Monday, 31 October 2016

Watteau, The Sick Cat


Iris idolatre Minet,
Quoique de tous les Chats Minet soit le plus traitre;
Des traits de ressemblance on produit cet effet;
Elle est folle d'un petit Maitre

Vous voyez avec joye un amant au trepas,
Tandis que pour un Chat vous prodiguez vos larmes;
Ce contraste bizarre Iris ne me plait pas,
Et je suis indigné de vos sottes allarmes;
Mais je ris quand je vois ce fou de médecin
Soigner cet animal et perfide et malin;
S'il n'appliquoit qu'aux Chats sa science incertain,
Quel bonheur pour l'espece humaine!

Tableau de l'humaine folie
Iris idolatre son Chat
Le Médicin encor plus fat
Croit le rappeler à la vie.

This etching by the Genevan artist Jean Étienne Liotard, dating from 1731, is a copy of a lost painting by Watteau.  It was one of the many engravings prepared for the posthumous Recueil Jullienne.  The Goncourt brothers characterised it as "one of those rare engravings that catch one's attention and retain it - that intrigues one's thoughts!"

The etching in the Recueil Jullienne
The satirical subject is unusual for Watteau, but  no explanation seems to survive as to why he painted it.  The picture depicts a doctor, a skinny figure with long greasy white hair, draped in a long gown, solemnly feeling the pulse of a cat, which is wrapped up in a bedcover and clutched to the  bosom of its concerned owner. The cat is spitting and ready to scratch the illustrious member of the Medical Faculty whilst the girl looks on with alarmed attention.  In one corner a third figure, probably a valet, watches with curiosity.  The verses at the bottom proclaim the theme of human folly. We learn that fondness for the cat is misplaced, for this feline is both "perfide" and "malin"; the doctor  who applies his uncertain science to curing it, is simply a fool.   I can't find a source for the verse - perhaps it is an original.  Minet is a generic French name for a pet cat.  A 19th-century article in Le Magasin pittoresque  reproduces the etching and recounts at length the story of Iris and her beloved Minet; but there are no sources given, so probably this is just a imaginative excursion.
"Le chat malade", Le Magasin pittoresque /edited by  Édouard Charton, vol.xxv January 1857, p.25-6.

The Louvre holds a sanguine drawing by Watteau of a head, three hand and two little cats which may possibly be  preparatory sketches for the painting.  The etching itself is quite common and there are copies in various public collections.

Watteau, Studies of a man’s head, hands, and a cat.  Red, black, and white chalk, graphite, 20 x 18.1 cm.
Paris, Louvre, Department of Graphic Arts

Sunday, 30 October 2016

The King, the Cat and the Commode

In contrast to Louis XV,  Louis XVI did not like cats, nor indeed pet animals of any kind. I suspect he was uncomfortable with the effusive affection and playful reverence lavished by bored courtiers on cats and lapdogs.  A couple of anecdotes come down to us about Louis's unfortunate experiences with the various felines which roamed unchecked in the corridors and apartments of Versailles.

The first episode involved the beloved pet of the comtesse de Maurepas, who, like Louis XV's cat, gloried in the name of Brillant.  Louis XVI managed  to kill this cat while taking careless potshots at  caterwauling moggies on the roofs of Versailles. (In a slightly less probable version, he delivered it a mortal blow with a hammer).   One may balk at the idea of shooting cats for sport but, as the sympathetic duc de Lévi noted, Louis's character was most revealed by his clumsy but sincere attempts  to make amends to Brillant's bereaved mistress. His discomfiture contrasts with the ironic enjoyment of the comte de Maurepas who treated the cat's demise with mock solemnity and derived great amusement from embellishing the story of Louis's misdemeanour. 

The duc de Lévis, who was captain of the comte de Provence's bodyguard, gives this account:

[ There was] a histoire bouffonne which the comte de Maurepas had composed,  or at least embellished with ridiculous details,  on the death of Madame de Maurepas's angora cat.  This beloved animal had been killed by the king who, in his frequent patrols across the immense terraced roofs of Versailles, was in the habit of amusing himself childishly by [hunting cats].  M. de Maurepas recounted the anecdote among  his close associates; what struck me most was the sorrow the good prince expressed for having upset Madame de Maurepas and the trouble he went to to replace the defunct cat.

Pierre Marc Gaston, duc de Lévis,Souvenirs et portraits 1814.

The story also appears, with variations, in the memoirs of the vicomtesse de Fars Fausselandry, who frequented the society of the duc de Brissac in the 1770s and '80s.

The comtesse de Maurepas's pet cat was one of the most considerable and well-considered personages of the Court.  He had his own particular entourage, composed of the most illustrious figures at Versailles.  His name was Brillant; he was an important person.  One inquired after his health and talked about him as though he were a Prince of the Blood.  He would sit next to his mistress on a sumptuous red embroidered cushion, where he would receive the homage of his courtiers with a noble nonchalance.

 Jean-Baptiste Perronneau - Lady with a cat
(portrait of Magdaleine Pinceloup de la Grange)
In spite of his grandeur, Brillant was a cat like any other, and love remained for him the first necessity in life.  As with the late King, whatever measures were taken, however great the trouble to accommodate his capricious affections, he was never satisfied;  sometimes My Lord the Cat became again a simple moggy.  He would abandon the pomp of the comtesse de Maurepas's apartments, and like the commoners of his species, would prowl the attics, the garrets and the gutters.

It so happened that his amorous wanderings led him to a room on the top floor of the chateau  where Louis XVI had set up a locksmith's workshop  Whether by chance or by preference, Brillant took to enjoying his pleasures there.  His frolics caused disorder; the king was aware of them;  One day it happened that the king entered the workshop unexpectedly and the Maurepas cat was unable to escape in time. Louis, who didn't recognise him, delivered him a blow with a hammer and killed him stone dead on the spot.

It was a stormy period in history.  There were revolts due to the high price of bread and preparations were being made for war with England,  all of which must have created grave worries for the Minister of State Jean Frédéric Phélypeaux de Maurepas. But great political events caused him less trouble, regret and difficulty, than the task of telling his wife of her cruel loss and consoling her in her grief.

The comtesse de Maurepas filled the palace with her cries and made tearful complaints about  Louis XVI's barbarity. Courtiers who had come to give their condolences found themselves in an awkward position.  The king sent the baron de Breteuil as his ambassador to attempt to appease the comtesse; the monarch was no less pleased by his diplomatic skills on this occasion than he was by his negotiations with Vienna.  No-one spoke of anything for a week but  Madame de Maurepas's cat.

M. de Breteuil was rewarded for the success of his mission with a full-length portrait of Brillant, which the comte de Maurepas presented to him with considerable ceremony.  The baron placed it in the most conspicuous position in his apartments where it remained until the first minister's death.

Mémoires de Madame la vicomtesse de Fars Fausselandry
See also the article in La France pittoresque

Here is a second, more lighthearted anecdote,from the memoirs of the the royal page Hézecques.  The "throne" in question was not, I think, Louis's splendid new chaise à l'anglaise - no self-respecting cat go near a flushing toilet....

One day the King was seated on his throne - not the throne where he received solemn embassies or rebuked rebel Parlements, but the throne which was the responsibility of the porte-chaise.. In his hurry, he didn't notice an enormous Angora cat which had curled up peacefully in the porcelain bowl to enjoy the solitude and cool. For a time, the animal remained unperturbed; deprivation of air did not disturbed its snores. But suddenly, without warning, kitty became well and truly frantic, demonstrating its discontent by extraordinary efforts to escape from its uncomfortable position.  The king was unnerved and surprised by this veritable close assault; he too immediately took flight, holding up his stockings and running about ringing bells.  The captive meanwhile, in a pitiful panic, broke porcelain and vases in its attempt to find the way out;  an escape was promptly offered to it.

This anecdote, which I guarantee to be true, would not have amused Louis XVI who didn't like cats.  In this, as in many other things, he differed from Louis XV who always had his cat on the mantlepiece where it would be  provided with a velvet cushion to protect it from the cold of the marble.
France d’Hézecques,  Souvenirs d’un page de la cour de Louis XVI (1873) p.213-4.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Louis XV, cat-lover

Pet cats became widespread for the first time in France in the early 18th-century.  The fashionable cat of  the French Court and aristocracy was the now almost defunct "angora",  a longhaired breed which was said to have originated in Ankara in Turkey.   The first specimen was introduced into France in 1620 by Nicholas Fabri de Peiresc, who acquired it  in Rome from the explorer Pietro della Valle, Pellegrino. Angoras were known as "French cats" in England well into the 19th century. They could come in different colours but were characteristically white.  Many courtiers owned them at Versailles, including Queen Marie Leszczyńska  and Marie Antoinette who boasted no less than six. (The story is that they were carried off to exile in the New World by Captain Clough and became the progenitors of the American Maine Coon.)

Jean-Jacques Bachelier 1761 Angora cat chasing a bird (private collection)

Louis XV owned both cats and dogs. He was attracted to cats at an early age.  The Marquis de Calvière, a  royal page, recalled that, at the age of twelve, Louis possessed a female cat called Charlotte who had a litter of four kittens.  The young king handled them so much that three out of four died within twenty-four hours.
Diary entry of 1st June 1722, reproduced in Goncourt, Portraits intimes (1880),

Louis XV's cat is made to dance

As an adult, Louis had a particular affection for angora cat called Brillant, who would come to wake him every morning.  This cat  habitually sat on the mantlepiece during  Royal Council sessions in the  cabinet du Conseil , which was one of the most luxurious rooms in Versailles. Saint-Simon spoke of Brillant as the King's "colleague".  The cat was the particular charge of Louis Quentin, the marquis de Champcenetz, Louis's premier valet de chambre.  In this anecdote, recounted in the memoirs  of Jean-Nicolas Dufort de Cheverny, the royal pages, with  Champcenetz as their ringleader, managed to incur the displeasure of the usually easy-going Louis by tormenting his favourite cat.

The king had a white angora tomcat, of prodigious fatness, very gentle and very friendly;  he used to sleep in the cabinet du Conseil on a cushion of crimson damas in the middle of the mantlepiece.  The King  always returned to the petits appartements at half-past-midnight.  It was not yet  midnight, and Champcenetz said to us, "Did you know that I can make a cat dance for minutes on end?"  We laughed and laid bets.  Champcenetz then pulled out a flask from his pocket, stroked the cat and poured eau de mille fleurs all over its paws.  The cat went back to sleep and we thought that we had won our bet.  But suddenly feeling the effect of the esprit-de-vin, it jumped to the ground, emitting explosive noises; it ran across the King's table, growling, staggering and making balletic leaps.  We were all laughing, when the King suddenly appeared out of nowhere;  everyone resumed his position, his proper demeanour and serious expression.  The King asked what had amused us. "Nothing, Sire, we were just telling a funny story," said Champcenetz.  At that moment the wretched cat recommenced its dancing, running around like a madman.  The King watched it:  "Gentlemen, he said, what is going on here?  Champcenetz, what have you done to my cat?  I want to know".  The question was direct;  Champcenetz hesitated for a moment then recounted briefly what had happened, whilst the cat continued its dance moves.  He told the tale smiling, watching the King's eyes to see how he would take it; but the King scowled.  "Gentlemen, he said, I will take this no further; but if you wish to amuse yourselves in future, I trust that it will not be at the expense of my cat".  This was said so dryly that no-one after that ever tried to make the cat dance.  It happened only that once.

Dufort de Cheverny, Jean-Nicolas, Mémoires sur les règnes de Louis XV et Louis XVI et sur la Révolution  Vol. 1(1886) p.124-5

 "Eau de mille fleurs" seems to have been a particularly vile concoction made from liquid cow dung mixed with white wine and then distilled.  See:
Olivier Lafont, "L'eau de mille-fleurs qui fit danser le chat du roi"  Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie 1999  Vol.87(323) pp. 343-346

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Cartes de sûreté

Carte de Sûreté on display at the Musée de la Prefecture de Police

The French Revolutionary Cartes de sûreté were the precursors of  modern ID cards.  The law of 19th September 1792 "relative to public security and tranquility for the city of Paris" obliged citizens (that is all men over 15 years of age) resident in Paris for more than eight days to present themselves to the Comité de surveillance of their Section within 24 hours, with two witnesses to vouch for their Republican credentials.  Every man issued with a card was required to register his  name, profession, age, place of residence,  former address, date of arrival in Paris and date of birth. 

Not many individual cards survive but the Archives Nationales has complete registers for thirty out of the forty-eight Sections.  Records exist for 134,000 citizens out of a total in Paris of perhaps 200,000. The entire series has now been digitised and made available on the website of the Bibliothèque Généalogique de France, a private library, set up in 1986 on the site of the Bibliothèque Thiers. The collection is aimed primarily at genealogical researchers and a small charge is made to access individual records.

Although the cards were primarily an emergency policing measure, they form part of wider Revolutionary efforts to quantifying the population and control its movement, notably the censuses of July 1790 and July 1793 and legislation concerning passports.  Since much of the census data is now lost, they constitute an important source of information on the social make-up of Paris during the Terror.  [There have been a number of studies; the 1999 paper by Olivier Faron and Cyril Grange was one of the first to make use of the digital files, to map patterns of migration into Paris, predominantly from departments immediately to the north of the capital.]

Register of Cartes de Sûreté, 1792-3.  Archives Nationales

Bibliothèque Généalogique de France, collections:  "Cartes de sureté" à Paris de 1792 à 1795,

Olivier Faron and Cyril Grange. "Un recensement parisien sous la Révolution. L'exemple des cartes de sûreté de 1793". In: Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée, tome 111, n°2. 1999. pp. 795-826.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Madame de Pompadour's ring-watch.

"Twist this hook around the dial,"murmured an audacious courtier to Madame de Pompadour in 1752, "as you twist our empire 'round your finger!"

 Elgin Watches Advertisement, 1921

Roy Rutherford Bailey, Through the ages with Father Time (c.1922)

This illustration of 1921,  by Roy Rutherford Bailey, captures an otherwise undepicted moment in the life of the great Beaumarchais.  It is 1753, and the young Beaumarchais,  a fledgling watchmaker, presents Madame de Pompadour with a tiny novelty "keyless" watch mounted on a ring.

Beaumarchais himself described the watch: "It is in a ring, and is only four lines across and two-thirds of a line in height between the plates. To render this ring more commodious, I have contrived, instead of a key, a circle round the dial carrying a little projecting hook. By drawing this hook with the nail two-thirds round the dial, the watch is rewound and it goes for thirty hours".

Louis XV was so taken with the ring that he ordered a similar model for himself. 

Beaumarchais's feat of miniaturisation was made possible by a new form of escapement.  Spectacularly, the twenty-one year old challenged the respected royal horologist Le Paute for ownership of the invention, pursuing him through the pages of the Mercure and securing a humiliating judgment against him from the Academy of Sciences.  The escapement in question is usually identified as the "double virgule"; even horological experts seem a bit unsure as to the details and it is not altogether clear (at least to me!) how original Beaumarchais's version really was.  Apparently very few watches used the design, which was difficult to make.  The Pompadour watch has long disappeared, though French "bagues-montres" can be found on the internet, mainly from the later 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ring watch, "most likely of
 Continental origin",c.1800

Collectors Weekly:  Amusing rings for the wealthy - part 3

The mysteries of Beaumarchais and the "double Virgule escapement" discussed by the experts - Horologie-Suisse forum.May 2012 and December 2013.
Lapinbleu - animated watch escapements: the Virgule in action!

Documents translated with comments from:
Elizabeth S. Kite, Beaumarchais and the War of American Independence, vol.1  Boston 1918

1. Beaumarchais, Letter to the Mercure,  published December 1753 (p.50-51)

“I have read, Monsieur, with the greatest astonishment, in your September number, that M. Lepaute, watchmaker to the Luxembourg, there announces as his invention, a new escapement for watches and clocks which he says he has the honor of presenting to the King and to the Academy.

It is of too much importance to me in the interests of truth and of my reputation to permit him to claim this invention by remaining silent on the subject of a breach of faith.

“It is true that on the 23rd of July last, in the joy of my discovery I had the weakness to confide this escapement to M. Lepaute, allowing him to make use of it in a clock which M. de Julienne had ordered of him, and whose interior he assured me would be examined by no one, because of the arrangement for winding of his own invention, and he alone had the key to the clock.

“But how could I imagine that M. Lepaute would ever undertake to appropriate to himself this escapement which it will be seen I confided to him under the seal of secrecy?

“I have no desire to take the public by surprise, and I have no intention to attempt to range it on my side by this simple statement of my case; but I earnestly beg that no more credence be extended to M. Lepaute than to me, until the Academy shall have decided who is the author of the new escapement. M. Lepaute evidently wishes to avoid all explanation, for he declares that his escapement resembles mine in no way; but from the announcement which he makes, I judge that it is entirely conformable to it in principle.

“Should the commissioners which the Academy names discover a difference it will be found to proceed merely from some fault in his construction, which will help to expose the plagiarism.

“I will not here give any of my proofs; our commissioners must receive them in their first form; therefore whatever M. Lepaute may say or write against me, I shall maintain a profound silence, until the Academy is informed and has decided.

“The judicious public will be so good as to wait until then; I hope this favor from their equity, and from the protection which they have always given the arts. I dare flatter myself, Monsieur, that you will be kind enough to insert this letter in your next issue.

“Caron, son, watchmaker, rue St. Denis, near Sainte-Catherine,
Paris, November 15th, 1753.”

2. Beaumarchais, Petition to the Royal Academy of Sciences (p.51-2):

"Instructed by my father since the age of thirteen in the art of watchmaking, and animated by his example and counsels to occupy myself seriously with the perfecting of the art, it will not be thought surprising that from my nineteenth year, I have endeavored to distinguish myself therein, and to merit the public esteem. Escapements were the first object of my reflections. To diminish their defects, simplify and perfect them, became the spur which excited my ambition.... But what sorrow for me if M. Lepaute succeeds in taking from me the honor of a discovery which the Academy would have 52crowned! I do not speak of the calumnies which M. Lepaute has written and circulated against my father and me, they show a desperate cause and cover their author with confusion. It is sufficient for the present that your judgment, Gentlemen, assures to me the honor which my adversary wishes to take from me, but which I hope to receive from your equity and from your insight."

Caron, fils
At Paris, November 13th, 1753

3. Extracts from the registry of the Academy of Science (p.52)

The following February, two commissioners were appointed to investigate the matter. In the registry of the Royal Academy of Sciences, under the date of February 23rd, 1754, a lengthy report is given, a short extract from which will suffice to show the results of the investigation.
"We therefore believe that the Academy should regard M. Caron as the true inventor of the new escapement and that M. Lepaute has only imitated the invention; that the escapement of the clock presented to the Royal Academy on the 4th of August by Lepaute, is a natural consequence of the escapement for watches of M. Caron; that in its application to clocks, this escapement is inferior to that of Grabain, but that it is in watches the most perfect that has been produced, although it is the most difficult to execute.”
Signed, “Camus and de Montigny.”
The Academy has confirmed this judgment in its assemblies of the 20th and the 23rd of February. In consequence of which I have delivered to M. Caron the present certificate with a copy of the report, conformable with the deliberations of March 2nd at Paris.”

This, March 4, 1754—

Signed, “Grand-Jean de Fouchy, Perpetual Secretary of the Royal Academy of Sciences

4. Beaumarchais, Letter to a cousin in London dated July 31st, 1754 (less than five months after receiving the certificate)

I have at last delivered the watch to the King by whom I had the happiness to be recognized at once, and who remembered my name. His Majesty ordered me to show the watch to all the noblemen at the levée and never was artist received with so much kindness. His Majesty wished to enter into the minutest details of my invention. The watch in a ring for Madame de Pompadour is only four lines in diameter; it was very much admired although it is not entirely finished. The King asked me to make a repeater for him in the same style. All the noblemen present followed the example of the king and each wishes to be served first. I have also made a curious little clock for Madame Victoire in the style of my watches; the King wished to make her a present of it. It has two dials, and to whatever side one turns, the hours always can be seen.
This lawsuit from which the young watchmaker issued triumphant, proved for him a valuable piece of advertising, for it gained him the attention of the king himself who happened to have a passion for novel devices in time-pieces. It was not long before the young Caron received an order from His Majesty to make for him a watch having the new escapement.
“Remember, my dear cousin, that this is the young man whom you have taken under your protection and that it is through your kindness that he hopes to become a member of the London Society.”

5. Letter to the Mercure de France, dated 16th June 1755. (p.54-55)

[Even as late as June 16th, 1755, the ambition of the young watchmaker had not extended itself as is clearly shown in a letter addressed to Le Mercure by the young horloger du roi as he now styles himself. In this letter he modestly defends himself against the envy which his success has awakened]

Monsieur, I am a young artist who has only the honor of being known to the public by a new escapement for watches which the Academy has crowned with its approbation and of which the journals have spoken a year ago. This success fixes me to the state of watchmaker, and I limit my whole ambition to acquiring the science of my art. I never have thrown an envious eye upon the productions of others of my profession, but it is with great impatience that I see others attempting to take from me the foundation which by study and work I have acquired. It is this heat of the blood, which I very much fear age will never correct, that made me defend with so much ardor the just pretentions which I had to the invention of my escapement when it was contested eighteen months ago. Will you allow me to reply to certain objections to my escapement which in numerous writings have been made public? It is said that the use of this escapement renders it impossible to make flat watches, or even small ones, which if it were true would make the best escapement known very unsatisfactory.”

[After giving numerous technical details the young watchmaker terminates thus] “By this means I make watches as thin as may be desired, thinner even than have before been made, without in the least diminishing their good quality. The first of these simplified watches is in the hands of the king. His Majesty has carried it for a year and is well satisfied. If these facts reply to the first objection, others reply equally to the second. I had the honor to present to Madame de Pompadour a short time ago a watch in a ring, which is only four lines and a half in diameter and a line less a third in thickness between the plates. To render this 55ring more convenient I contrived in place of a key a circle which surrounds the dial plate bearing a tiny projecting hook. By drawing this hook with the finger nail about two-thirds of the circuit of the dial the watch is wound up and goes thirty hours. Before taking it to her I watched this ring follow exactly for five days the second hand of my chronometer; thus in making use of my escapement and my construction, excellent watches can be made as thin and as small as may be desired.

“I have the honor to be, etc.,
Caron, fils, horloger du roi.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Voltaire, watchmaker

I have established in the hamlet of Ferney a little annex of the manufacture of watches of Bourg-en-Bresse.  Our theatre auditorium…has been transformed into workshops.  There, where once we recited verse, we are now melting gold and polishing cogs.  We must build new houses for the emigrants…We must remember that everyone nowadays wants a gold watch, from Peking to Martinique….Sensitive souls will be happy to learn that sixty Huguenots live so well with my parishioners that it could not be possible to guess that there are two religions here.
Voltaire to the marquis of Jaucourt, letter of 1770

Watchmaking at Ferney

Cabinotier's workbench, Musée des Cabinotiers, Gilbert Albert collection
 In 1770  the ongoing political conflict in Geneva resulted in an influx of natif watchmakers across the French border into Ferney,  where the aged Voltaire was sympathetic to their cause.  Voltaire had initially advocated the development of the nearby village of Versoix, on the shore of Lake Geneva,  as a rival French commercial centre. His first reference to “the manufacture of watches at Ferney” comes in March 1770; he seems rapidly to have jumped to the conclusion that the enterprise could become "a very large business";  within six weeks he was already was sending  boxes of watches to the duc de Choiseul in Paris.   He soon boasted that he had forty workers "telling the time to Europe".

At its height the Ferney manufactory consisted of  five separate watchmaking partnerships,  assisted by myriad of artisans in ancillary industries: case-makers, finishers, jewellers, enamel painters - according to Voltaire, fifty pairs of hands were needed to make a single watch.  These small enterprises were named after the watchmakers: Dufour & Céret, Valentin & Dalleizette, Servant & Boursault  - all Genevan "natifs"- as well as the two Frenchmen Panrier & Mauzié, who had already arrived in Ferney prior to 1770. Georges Auzière and his brother - well-known as political activists - were specialist  case-makers.  Voltaire provided accommodation for the industry, first in the requisitioned  theatre, then in small workshops.  He also embarked on a major programme of construction within the town, devoting a considerable part of his income to building new houses for the carbinotiers and their families. It is reckoned that in total Voltaire encouraged the construction of some 78 houses.  Under his care, the town prospered;  in 1781 its tax rating was two-and-a-half times more than it had been in 1752.

Despite frail health, Voltaire also enthusiastically - and energetically  -  took on traditional functions of the Geneva watch merchant or établisseur,  supplying capital and raw materials and arranging the sale of the watches. This represented a considerable outlay of capital on his part and the incipient Ferney industry was not without problems; in  December 1771 three of the new watchmaking businesses were on the verge of bankruptcy and had to be bailed out to the tune of  80,000 livres. By 1773, however, the industry was well established; it is estimated there were some 600 workers, producing 4.000 watches annually and bringing in around 400,000 livres a year.

Ferney-Voltaire today

Voltaire's initial marketing efforts largely consisted of appeals  to  his highly placed personal contacts.  He sent a box of samples to Choiseul, to distribute  at the forthcoming marriage of the dauphin and Marie-Antoinette.  He sent circular letters to French ambassadors requesting them to establish outlets for the watches; predictably, he had little success with Cardinal Bernis in Rome, though he fared much better with Pierre Paul marquis d’Ossun in Spain.  He also prevailed upon the goodwill of  Catherine the Great, who to a large extent floated the industry in early days;  in mid-1771 it was reckoned that deliveries to Saint-Petersburg were worth no less than 60,000 livres.  As time progressed Voltaire sought out more regular markets.  The watchmakers themselves had contacts with Turkish outlets:  by June 1771 Voltaire boasted that 30,000 livres worth of watches had been sent to Constantinople.  According his nephew d'Hornoy,  in 1775 Turkey and the Levant were the principal export markets.  Nearer home Voltaire managed to market Ferney products in twelve French cities, although he complained that Parisian watchmakers would resell the watches under their own names for a considerable  mark-up.   After initial difficulties, he was able to enlist the help of the celebrated Parisian watchmaker Jean-Antoine Lépine, a native of the pays de Gex, who sold Ferney watches in his Parisian shop in the  place Dauphine, From 1774 until 1792, Lépine also had watch movements made at Ferney, and Voltaire wrote proudly: "I am well acquainted with L'Epine, watchmaker to the King, who has an establishment at Ferney, under my dependency indeed...“

Watch models

Dufour & Ceret  gold pocket watch 
"Cogs and Pieces" Antique pocket watches.
The Ferney watch industry is represented by only fifteen or so watches in public collections - in the Louvre, the Voltaire Institute, the Genevan Museum of Horology [?? is this the Musée des Cabinotiers] and the Brou Museum in Bourg-en-Bresse  A few occasionally come up at auction..  The watches bear the names of the particular watchmakers rather than that of Voltaire himself, and the place of manufacture is  variously given  as "Fernay", "Ferney/Voltaire" or "Fernex".

Ferney watchmakers made both watches with a verve escapement and repeater watches. Voltaire boasted that he had one of the best repeater watch manufacturers in Europe working for him;  among his most successful models was a gold repeater watch decorated with semi-precious stones called marcasites.  This sold for 18 gold louis instead of 30-40 for the same model in Paris;  .The Lépine calibre, first made around 1775, was also used at Ferney.

The watches  were made in silver and in gold, sometimes, for decorative effect, in different coloured golds. As already noted decorative jewels were often employed.  The Ferney manufacture characteristically produced the enamelled watches which were a feature of Genevan production.  Voltaire's correspondence mentions a number of portrait watches - of Louis XV, Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and her sister;  of Catherine the Great;   also of Choiseul and  the marquis d'Aranda,   According to the Watchlords forum, the finest extant example is a repeater watch, now in the collection of the Genevan firm Vacheron & Constantin, signed "Les Dufour et Céret. A FERNEY".  The watch is embellished with diamonds and decorated with an enamel portrait of Choiseul.  (On 16th July 1770, Voltaire described to the marquis d'Ossun, "a very fine repeater watch....with the portrait of Monsieur le duc de Choiseul".  The design  is thought to have been based on a copy by Pierre François Marcinhes of Van Loo's portrait of Choiseul). Sadly, I cannot find a photo on the internet.

Another enamel portrait watch, this time featuring Voltaire himself in his fur-trimmed coat, was sold at auction in 2004:

The work was not always of the first class. There were complaints from Versailles that Marie-Antoinette's portrait was unrecognisable.  Despite Voltaire's efforts to procure gold from Spain, or even melt down gold coins given as gifts, the watchmakers were sometimes forced to produce watches with a lower gold content than usual.  Voltaire made several futile requests for permission to be allowed to use 18-carat rather than the standard 20-caret gold. 

Not all Ferney watches, however,  were very expensive . Voltaire was aware that Genevan watches were considered over-priced and boasted that his were produced more cheaply. He  was able to benefit from tax concessions which enabled him to deliver to Paris via Lyon duty free.   A surviving price list for the firm of Dufour & Céret started at three or four louis for a basic silver pocket watch, rising to  fourteen for a silver repeater watch and forty-two louis for the best repeater watch in gold.  Watches over eight-and-a-half-louis came with a two year guarantee (Davidson, p.251).  

Publicity tract from Dufour & Céret, dated 1770:
Dufort, Céret & co., entrepreneurs of the Watch Manufactory at Ferney near Versoix, on route to Lyon, wish to advise that they undertake horology of all sorts, that they decorate watch cases with enamel portraits to demand, that they are in a position to  furnish their Work more cheaply than elsewhere because of the protection that the KING has accorded to them, and to others who wish to establish enterprises alongside them.  


Ian Davidson, Voltaire in exile (2004), chpt 17, Watchmaking 1770-1776.p.231-264 [Extracts on Google Books]

Estelle Fallet, "Voltaire's watchmaking legacy",  Watch around, no.006 Autumn 2008-Winter 2009.

"The French Clock and watch industry ", Watchlords forum,  post of April 7th 2010
? reproducing material by Gérard Lallement originally published in Worldtempus Encyclopedia 

It would seem a luxury watch needs a good pedigree!  In 2010 the "Manufacture Royale" brand, was launched by Farmaud Faivre, owner of TEC Ebauche, a Swiss watch component manufacturer, who in 2013 sold on to GNT luxury Holdings. The idea was to echo Voltaire's Ferney enterprise.

 In fact Ferney  claimed to be a "royal" manufactory for only a short period.  A royal privilege was not awarded despite Voltaire's entreaties and the title was swiftly abandoned.

Sadly the watches do not echo 18th-century design: the link to Voltaire is just an marketing ploy: as GNT carefully puts it,"the main goal was not to benefit from some kind of far fetched historical link but more to position the brand on the values cherished by Voltaire." The 2016 collection of "Enlightened horology" features the "1770 Micromegas" - very expensive and beautifully made -  but I am not sure Voltaire would have been that impressed.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Marie-Antoinette watch

Last week BBC Four broadcast an excellent documentary on the Breguet "Marie-Antoinette" watch, introduced by the veteran entertainer Nicolas Parsons, now 92 years old and a life-long clock enthusiast. The programme is currently on i-player, but here are a few notes on Breguet and his remarkable watch.

Breguet's watch no.160

The "Marie Antoinette" is arguably the finest, most complex watch ever made and is currently valued in excess of $50 million dollars.  It was commissioned from the great Parisian watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1783 and was over forty years in the making. Some say the client was the queen of France herself, or perhaps her lover the Count Fersen.  Details of the commission can be found in the surviving ledgers, kept today in the museum and archive which occupies the upper floor of the Breguet boutique in the place Vendôme.  In the BBC programme Nicolas Parsons visits the museum in the company of the archivist Emmanuel Breguet, a direct descendant of the great watchmaker. 

CLIP: Nicholas Parsons takes a closer 
look at some antique Breguet watches
In this clip Nicholas can be seen admiring the beautiful watches.  Later the ledgers are reverently brought out of the vaults for him to view.  Breguet kept an enumerated  record of every single watch or clock that he sold.  On each page are the details of five or so pieces,  with the names of the watchmakers who worked on them,  plus the client, date of sale and the price. The 160th watch listed is the “Marie-Antoinette” .  While most entries are a couple of lines, this commission covers a page and a half,  with an extra leaf inserted, in order to record all the additional functions or "complications" incorporated into the design. Watch 160 was to chime the hours and the quarter hours; it should have a thermometer; it was to display day, date, month, years and even leap-years. It should tell solar time.  Every bearing and roller, without exception, would be made of sapphire.  It was to be as beautiful as it was ingenious.  The commission specifically stipulated “all the complications possible and known be incorporated” ; “everywhere gold must completely replace brass” and, most striking of all, “no limit on time of manufacture or on price”.  As Emmanuel Breguet points out the watch was a sort of super-challenge, requiring a “maximum” – both in design, technical achievement and aesthetics. 

Breguet was to work on the watch intermittently for the remainder of his life.  During  the Terror he fled to Switzerland, taking the uncompleted watch with him; in 1812-14, with his reputation at its height, he worked obsessively.   The watch was finally completed by his son in 1827, three years after Breguet's death.

The modern history of the watch makes for good television.  Having passed through various different hands, it was bought in the early 20th century by the industrialist David Salomons, whose collection was bequeathed to the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem.  In 1983, the museum was the victim of a spectacular "watch heist"; 106 antique watches, the "Marie Antoinette" included, were stolen by a lone thief with only the most basic of tools.  No sign of the watches was found until 2009 when, quite unexpectedly, the haul was restored to the museum.  The Tel Aviv antique dealer, called out to give a valuation and overwhelmed by the unexpected sight of the lost treasures, is particularly splendid; he is surpassed only Nicolas Parsons himself who, at the end of the programme, finally comes face-to-face with the magnificent watch.

Register entry for no. 160

Who really commissioned the Marie-Antoinette?

This, of course, is the big question. The BBC  skirts over it lightly, perhaps in deference to the current Bregent / SWATCH company who have used the Marie-Antoinette connection extensively in their branding.   However, the detailed evidence can be found in a  scholarly study by the Belgian expert Bernard Roobaert, which has been made freely available (in French and English) on ISSUU.  Bernard Roobaert, points out that, at 62 centimetres in diameter, No.160 is surely a gentleman's rather than a lady's watch. There is no mention of Marie-Antoinette (or the gallant Fersen) either in the Breguet archives or in records associated with 19th-century exhibitions of the watch.  The first reference appears in the work of Sir David Salomons, who found Marie-Antoinette mentioned on the label of the watch when he bought it in 1917; the owner of the shop was French born antiquarian and jeweller Louis Albert  Desoutter.  Salomons  himself remained cautious - the watch was "known as the Marie Antoinette" or "said to have been made for Marie-Antoinette"  - but from this point on the association became established in the literature.

What are the alternatives?  The Breguet scholar George Daniels argued that No. 160 was not in fact a commission at all, since no limitations of time or price were imposed. However, there is evidence to the contrary.

A notice of 1887, in the hand of Breguet's successor Edward Brown, indicates that the watch was ordered by "an officer of the guards of the Queen Marie Antoinette".  In a 1893 certificate, Brown stated:

This watch was ordered from Abraham Breguet around 1783 by Monsieur de la Groie, officer of the guards of Queen Marie-Antoinette [...] A. Breguet started the work and the watch was almost finished when the Revolution broke out;  Monsieur de la Groie emigrated, Breguet [...] fled to Switzerland in 1793 where he remained a few years during which the work on this piece was interrupted.  When he came back, the work started again and the watch was finished in 1798;  Monsieur de la Groie had died and Breguet kept it.

Later on, general Junot, Duke of Abrantes, wanted to buy this piece, but he died before entering in its possession, and it remained finally to Breguet and became the property of his family after his death.

This chronology does not quite add up. A repair note for the watch survives from 1838, which implies that  at some time after 1827 when it was completed, it must have passed from Breguet's possession. The owner at this time is clearly specified:  "M(onsieu)r le M(arqu)is de Lagrois à Provins.  Sa montre Perpetuelle à repetition no 160."

There have been various suggestions as to who Monsieur de la Groie / the marquis de Lagrois might be.  Bernard Roobaert has a detailed argument pointing to the marquis de la Croix de Castries and his son who was in command of the garrison at Provins in the 1820s. The chronology fits well, though the corruption of La Croix into La Groie is a bit of a stretch. Whatever the identity of the client, however, we still have no evidence about the motivation behind the commission.


BBC Four "The incredible story of Marie-Antoinette's watch" (website)

Bernard Roobaert, The Breguet Grande Complication nr.160 "Montre d'or" (English version, November 2015)

House of Breguet website. Montres Breguet are currently sponsoring a Marie-Antoinette exhibition in Tokyo.

Breguet au Louvre (website) - resource created for the Breguet exhibition which took place at the Louvre in 2009.
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