him with a page who carried the sabre of the ambassador." (François Pidou de Saint-Olon)

Mohammed Reza Beg had been sent to France by order of Shah Sultan Husayn in order to seek French assistance against the Ottoman threat and against Arab pirates in the Persian Gulf. His splendid processional entry into Paris on on 7 February 1715 attracted great crowds and a painting by Coypel records his formal reception by the ailing Sun King in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. After a long audience, he attended a dinner in his honour and visited the little crown prince, soon to be Louis XV. The duc de Saint-Simon remarked that his gifts to the king were unimpressive and suspected that he was only a provincial dignitary putting on a show for his own ends. However, there is no reason to doubt his credentials and, though negotiations were slowed down by Louis XIV's ill health, treaties of commerce and friendship between France and Persia were signed on 13 August.  As another result of the diplomatic mission, a permanent Persian consulate was established in Marseilles, main port for the French trade with the Orient.

Antoine Coypel, Louis XIV receives the Persian ambassador
(Château de Versailles)

Sadly for Franco-Persian relations the ambassador acquired a reputation for extravagance and peculation. Having outstayed his welcome in France at some cost to the royal treasury, he was forced to go to Amsterdam to borrow money from Persian-Armenian merchants resident there, and finally spent all the kings gifts on his way back to Persia.  His image was further marred by rumours of sexual impropriety, not without foundation, since he acquired a youthful mistress who escaped from the clutches of the French authorities to follow him on his long  journey home.  It is a story worthy of the Arabian Nights, but with a sad ending for it appears Reza Beg eventually committed suicide rather than face the displeasure of his master the Shah.


Paul Jeromack's notice of the miniature on Artnet: 

"Sotheby’s Old Master sale on June 8, 2007 featured a number of exceptional French paintings. Everyone loved the tiny three-inch oval portrait of Mohammed Reza Bey, Persian Ambassador to France during the Reign of Louis XIV by Antoine Coypel (est. $20,000-$30,000). Sold in Paris in December 2005 as "attributed to Coypel" for €6,800 ($8,047), it was recently on offer at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York for $18,000, and at Sotheby’s, it was bought by New York dealer Jack  Kilgore for $57,000."

Wikipedia article: Persian embassy to Louis XIV

Château de Versailles, Les grandes dates: 1715 Réception de l’ambassade de Perse

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Portrait of a Terrorist? Carrier at the Musée Lambinet

Anonymous portrait of Jean-Baptiste Carrier (1756-1794).

This portrait of Jean-Baptiste Carrier, perpetrator of the notorious "Noyages de Nantes", was posted on the French version of Wikipedia in December 2009  and has subsequently found its way onto several other websites.  No dimensions are given - it was scanned from a 1980 edition of Michelet - so it is easy to miss that it is a miniature:  not snuff box lid size, but still pretty small.  The original is in the Musée Lambinet. 

The label in the museum ascribes it to David himself - not implausibly: it is an accomplished and arresting work.

The portrait in situ at the Musée Lambinet (my photo)

Lithograph by François-Séraphin Delpech
 after Zéphyrin Belliard
One Wikipedia commentator has cast doubt on whether the portrait really is Carrier. He has even consulted Carrier's descendants. (The Carrier gene is strong, he says cryptically - no doubt someone still has that nose!).  The family "swear by" a Delpech lithograph, the only other known likeness apart from overt caricatures.


Personally I think the two images could well be the same man.  The real problem is accepting that this sympathetic and sensitive  portrait could indeed represent someone with such an odious and fearsome reputation as the murderous Carrier.  

Thursday, 12 September 2013

At home in the Revolution

The French Revolution gave us popular government, militant nationalism, mass conscription, Terror, Dechristianisation......and politically correct wallpaper!

Here is a splendid Revolutionary wallpaper from the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, as posted on their website for 14th July this year:

Sidewall and border: République Française Liberté Égalité. France, ca. 1792.
Woodblock print on paper. Gift of John Jay Ide Collection

French Revolution Wallpapers

This is an example of wallpaper used as propaganda. This is a paper produced during the French Revolution, woodblock-printed ca. 1792. The citizens of France felt that the Revolution could not be won just by fighting in political circles or on the battlefield. They felt it needed to be reinforced on the domestic front as well and had to occur in the ordinary citizen’s everyday life. It was believed that symbols had a powerful effect on the spirit and could strengthen the validity of the new principles. The domestic nature of wallpaper as well its repetitive aspect made it an ideal medium for portraying such motifs, and bringing these ideals into the home. This paper contains numerous symbols of the Revolution including the red Phrygian cap, cockade, tri-color ribbons, and a banner with the words liberty and equality, which are all combined in this rather beautiful format. Unlike posters or flyers used today for the spread of information, these are block-printed wallpapers, made by some of the top French manufacturers. The Museum contains about a dozen different versions of wallpapers expressing this theme, in both sidewalls and borders, suggesting they were widely used and were being produced by a number of different manufacturers.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Balzac's Turgotine

Balzac's Les Chouans contains a famous description of a "Turgotine".  The reference is strictly ironic - this is a miserable delapidated old coach from Paris now relegated to provincial Brittany.

In 1799 the Breton Counter-Revolutionary insurgents plan to attack the stagecoach out of Fougère.....

 Nothing better paints the condition of a country than the state of its social "plant," and thus considered, this vehicle itself deserves honorable mention. Even the Revolution had not been able to abolish it ; indeed, it runs at this very day*. When Turgot bought up the charter which a company had obtained under Louis XVI  for the exclusive right of serving passenger traffic all over the kingdom, and when he established the new enterprise of the so called turgotines, the old coaches of Messieurs de Vousges,  and the widow Lacombe were banished to the provinces.

 One of these wretched vehicles served the traffic between Mayenne and Fougeres. Some feather-headed persons had baptized it antiphrastically a turgotine, either in imitation of Paris or in ridicule of an innovating minister. It was a ramshackle cabriolet on two very high wheels, and in its recesses two pretty stout persons would have had difficulty in ensconcing themselves. The scanty size of the frail trap forbidding heavy loads, and the inside of the coach box being strictly reserved for the use of the mail, travelers, if they had any luggage, were obliged to keep it between their legs, already cramped in a tiny kind of boot shaped like a bellows. 

Its original color and that of its wheels presented an insoluble riddle to travelers. Two leathern curtains, difficult to draw despite their length of service, were intended to protect the sufferers against wind and rain, and the driver, perched on a box like those of the worst Parisian shandrydans, could not help joining in the travelers' conversation from his position between his two-legged and his four-legged victims. 

The whole equipage bore a fantastic likeness to a decrepit old man who has lived through any number of catarrhs and apoplexies, and from whom death seems yet to hold his hand. As it traveled it alternately groaned and creaked, lurching by turns forward and backward like a traveler heavy with sleep, as though it was pulling the other way to the rough action of two Breton ponies who dragged it over a sufficiently rugged road.

* August, 1827, when Balzac, twenty-eight years old, and twenty- eight years after date, wrote "The Chouans" at Fougeres itself ” 
Translator's Note.


English translation and illustrations from:
The Chouans by Honoré de Balzac. A new translation from the French New York : A.L. Burt 1920  quote .p.54-55)

[I liked the word "shandrydans" in this translation. Apparently it means:  
1. a two-wheeled cart or chaise, especially  one with a hood
2. any decrepit old-fashioned conveyance]

Reading La Comedie Humaine - The Chouans [Blog].  
A good summary of the plot, including the attack on the stage coach.

A local guide from Fougères on Balzac's stay there and the locations in the novel.

On the road - the "Turgotines"

This monster from the  Alsace Museum of Post and Telecommunication in Riquewihr is a reconstructed "Turgotine", one of a new breed of fast stagecoaches that appeared on the King's highways in the last quarter of the century. As the name implies, they were the brainchild of Louis XVI's enlightened  minister, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot.

The Alsatian Turgotine hits the road, drawn by four "study Breton horses"
Until Turgot, control of public transport - like so much under the Ancien regime - had been the preserve of private monopoly.  “Les messengeries” - the mail-coach service, which included a rights to all passenger carriage – was part of the general Postal “farm” with the major routes subleased to eight “fermiers particuliers” . As Turgot, champion of free enterprise rightly perceived, this placed a stranglehold on development and deprived the government of lucrative revenues. In August 1775 he unveiled an ambitious - and ultimately abortive - plan to buy out the farmers and consolidate all stagecoach, passenger and mail coach services into a single government bureau . A royal ordonnance published on 12 August 1775 set out not only these plans, but an entire blueprint for the new improved service. 

Louis-Léopold Boilly,The Arrival of the stagecoach
in the Courtyard of the Messageries 

According to Turgot's requirements, existing vehicles were to be replaced on major routes by stagecoaches ("diligences") which were "commodes, légère, bien suspendues". They were to have either eight places and be drawn, depending on weight, by six, seven or eight horses, or four places and be drawn by five or six horses. Horses were to be supplied by the post masters at 20 sous each, with a whole machinery of inspection and fines in place to guarantee that suitable horses were made available.  Coaches were to achieve a minimum speed of two leagues (six miles) per hour.  Paperwork carried by the conductor was to be completed at each post to record times of arrival and departure.  

The first coach of the new service finally left Paris in April 1776 but only a few routes (Paris to Nancy, Châlons-sur-Marne, Sedan, Soissons, Saint-Quentin, Noyou)  became immediately operational.  At the time of Turgot's fall in May the farm was almost immediately reinstated, to remain in place, apart from a brief interlude under Necker, until the Revolution.  The final tally of the whole ruinous exercise was given by Calonne in 1786 as over five millions livres, the only lasting legacy being the "Turgotines" themselves.

Changing horses at a relai de poste, 
painting by Horace Vernet
The Turgotines represented the first attempt at improved design and speed since the introduction of carriages with suspension in 1739 and they were undoubtedly able to benefit from the expansion which had taken place over the century both in the road network and the provision of relais de poste  (from 800 at the turn of the century to almost 1,500 by the 1780s).   

 Their real impact of is difficult to assess without comprehensive details of routes, numbers and travel times.  They were certainly FASTER  - timetables reveal appreciable improvements in travel time:  by 1778 it was possible to cover Paris to Bordeaux in five and a half days;  Rouen was now a mere day's distance as opposed to two.

Comfort was more questionable -  careering along in one of these monsters could be a terrifying experience. They were too unstable to cope safely with the road surfaces, they were often overcrowded and cramped and, naturally, the service was beset with maladministration. Here is what Mercier has to say in his Tableau de Paris:

Public carriages, so called at the time of the changes which M. Turgot made in all the mail-coach services of the kingdom, with the aid of an exclusive government privilege.

The journey in these vehicles is so miserable that it could give rise to the erroneous idea that the minister deliberately set out to torture people. The body of the carriage is so narrow, and the seats so crowded, that, when it comes to getting out, travellers have to ask their neighbours for the return of  their arms and legs. The step up is inconveniently high and impractical for women.

If there happens to be a passenger with a  big belly or large shoulders, everyone  must suffer; you groan and put up with it or you abandon your journey.

They make travellers leave at two o'clock in the morning in winter in order to spend extravagant amounts of  time in the offices at four in the evening and so that they can deal with packages which have nothing to do with the passengers.  There are offices where travellers are forced to wait at midnight under the stars, in a windy courtyard, while they unload immense quantities of merchandise; and when you complain, they reply that "such is the will of the king"....

They harness skinny post horses, often half-flayed, to these monstrous machines, loaded up with people and even more overloaded with chests and cases.  Only a fool could imagine it was possible to run a stagecoach service with vehicles this heavy; but its inventors didn't care if they killed the horses or made men suffer. Gain makes the coaches roll in their imaginations and, come what may,  they must get them on the roads.....

The regulations governing these privileged stagecoaches always put the interests of the freight before those of the traveller. Pregnant women, convalescents and those of a delicate constitution find the suspension so basic, the seats so narrow, the step down so dangerous, that they consider it a torment to enter the coach and a joy to finally escape.

Whilst manufacturers in London strive to build coaches which are lighter but still as solid, in order to spare the horses, we have made ours heavier and heavier....The passage of such a vehicle is terrifying; a tremendous noise precedes it and announces its arrival.  If it goes downhill too quickly, it is in danger of overturning; if an accident happens and the enormous carriage does overbalance, it is useless to ask the director  for  the cost of your arms and your legs; he will coldly show you his privilege and look upon your person as one more package for which he is not liable....

Louis-Sébastien Mercier Tableau de Paris,  New ed. Amsterdam 1783. Vol. 5 p. 331-4.


 L'histoire des postes et des télécommunications en Alsace, website.

Patrick Marchand, Voyager en France au temps de la poste aux chevaux

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Voltaire and the "Enigma of Sellières"

Logis of the abbaye de Sellières as it is today
The commune of Romilly-sur-Seine in the department of l'Aube (Champagne-Ardenne) was at one time know as Romilly-Voltaire. Voltaire was buried there for thirteen years between his death (30th May 1778) and his translation to the Pantheon (8th May 1791)  The18th-century house of the abbaye de Sellières still exist in its pleasant grounds, but the town and its abbey are definitely bereft of their chief attraction.  All that remains is a modest grave stone and a couple of toe bones in Troyes; even the 19th century bust of Voltaire on its column has disappeared......

Old postcard with the grave marked -
the remains of the chapel have long since disappeared.

Gravestone of Voltaire

At least the merchandise was cool
- not just a postcard but
commemorative socks as well!

 In 2004 there was game attempt to shine once more in the reflected  glory of the great philosopher when the town staged an exhibition on "Voltaire and the Enigma of Sellières". Apart from displays of prints, plans and letters the main focus was the question of whether the exhumers of 1791 had really carried off the right corpse.

In Champagne, we are told, doubts had long lingered.  It was rumoured that Voltaire’s body had been secretly hidden inside a  wall and some monk or gardener buried in his place, that the corpse, in its advanced state of putrefaction, had been dissolved in quick lime or, more sinister still, spirited away in the night by grave robbers – Freemasons or mysterious strangers dressed in black in the employ of the Empress Catherine the Great.

From the Adelaide Mail (1927) 

Speculation had been renewed in 1927 when, in the course of renovation works, an unidentified body was found under the main staircase of the abbey house.  It had no cross or rosary, an astonishing detail for a corpse interred within an abbey.  The ribs of the skeleton were broken in a manner consistent with the removal of the heart and the marks of  a surgeon’s knife were also visible on the skull. The conclusion was plain – this was Voltaire himself, swapped with the gardener to ensure he rested in peace.

 At the time the find caused a flurry of comment in the press as far away as Australia.  In 2004 it didn't excite much interest.


Notice of the Exhibition at the Abbaye de Sellières (October-November2004)

Further details from an accompanying book by local historian Pierre Guillaumot can be found in Biblionomadie et Voltaire by Eric Poindron, 24 November 2008.,1018.html 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Marat's bathtub .....again

This old postcard, depicting a Parisian antique shop with Marat's bath on display, is reproduced on half a dozen internet sites.  The point is obvious  - there have  been many "Marat" baths for sale, all of equally dubious provenance.  Does the one in the Musée Grévin fare any better?  At the best scenario there is a ten year gap in the written record between the destruction of Marat's monument and the bath's purchase in 1805.  I haven't seen the bath so am in no position to decide if it "looks" real, but a number of points were made at the time to  bolster its authenticity.  The following notes are based Lenotre's account, a mixture of contemporary correspondence and his own observations:

1.  "It is a made of copper (a fawn colour, almost black) and a "sabot" style bath similar to that depicted in contemporary engravings". This is fair enough.  Here, for example, is Charlotte Corday at the scene of her crime in an anonymous painting at the Musée Lambinet:

The obvious counter example is David's Death of Marat, especially disturbing since David was one of a delegation from the Jacobin Club who came to inquire after Marat's health on the day before his assassination.  It had been David who reported that leprosy covered the body of the Friend of the People, and that his blood was burning. (Moniteur, session of 15 July).  However, David's painting shows neither Marat's leprous scabs nor the shirt he was wearing nor the clots of blood which so unpleasantly mingled with the bath water in eye-witness accounts.  Artistry also presumably excluded the rather ridiculous copper clog shaped bath, which metamorphosised into a much longer, discreetly drapped affair more in keeping with David's heroic vision.

No doubt Marat's real bath was indeed a "sabot" one. The real problem is simply that the design, being sensible, was quite common; it used a minimum of water and conserved heat. One might suppose it was particularly popular among invalids like Marat who soaked in their baths for extended periods.

2. "On its upper side it has two little crotchets which might serve to make a reading-desk".  It is quite hard to know what exactly this means.  Did the bath have some sort of extension, or maybe a desk could be fixed on to it in some way?  Contemporary illustrators agreed that Marat worked on his papers in the bath but, judging by the variety of depictions, they were unsure of his exact arrangements.

Detailed accounts in fact suggest that the bath was a new departure and Marat was just working from it in a relatively spontaneous way. When the Jacobins visited  him he had been confined to his bed with a fever for some time, so they were quite relieved to find him up, ensconced in his tub: "We found him in the bath: a table, an inkwell, newspapers all around him, occupying himself ceaselessly in the public cause".

Marat's writing desk, on prominent display at his funeral and later in his memorial, corroborates this idea.  It seems to have been just an ordinary table; there was no implication it was attached to a bathtub or adapted in any way.

 "Marat's real bathtub"
Musée Grévin???
(Stock photo
3. "A sort of copper stool is fixed to the bottom of the bath, which permitted the person who was using it to remain seated and to write easily. Under this stool was placed the apparatus to heat the bath".  This doesn't get us very far. I assume baths of this sort ordinarily had somewhere to sit?  The heating apparatus is surprising; I imagined you just filled the tub with hot water from a kettle.  But in any case, it is quite clear Marat had no use for HOT baths, plagued as he was by fevers and fiery itchy sores.

4. "Time, one may say, has engraved its imprint in singular fashion on this homely bronze. It is highly probable that, since July 13, 1793, Marat's bath has never been sullied by the contact of water. The stains of the tribune's blood ought to remain there still. In any case, one sees distinctly encrusted the horizontal traces of the sulphurous drugs of which the baths of the Conventional, attacked, one knows, by a skin disease, were composed."  So a hundred-year old bath has some nasty stains?  Hardly surprising, really. It is a pity there was no blood and we can't do a DNA test.

The conclusion?  I'd say pretty iffy.  I think it is worth remembering though that the bath is more part of the myth of Marat than a relic of his actual life.  If he hadn't been stabbed in the bath, and depicted dead by David in one of the world's most arresting images, the bath would be just a forgotten domestic detail; whether the bath we have is "real" or not doesn't matter much - what is "real" anyway?


"The bath of Marat"  in Lenotre, Paris in the Revolution (English translation) p.201-205

Alfred Bougeart' Marat, Ami du peuple, 1865

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