Friday, 26 October 2018

Robespierre's nose

I have been very happy to have comments by the art historian Marianne Gilchrist - aka "Silverwhistle" - on several of my posts. In September she published an article on the website ARBR (Amis de Robespierre pour le Bicentenaire de la Révolution) which pulls together some of her thoughts on that all-important question:  what did Robespierre look like?

According to Marianne, Robespierre's most easily recognisable feature is his nose, which was narrow and pointed, and slightly turned-up at the end.  This can be seen clearly in the better authenticated portraits, for instance the famous Carnavalet portrait, the bust by Deseine and several of the higher-quality engravings:

A particularly precious piece of evidence is provided by the little physionotrace engraving of Robespierre (reproduced by Buffenoir, "Portraits de Robespierre", Annales Révolutionnaires (Paris 1908) vol.1(4) p.646-7. Plate 31A)

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

A people and its King..... (Jean-Clément Martin)

A new film on the French Revolution is a big event!

Un peuple, et son roi [One Nation, One King], directed by Pierre Schoeller, was premiered at the Venice Film Festival and went on general release in France on 26th September.  It is a film conceived on a lavish scale:  the cost of production was €16.9 million ($20.8 million) and there is a star-studded cast: Gaspard Ulliel (Basile), Louis Garrel (Robespierre) and Denis Lavant (Marat).  The film is reported to be presold, indeed already "sold out", in several countries - Spain, Portugal, Benelux, Switzerland, Greece, Hungary, plus Japan and China - but not as yet in the UK or US.
The main point of interest is director Pierre Schoeller's favourable approach to the Revolution and his determination to show events "from the point of view of ordinary people"  

The action encompasses most of the major events of 1791-93. The storyline, which is really little more than a vehicle, concerns a young convicted criminal called Basile (Gaspard Ulliel), who is liberated and follows  the King on his return from Varennes.  He subsequently falls in love with Françoise (Adèle Haenel) and becomes an insurgent.

I haven't seen the film, but the trailer (above) left me disappointed. The shots of the March on Versailles and the inside of the Assembly do not seem much more real than those of the French Revolution blockbuster by Robert Enrico and  Richard Heffron, which was made thirty years ago. The American reviews confirm this first impression. The critic in Hollywood Review described the production scathingly as "a wannabe epic about the French Revolution that’s so bad it almost makes you wish France were still a kingdom".  In his view the plot was thin and events too crowded in; political opinions were represented by slogans and historical figures reduced to caricatures. The deputies in the Assembly were just "men in foppish wigs spouting big ideas in tiny speeches".  Ouch!

Boyd van Hoeij " One Nation, One King': Film Review | Venice 2018", Hollywood Reporter,  09.08.2018.

Unsurprisingly, the film has been more favourably received in France where its pretentions have been taken much more seriously.  It has been advertised with the encomium "Magisterial. A Great Political Film". 

Pierre Schoeller takes himself very seriously indeed.  And to be sure he addresses two extremely serious topics: the role of "the people" in the French Revolution and the legitimacy of political violence. In his director’s statement, Schoeller says that he was inspired to make a film about the Revolutionaries because “these people built their sovereignty, established new relations of equality, ordained new rights (…). They have things to tell us.” He explains that he has organised his material around the concept of "le peuple décisif" and, as a secondary theme,  around the importance of women in Revolutionary events.

Several academic historians were consulted in the course production and others have given their considered response.  There is a feature based on the film in the magazine Historia for October with contributions by Olivier Coquard,  Hervé Leuwers, Thibaut Poiret, Jean-Clément Martin and Guillaume Mazeau.  Jean-Clément Martin has also published a long review essay:

Jean-Clément Martin,  "A propos du film de Pierre Schoeller, Un peuple et son roi. Comment analyser cette présentation d'une révolution populaire?"  Published 10th October and available on Academia.

Here is an English summary:

As one might expect, Professor Martin is sympathetic towards the enterprise of portraying  popular revolution.  He declines to criticise the cinematography, though he does admits that the drama is in danger of being stiffled by the film's didactic purpose (Au risque...que la dimension didactique étouffe le film.) and by the need to reference a whole host of Revolutionary events.


He begins by pointing out a few anachronisms. (In an epic of this scale, the struggle for historical accuracy is "no doubt lost in advance"):

  • The opening scene shows a traditional ceremony in which Louis XVI washes the feet of twelve poor children of Paris assembled in Versailles. The scene, with the children in their blood red dresses, prefigures the bloodshed to come.  The existence of such a ceremony was unknown even to Jean-Clément Martin but his researches confirmed  that it did exist, in stylised form,  almost down to the Revolution.  However, in 1787 Louis was accused of avoiding the occasion altogether.  This suggests a very different significance, implying the discomfiture of a modernising king.

  • Professor Martin takes issue with the women's dress, their appearance"en cheveux" and, particularly, the amount of cleavage on display. No doubt this makes for good cinema.  However, in 1789 women of the people would have demonstrated their respectability by wearing a fichu or scarf over their breasts. 
  • The march on Versailles in October 1789 is one of the major set-pieces.  But it seems to take place along a country lane.  In reality this was a major artiillery out of Paris which was constantly full of heavy, horse-drawn traffic.  Also, why are the urban women of Paris depicted carrying scythes and sickles? 

Addressing Revolutionary violence

Here we move on to the main core of Professor Martin's critique.  He complains that some of the more difficult episodes of Revolutionary violence are omitted from the film - for example, the deaths of the gardes du corps on 6th October 1789.  More fundamentally, although the events of 10 August are depicted in graphic detail, the September Massacres are mentioned only once, and that ambiguously (one of the characters wishes the victims paix à leurs âmes.).  Another silence concerns masculine reactions to feminine violence - which was negative among supporters as well as enemies of the Revolution. 

The Revolution of the People

Professor Martin contests the idea that there was ever a unified Revolutionary populace.  The film presents only a small sample of stereotypical "sans-culottes":  families of artisans and workers, with a few beggar children and a pittoresque vagabond thrown in for good measure.

In reality, the radical supporters of Revolution were socially divided. They included well-to-do employers like the rich brewer Santerre and Duplay, a master-carpenter. Such patrons continued to be nervous about the demands of their workers. It is shame that Pierre Schoeller omitted real radicals like the Enragé Varlet, who wanted to establish direct democracy and equality between the sexes.

Whole swathes of Parisian society are simply missing from the story:  the mass of middling people, domestic servants, priests and believers, provincials and immigrants. To illustrate the true complexity of allegiances, Professor Martin draws attention to his researches on  "les dames de la Halle" who led the October March, but who also demanded the preservation of Christmas and concerted together to oppose the radical femmes enragées.


Un peuple, et son roi - the title presents a dichotomy which is misleadingly simplistic.  Louis himself - played disconcertingly by the dark, lean Laurent Lafitte - is made into a pompous caricature, always sporting his decorations, and always shown in strange isolation.  Similarly the film sets up a artificial contrast between  the "people" and its representatives, those who act and those who debate. The political Revolution is represented entirely by the deputies who, apart from Marat, are portrayed as bewigged and impotent.  They are invariably seen in the Assembly,  with nothing shown of their lives or relations with others.  This is evidently misleading.  Danton, for instance, was heavily involved in the politics of his quartier, in the Cordeliers Club, in orchestrating the Revolution 10 August.  (The printer Momoro, who appears briefly,  was also a prominent figure in the Cordeliers.)  Even the aloof Robespierre had close relations with the martyred sans-culotte leader Lazowki, and drew a "garde du corps" from the Sections.

The proliferation of institutions - assemblies, delegations, committees - was one of the great characteristics of the period and its experiment in direct democracy.   It is historically false to show as spontaneous and disordered the departure of the insurgents by torchlight on 10th August;  the insurrection had been prepared several days in advance by the Comité de l'Evêché;  the deposition of the king had been debated for weeks by the Sections;  Danton, and even Pétion, were involved. Contrary to the impression given by the film, the action was the prerogative of armed men, with no women or children present.

A resolution?

The film ends with the death of Louis XVI.  The royal execution, as the accomplishment of popular Revolution, is linked metaphorically with the achievement by Basile, now a glassblower, of a perfect glass sphere.  Jean-Clément Martin again points to omissions and errors which subtly alter this final message.  There is no recognition of Louis's personal courage, no depiction of the intimidation which accompanied the vote for his death in the Convention (and the number of votes is wrong).  There is also no sense of the massive security which surrounded the execution;  Louis rode with two gendarmes, who personified the force of the state.  All these factors militate against the idea that the King's execution represented a unanimous popular will or a lasting resolution of the Revolutionary crisis.

Professor Martin's criticism is clearly of a piece with his insistence elsewhere on the importance of historical detail.  A film must necessarily be selective.  But, by ironing out the complexities, Pierre Schoeller has falsified the record.  The film claims erroneously that "popular identity is natural, consubstantial, identified with the poor". Thus is sidestepped  the whole fraught political debate about the nature of "the people", and the dilemma of the Rousseauist "general will".  Moreover, says Martin, the  justification offered for Revolutionary violence is a biased and misplaced one - it is "une légitimation dérangeante".

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Frenchman and the "pot of porter"

This anecdote is again from Fanny Burney. In October 1792 Fanny and her half-sister Sarah were the guests of Sarah's uncle by marriage, Arthur Young,  at Bradfield Hall in Norfolk.  Here they met the exiled duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who was renting a house in Bury-St-Edmunds. The  two men had struck up an unlikely friendship through their mutual interest in agricultural improvement. In 1784 Young had played host to La Rochefoucauld's two sons, and in 1787 and 1788, during his tour of France, he had visited the château de Liancourt and its great estates to admire the duc's innovations, which included a model farm and a  manufactory for linen and cotton cloth.  Young had since washed his hands of the constituants révolutionnaires and declared to Fanny that Liancourt deserved his misfortunes; but he consented, nonetheless, to invite him to dinner.

The duc as deputy to the Estates General in 1789
Engraving, Musée Carnavalet

François Alexandre Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, had been one of the most conspicuous members of the liberal aristocracy.  In 1789, as representative of the nobility of Clermont-en-Beauvaisis at the Estates-General, he had been one of the forty-seven noble deputies who joined the Third Estate on 25th June in formal disobedience to the King.  As grand maître de la garde-robe, it had been he who had brought news to Louis of the fall of the Bastille: he is credited with the famous observation, "it  is not a revolt, Sire  - it is a revolution!".

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Juniper Hall - Pen portraits of the émigrés

Something of the life of the French exiles at Juniper Hall can be traced through the diaries and correspondance of Fanny Burney. The Burney family became intimately involved with the French émigrés.  Norbury Park, the grandest house in the vicinity was owned by  a family friend, William Lock,  a great patron of the arts, who had entertained Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence.  Fanny's married sister Susanna  Phillips  lived about three-quarters of a mile from Juniper Hall in the village of Mickleham.   In September 1792 Susanna wrote to Fanny with news of the recent arrivals:  "We shall shortly, I believe, have a little colony of unfortunate (or rather fortunate, since here they are safe) French noblesse in our neighbourhood."  She reported that Jenkinson had leased Juniper Hall.  The cottage at Westhamble was rented to Madame de Broglie, who had made a  fourteen-hour Channel crossing in open boat with her small son.  The owners were at first reluctant to let the property since they feared that "French papishes" would never pay the rent (Lock had been prepared to act as guarantor) [Diary and letters, p.16]

Norbury Park.  Engraving after J.P.Neale, 1829.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Juniper Hall - French exiles in Surrey

cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Ian Capper -

This solid-looking English house is Juniper Hall near Dorking,  which, during the French Revolution, became the somewhat unlikely refuge for Madame de Staël, her lover the comte de Narbonne and several other members of the exiled French liberal aristocracy.  Faced with hostile British conservative opinion in the capital, the group preferred to seek sanctuary in the English countryside.  It is not known why this particular house was chosen, though Mme de Broglie took a modest cottage in nearby Mickleham at roughly the same time.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

The Marquis de Favras - courageous grammarian?

"I see you have made 3 spelling mistakes".  Last words of the Marquis de Favras after reading his death sentence before being hanged (1790).

This bon mot momentarily gained meme status in September 2017 when it was Tweeted by the Dutch defence spokesman and political analyst Klaas Meijer. The Twitter count currently stands at: 15,797 Retweets 40,889 Likes.  Despite the flurry of interest, no-one seemed quite sure whether we were supposed to be commending the marquis's sangfroid, or his equally laudible regard for correct orthography.

Even the basic question remains unanswered:  Did he actually say it?

The execution of the Marquis de Favras

The query should be easy to resolve. Thomas de Mahy, marquis de Favras, was the very first Counter-Revolutionary to be condemned to death: he was hanged (rather than guillotined) in February 1790. His highly public trial and execution excited a huge amount of interest at the time, and the details are well documented.

The execution of Favras, patriotic engraving by Jacques-Philippe Caresme (1790)

By all accounts, Favras was a relatively insignicant player in the political game.  From 1772 to 1775 he had been first lieutenant in the Swiss Guards of the comte de Provence, and in 1789 he became embroiled in the latter's Counter-Revolutionary plans.  Using the comte de la Châtre as an intermediary, Provence commissioned Favras to negotiate a loan of 2,000,000 francs from the bankers Schaumel and Sartorus.  A pamphlet which circulated throughout Paris on 23rd December 1789 revealed supposed details of an ambitious plot to rescue the Royal Family and have Provence declared Regent with absolute power.  A force of 30,000 soldiers was to encircle Paris; and Lafayette, Necker and Bailly were to be assassinated.  Favras and his German wife, the princess of Anhalt-Bernberg-Schaumburg,  were immediately arrested and incarcerated in the Abbaye prison.  Provence publically disavowed him. The marquis was later transfered to the Grand Châtelet. His trial lasted two months.  Details of the plot remain very obscure, but the researches of Barry M. Shapiro show that Favras was a scapegoat, the victim of judicial system designed to protect the interests of Lafayette and his relations with the Court.  His fate contrasted markedly with that of the Baron de Bezenval, commander of the royal troops on 14th July, who was allowed to go free at this time.  Even  the radical Révolutions de Paris admitted that the evidence against him was inconclusive.   A botched attempt to rescue him from prison on 26th January 1790 only made matters worse.  Eventually the marquis confessed to the abduction plan, though not to the preparations for armed resistance  -  Louis XVIII's later remarks suggest that this probably represented the truth of the matter (see article by Ballard, below).

On 18th February, despite a notable defence plea, Favras was sentenced to be hanged.  Thirty-two out of thirty-eight magistrates voted for the death penalty. The historian of the affair, Edmond Cléray, confirms that Favras, once he lost hope of reprieve, faced his final ordeal with courage: "il se haussait à la taille des heros, des martyrs" (p.104).

On the morning of the 19th the magistrate Quatremère came to read him the judgment. Favras was obliged to surrender the ribbon of his order of Saint-Louis and, having been offered the services of a confessor, spent three hours in conference with curé of his local parish of saint-Paul.

Favras's condemnation, with the ribbon of his Order of St. Louis still attached.  The title of Marquis, which had been respected throughout the trial, is for the first time crossed out. (reproduced in Cléray, p.48 facing)
At three o'clock in the afternoon he emerged from the Châtelet, wearing the white shirt of a parricide, and with  a placard round his neck which read Conspirateur contre l'Etat. In his hand was a flaming torch "of yellow wax, weighing two livres" as prescribed by the judgment.  Amidst cries of "Favras, Favras, a mort!" he was taken to the parvis of Notre-Dame where he was obliged to make his amende honorable. He himself read out the judgment against him in a steady voice.  From thence he was conveyed to the Hotel de Ville.  

The original transcript of Favras's Testament 
(Cléray, p.64 facing)
Here, somewhat unexpectedly, the proceeding stalled. Favras was given permission to dictate his final confession -  which he did slowly, firmly and with elaborate care. The fifteen page document, an elegant tour-de-force, took over four hours to compose.  Afterwards it was rushed to the printers by Favras's brothers.  Some commentators maintained that the marquis's concern for style was just an excuse to stall for time, and they were possibly right. No sooner had the clerk written the concluding phrase, Lecture faitte led. condamné, than Favras had the declaration crossed out. He summoned Quatremère  and offered to name his co-conspirators in return for a stay of execution. However, when he found this was not to be, he accepted the inevitable bravely.  He was taken to the place de Grève,allowed a short valedictory speech and at eight o'clock in the evening, in the February darkness, finally surrendered himself to the hangman.  

Engraving sold on ebay.

The legend of his aristocratic concern for correct language, even in the face of death, was born almost immediately.  According to Mme Campan, who had sent a spy to the Hotel de Ville, "Favras corrected his last will after writing it over, and went to the scaffold with heroic courage and coolness" (Memoirs, p.84).

And Victor Hugo...?

Favras's regard for compositional niceties in a stressful situation certainly has its roots in truth, but, what about those three spelling mistakes? 

 "Vous avez fait, Monsieur, trois fautes d'orthographe" - sadly, Favras seems never to have uttered those actual words.  According to the 1860 compilation by Édouard Fournier, the phrase, though attributed to Favras, was really a quotation from Victor Hugo. 
[Édouard Fournier, "L'esprit dans l'histoire: recherches et curiosités sur les mots historiques", 1860, p.241]

 ln Hugo's play Marion Delorme, written in 1828 and published in 1831, one of the characters, Saverney, delivers the line at the foot of the scaffold, as he correct the spelling mistakes in his own death-warrant. (Act V, scene 7).  The scene is supposed to echo the story of Favras which Hugo would have known well.  He lived only a few doors away from the marquis's former residence in the place des Vosges and almost certainly based his 1833 play MarieTudor on the historical drama Favras, episode de 1789, staged at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in 1831.  A manuscript note to Marion Delorme in Hugo's hand confirms:  Monsieur de Favras, at the site of his execution, made a declaration of his innocence and personally corrected the spelling mistakes of the clerk  ["Le Mrs de Favras au lieu de supplier, faite un déclaration d'innocence et corrige lui même [sic] la faute d'orthographe du greffier". See Marion Delorme, critical edition by John J. Janc,  University Press of America 2013, p.300 nt]

One can see here how  the play-text subtley alters the scenario;   there are not just "spelling mistakes", but, to emphasise the pedantry, specifically three;  the document is not Favras's prolix Testament, with its long protestations of innocence, but the character's death-warrant.

It is not so far away from Favras, and his brave end, but as always "the devil is in the detail"


"Favras,Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de (1744-90)" in Richard Ballard, A New dictionary of the French Revolution (2011)

Joseph Droz, Histoire du regne de Louis X VI (Paris, 1858), 3:72-75.

 Edmond Cléray, L'affaire Favras, 1789-1790 (d'après des documents inédits), Paris, 1932

Barry M. Shapiro, "Revolutionary Justice in 1789-1790: The Comité des Recherches, the Châtelet, and the Fayettist Coalition",  French Historical Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Spring, 1992), pp. 656-669.  [Article on JStor.]


Here is a well-informed account in English of Favras's execution:

The 18th of February was to be the last day of the trial ; early in the morning an immense crowd collected round the Châtelet;  the Place du Châtelet itself, and all the streets which turned out of it, were lined with people ; horrible vociferations resounded on all sides,  “Death to Favras !'';  “To the gibbet with the aristocrat!"   “The traitor or his judges!"  These gloomy cries formed a kind of accompaniment all day to the pleading of the advocates.  M. de Lafayette has been unjustly reproached with having publicly declared that he could not answer for the National Guard, or be sure of maintaining the tranquillity of Paris if M. de Favras was acquitted. On the contrary, he openly desired the lieutenant- civil, and the king's attorney, to pass judgment without fear, and, whatever the sentence might be, he would undertake that it should be fulfilled; and he, accordingly, took active military measures to secure the safety of the tribunal and the accused.  

Révolutions de Paris, no.32, p. 32, events of 19th February 1790.
"M de Favras arrived at the main door of Notre Dame, took with great courage the flaming torch in one hand and in the other his condemnation which he read outloud himself in an assured voice"

It was in the midst of all these warlike preparations, and the angry murmurs of the populace, that M. de Favras listened to the latter part of his defence.  M. de Cormeré, his brother, spoke with much courage and talent, and M. Thilorier pleaded at some length, with the boldness and vehemence of a man who was thoroughly convinced, and without any regard to his republicanism.  The accused occasionally broke silence, and declared again and again, with his hand upon his heart, that it would be very blameworthy to involve anybody else in the suspicions with which he had been so unfortunate as to inspire justice ; he declared upon his honour, that he had never been employed by anybody upon any mission whatsoever.   Night was now approaching, and a few smoky lamps were lighted, the discussion was still going forward, and the judges were exhausted with fatigue, and looked pale and disordered.   At this melancholy hour a profound silence reigned among the audience, who could scarcely be discerned in the growing obscurity.  Madame de Cormeré and Madame de Chitenay, his sisters-in-law, sat opposite the bench upon which the accused was placed, and could with difficulty restrain their sobs.  Such was the state of things in the judgment-hall when midnight struck.  M. de Favras was then removed by the guards, and his sentence was read aloud; he was condemned to do penance before Notre Dame, with bare feet, uncovered head, and in no other garment than his shirt, with a cord round his neck, and a burning torch in his hand; from thence he was to be conveyed in a dung cart to the Place de Grève, where “he shall be hung till he be dead." 

The execution of a criminal at this period generally took place within the twenty-four hours after his sentence was passed.   M. de Favras had been conveyed to the chamber of torture.   When M. Quatremère, the reporter, came to read his sentence to him, he found him with his head resting upon his hand, and seated at a small table, upon which was placed a single candle.  He rose respectfully at the entrance of the magistrate, and listened to his sentence with great calmness. Two or three times he interrupted M. Quatremère. 

" All those statements are false ; I never could dream for an instant of attempting the life of those in authority.  For whom do they take me, pray?" 
M. Quatremère said to him, with much naïveté, after he had read his condemnation: “Monsieur, your life has become a necessary sacrifice, for the security of public peace." 
The Marquis de Favras threw upon him a look full of scorn, and said, 
“Monsieur, since it is essential that the blood of an honest man should be shed, in order to preserve the tranquillity of this country, I am glad that you have fixed upon me for the victim, for I will show you Parisians that a gentleman knows how to die” 
M. Quatremère became a little embarrassed, and scarcely knew what to say. He added, by way of adieu,  “I have no other consolation to offer you than that which religion affords you, and I entreat you to avail yourself of it." 
" Monsieur,” replied the Marquis de Favras, ''my great consolation is to feel that I am innocent. I am the victim of two very bad men ; and it is you, Messieurs, who are worthy of my pity. I wish to have M. le curé de Saint Paul for my confessor” 
He passed the whole of the following morning with this priest. 

About eleven o'clock the registrar, Drié, came into his prison, and, according to the directions he had received from the tribunal, required him to give up the cross of Saint Louis, with which he was decorated. 

" A soldier, Monsieur," answered the Marquis, " cannot be disgraced by a registrar." Then, turning to a sergeant-major, who was called Jacques Brujant, “ Here, comrade,” said he, with much emotion, “here is my cross ; it was loyally won and loyally worn, believe me." 
After this interruption he conversed for two hours longer with his confessor. As soon as the priest had quitted him he sent for the registrar, and asked him if they would permit him to have his hands unbound, and who would perform this office for him? The registrar assured him that this favour would not be granted him ; and he proved to be right.  He gave M. Drié a sum of twenty louis. “ This is all that I have,”  said he ; "be sure to give this money to my poor wife when I am dead. She will have great need of it." 

The procession was to set out precisely at three o'clock.  A great body of troops were employed on this occasion to keep the crowd in order.  Directly the clock had struck three the drums began to beat, the door of the Châtelet suddenly opened, and M. de Favras came forth, dressed in white, and closely guarded. . [Cléray specifies that Favras wore the white dress of the parricide over his clothes;  although he was supposed to be barefoot, he was in fact allowed white stockings and slippers.] His countenance was perfectly calm and serene ; the cries and coarse jests of the populace did not seem to move him at all.    When the procession reached the Pont de Notre Dame, the prisoner found himself brought in closer contact with the crowd ; and noisy shouts and exclamations resounded more loudly on his ears; he looked coldly, however, on the multitude, and maintained his self-possession, without making any attempt to speak. On several spots large fires were lighted, round which everybody crowded. There, too, were wandering traiteurs who sold beignets and brandy to the chilly spectators.   

A general silence prevailed when the dung cart had passed through the square formed by the soldiers. M. de Favras got out of it.  He clasped the burning torch firmly in one hand, while in the other he held the parchment containing his sentence of death.  He then walked up to the principal door of the church, and cried out in a clear voice,  “Listen, people!  I am going to read you the sentence which has been passed on me.  I swear to you that I am innocent, as I expect shortly to appear before God; but I am obliged to submit to man's justice."   Then kneeling down, he read aloud the doom which had been assigned him.  When he had finished he got into the dung cart again, and desired to be conveyed to the Hotel de Ville; which place they reached at four o'clock.  M. Quatremère asked if he had anything to say to relieve his conscience ?  “ Yes, Messieurs," replied he;  “Write down the last sentiments and confession of an innocent man, who is on the point of meeting death." It was observed that M. de Favras had become pale; but, nevertheless, he dictated his last confession clearly, word for word, with an unfaltering voice. This confession was pub-lished the following day, and was read with such avidity, that the printer declared in a note that it was utterly impossible for him to satisfy everybody who desired to purchase it. It is too long, however, to give to the reader. It took M. de Favras four hours to dictate, for he was very particular in the expressions which he employed, and frequently changed one for another when he imagined the first did not quite convey his idea. Some persons have said that he sought to gain time by this delay, because he hoped, even at the last moment, that somebody would come to his succour. It was thought that the Comte de Provence might have saved him, and that Favras expected he would  but this is most improbable, if Monsieur had in any way been his accomplice. 

Révolutions de Paris, no.33, p. 39, events of 19th February 1790.
"M.Le Marquis de Favras, at the Hotel de Ville, drew up his will, with all the tranquility of a man who is not condemned to be hanged"

The night was now far advanced, and the people who waited to see the end began to grow impatient, more especially as a fine steady rain fell chillingly upon them.  They commenced shouting and using the most violent threats; in short, they became so furiously excited, that an officer felt it was his duty to go into the hall and mention that he thought it would be highly imprudent to make the people wait any longer, as their violence was beyond all bounds.   M. de Favras had corrected the copy of his confession; he was writing a letter, probably a last adieu to his wife and children.  The remarks of the officer did not make the least impression on him; he continued writing very calmly, folded up his letter, and then rising, said, “Messieurs, I am ready." At these words a shiver seemed to pass through the audience, and a general silence reigned among the spectators, even among those outside.  But no sooner did M. de Favras make his appearance on the flight of steps, surrounded by torchbearers and armed men, than shouts of applause resounded on all sides. 

Execution of Mr le marquis de Favras. From the Journal de Paris, 20th February 1790.
Before his execution Mr de favras took 20 louis and some loose change which he handed to the curé of St. Paul to be given to his wife.  He was executed on the place de Grève on the 19th February 1790 at eight o'clock in the evening.  After his death his family reclaimed his body which was buried in the graveyard of  Saint-Jean-en-Grève.  
The same precautions had been taken in the Place de Grève as at Notre Dame : the gallows was surrounded by a large body of troops;  lamps had been placed on the pavement, on the rails, and even fastened to the gibbet, so that the wet pavement shone like a mirror.  M. de Favras followed the executioner with rapid steps to the gallows.  When he reached it, he went up three steps of the ladder, then stopped, made a gesture with his hand. '' Wait a moment,'' cried he, " and beg those around me to hold their tongues for a few seconds.”  Silence being established, “Brave citizens," exclaimed he, “I am going to appear before God, and at such an awful moment, no one will ever accuse me of falsehood ; I swear to you then, in the face of heaven, that I am not guilty — that you will shed the blood of an innocent man " at the conclusion of these words he mounted the last step of the ladder, and said in a clear, loud voice, '' Before God I am innocent ;" after which, he turned to the executioner, and told him to do his office. The executioner slipped the noose over his head, and pushed him off the ladder.  For an instant he was swung above the heads of the crowd, and a violent convulsion shook his whole frame, and then the long white shadow cast by his body from the ruddy reflection of the lamps re-mained perfectly motionless, and a deathlike silence ensued. 
Satirical engraving from Desmoulin's Revolutions de France et de Brabant. Favras is shown being ferried across the Styx with his placard round his neck.   Waiting to meet him on the far bank is the poisoner Desrues, plus  a deputation of enemies of the Revolution  - Foulon, Berthier, de Launay, Flaisselle - carrying their heads on pikes .

Madame de Favras did not know of her husband's execution till the next day ; and only learnt the sentence which had been passed on him, and the particulars of his execution from a crier who passed beneath her window. The shock was so great that she fell down in a fainting fit.  She was soon after set at liberty; she had been arrested without cause, and was returned to her family without explanation. For several days, nothing was talked of but M. de Favras' trial ; but the general disorder increased, and ensuing scenes of horror swept away all memory of his untimely end. 

Alexis de Valon, "Le Marquis de Favras" ,Revue des Deux Mondes, Vol.10(6), 15 June 1851, p.1091-1135; translated into English in Bentley's Miscellany, Volume 30.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Danloux - Skating on thin ice

Could it be that the Skating Minister, that most iconic of Scottish paintings, was painted not by Henry Raeburn but by the French émigré artist Henri-Pierre Danloux?  This proposal caused furore in the art world when it was first put forward in 2005 and the question is still very much unresolved.  Like a lot of these historical debates, the controversy is less interesting in itself, than for the various academic and political manoeuvres it has occasioned. Scottish pride and the credibility of a hundredweight of merchandise ride on the outcome - this was, after all, the image which in 2005 the new Scottish Parliament had chosen to put on its Christmas cards!

Reverend Robert Walker (1755 - 1808) skating on Duddingston Loch 
oil on canvas, 76.2 cm  x 63.5 cm, Scottish National Gallery
The originator of the dispute was Dr Stephen Lloyd, since 2012 Curator of the Derby Collection at Knowsley Hall in Merseyside but until 2009 a Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  In a paper published in the Burlington Magazine in July 2005 Dr Lloyd noted that there had always been doubts concerning the attribution of the Skating Minister.  A catalogue to the National Galleries collections produced in the 1970s states, for instance, that "the type of canvas, style of painting and scale of figure have no parallel in Raeburn's work";  the 1983 illustrated guide questioned the provenance: "there are difficulties in accepting the family tradition that it was painted by Raeburn, whose style was quite unlike this" (p. 474-5).  For Lloyd and other critics a major  Raeburn exhibition held in Edinburgh and London in 1997 threw into sharp relief how unusual the painting was among Raeburn's works in terms of paint-handling and composition.  A portrait of Admiral Duncan in the National Portrait Gallery encouraged Dr Lloyd to consider Danloux as the possible painter.

Merchandise at stake - the Scottish National Gallery shop in 2004
The Scottish Parliament building: the windows of the Members' office accommodation
are widely thought to echo the silhouette of the Skating Minister.

Although Stephen Lloyd's revisions have been widely accepted , he has a knowledgable and well- respected opponent in David Thomson, retired Director of the National Portrait Gallery and the foremost expert on Raeburn.  The chief organiser of the 1997 exhibition, in 2004 Dr Thomson co-authored a popular study of the Skating Minister for the Galleries.  He has been seconded by a younger specialist  Dr David Mackie, who is currently preparing a catalogue raisonnée of Raeburn's work. Thomson's views were widely canvassed in the Scottish press and in July 2006 he replied to Lloyd in the Burlington Magazine.

Provenance of the picture

There  is no reason to doubt the traditional identification of the skater as the Reverend Robert Walker (1755-1808), minister of the Canongate Kirk and member of the Edinburgh Skating Society, which met regularly to skate on the frozen lochs of Duddingston or Lochend.  However, there is no record at all of the painting itself before 1902. In 1914 it was offered for sale at Christie's by Beatrix Scott, Dr Walker's great-granddaughter,but failed to make the reserve of £1,000.  The art historian James Grieg noted in his papers at the time that it was "not a Raeburn".  In 1949 it was auctioned by Christie's in a sale of "Sporting pictures and paintings" and acquired for the National Galleries for the comparatively modest sum of £525. The then Director of the Galleries Sir Ellis Waterhouse was confident the painting was by Raeburn and professed himself well-pleased. In Dr Lloyds' view, however, the low price realised suggests that other buyers remained doubtful.

The vendor in 1949 was a Miss Lucy Hume from Bournemouth who had purchased the painting from Beatrix Scott in 1926 for £700. A letter from her lawyer contains a typed memo from Beatrix Scott, which provides the crucial statement of provenance:
The portrait was painted by Raeburn in 1784.  I have always understood that Raeburn considered it his masterpiece, the pose being so good and the lovely frosty atmosphere of the sky and the ice with all the marks of the skates. Dr Walker was a great skater.  On his death, Sir Henry Raeburn gave the picture to his widow, my great-grandmother. After her death, it came to my mother.

The tradition that Walker and Raeburn were friends is confirmed by the minister's will drawn up in 1798 which nominates Raeburn as one of the nine trustees appointed to look after his estate. There is no mention of the painting in the list of items bequeathed to his son John. 

Clearly the dispute turns to a large extent on the weight given to Miss Scott's testimony.  Dr Lloyd is sceptical:  
It's a piece of evidence that one has to handle very, very carefully. To me, this description is very over-specific. There are statements about it being given by Raeburn to Walker's widow; there's all the business of the 'hissing' ice. It's a rather too elaborate description for an 80-year old woman. To me, it sounds like a sales pitch. [quoted in The Herald, 20 Aug 2006]

If not Raeburn, then who else?   There were various other Scottish portraitists working in Edinburgh at this time - David Allan, Alexander Nasmyth, Archibald Skirving. According to Dr Lloyd only the latter was sufficiently accomplished to have created the Skating Minister, but is excluded because he worked almost exclusively in pastels.  Unfortunately, there is no documentation at all to connect the work with Danloux either - though the dates are possible.  Danloux emigrated to London in 1792 and settled among the French colony in Soho where he set himself up successfully as a portrait painter.  He is known to have travelled to Edinburgh in 1796, 1797 and 1798  where he painted the comte d'Artois and his family, in comfortable exile in Holyroodhouse,  as well as various society figures, such as Admiral Duncan.

Danloux kept a detailed journal of the comings and goings of the émigré community and his English clients.  This is published, but not accessible on the internet - It does not mention Walker, but it would be nice to get a feel of how inclusive his record really was.  There is also a bit of an unanswered question about the dating of the portrait. Most art historians, including David Thomson,  favour a date in the mid-1790s, which would coincide with Danloux's presence in Edinburgh.  1784, the date given by Beatrix Scott, is too early even for Raeburn, who only returned to Scotland from Rome in 1786. Walker was active in the Skating Society for a long period, from 1780 into the 1800s, so that is no real help.  He was born in 1755, so in the mid-1790s he would have been forty, which looks about the age of the man the portrait.  Walker is in his clerical attire, but a costume historian could also surely date that stock and hat; to me, the dress certainly looks consistent with the 1790s.

Style and composition

With so little documentation, argument inevitably centres on the work itself.  There are various technical considerations which cast doubt on the attribution to Raeburn: 

  • The picture is unusually small for a Raeburn (76.2 cm x 63.50 cm).  Dr Lloyd describes it as a '"cabinet" composition'.
  • It uses a traditional type of canvas whereas Raeburn preferred canvas with a herringbone weave
  • The surface has developed an irregular craquelure which is not found in Raeburn's other oils.
  • The painting was subjected to x-ray analysis. The results, published for the first time in 2013, showed an absence of the lead-white underpaint which Raeburn generally used in the flesh of his sitters.
"The x-rays show that the lead-white paint which Raeburn commonly used to 'underpaint' his works shows up in the ice, landscape and sky of the painting but nowhere in the face.  This is utterly alien to the typically rough and expressive application of this key pigment in the underpainting of the faces in Raeburn's portraits"  [Lloyd, quoted in The Scotsman, 20 Jan 2013]

The style and brushwork are also atypical.  Dr Lloyd notes that Raeburn's painting after 1786,  is  characterised by dramatic lighting effects, deep shadows, rich colour and a loose handling of paint.  The Skating Minister in contrast is carefully drawn, the palette muted and there is a virtual absence of shadow. 

More telling still is the composition itself.  Raeburn virtually never depicted figures in motion in this way.  The graceful skater is skilfully captured in perfect balance, with one leg behind his body.  On the other hand, there are several parallels in Danloux's work.  Indeed, Dr Lloyd's attention was first drawn to Danloux by the pose of the officer in the background of  Danloux's portrait of Admiral Duncan, painted in 1798,  in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  

He has subsequently identified a number of other parallels.  This, for example is Danloux's portrait of the famous émigré courtesan Rosalie Duthé, painted in 1792.

Here is one of two cabinet size portraits of officers in the Dumfriesshire militia painted by for Charles, Earl of Dalkeith during Danloux's time in Scotland: 

Sergeant Stevenson of the Dumfriesshire militia 
99.1cm  x73.6 cm

Dr Lloyd's opponents have produced various counter-arguments: 
  • The technical objections are not decisive. Although the small scale is unusual, it is not unparalleled in Raeburn's works - the painting was after all an intimate gift to a friend rather than a formal commission.  Raeburn also occasionally used canvas without the herringbone twill.  The absence of white lead underpainting was more of a problem. Duncan Thomson emphasised that Raeburn  may have been open to new techniques: “I’m not sure how significant it is,” he said. “It’s like horse meat in beefburgers. It doesn’t change the look and it doesn’t change the taste.”  [Let's hope McDonalds doesn't take that line....]
  • Some aspects of the painting are highly characteristic of Raeburn:  the repainted angle of Walker's hat, the presence of lines scored with the wrong end of the brush;  the scuffed pink paint used for the cheeks.  The way the coat shines through the white material of his cravat is "absolutely typical Raeburn".
  • The novelty of the pose is an argument for rather than against it being by Raeburn. Raeburn was open to different influences and experimented with different compositions during his time in Scotland, especially in the mid 1790s.  One suggested parallel is The Skater by Rhode Island artist Gilbert Stuart, painted in Westminister in 1782, though there is no direct evidence that Raeburn knew this work. [seeThe Scotsman, 5 June 2005]

Where does this leave us?

With the experts so at odds, this is a difficult one.  At the National Galleries in Edinburgh opposition to the reattribution seems to have hardened.  The current exhibition Remaking of Scotland: Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860 at the newly rennovated National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh features Danloux's portrait of Admiral Duncan.  According to a review:  "Although the iconic “Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch” was once attributed by Stephen Lloyd, former curator at the SNPG, to the talented portrait-painter, the official line at the Galleries is now that this is undoubtedly the work of Raeburn. "[, 13 Sept 2018]

On the other hand, the balance of scholarship is with Dr Lloyd.  In 2012 he edited a collection of essays on Raeburn with Viccy Coltman, professor of 18th-century History of Art University of Edinburgh.  In this he published his x-ray findings for the first time, prompting a new, more favourable, round of articles in the press.  In 2012 he also publicised his views in an article on Raeburn for the ArtUk website.

Lloyd's supporters include Sir Timothy Clifford,  Director of the Scottish Galleries until 2006, and  Alistair Laing, the former Curator of Pictures and Sculpture at the  National Trust.  Laing had been struck for a long time by the likeness of the Skating Minister to Danloux's portrait of Rosalie Duthé:

Certainly, people had treated the picture for some time with doubt, but I had never seen anyone's name associated with it, " he told the Sunday Herald. 
It was a Raeburn exhibition in Edinburgh and London in 1997-98 that sparked Laing's doubts. "It was only when I went to the Raeburn exhibition in 1997 that Danloux occurred to me, and I did say it to some people but never did anything about it. It was just a hunch, backed up by my knowledge of the two artists.'' The active figure reminded Laing of a painting by Danloux of Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthe hanging a painting: "He was good at showing a graphic, active figure performing, which is unusual in British and French painting of the era. 

"With the skater, you really feel the motion, and Mlle Duthe showed Danloux had that kind of imagination not to portray a classical position, or the accepted norms of genteel behaviour. It is the scale of a number of his works and he was in Edinburgh at the right time to have painted the picture." [quoted in The Herald, 17 April 2005]

Particularly telling is the agreement of experts on 18th-century French painting, such as Colin Bailey at the Frith Collection and above all Olivier Meslay, the Louvre's specialist on British paintings and the foremost authority on Danloux. Meslay, it would seem, had kept quiet for diplomatic reasons:

"It would be tricky that it is a Frenchman who is about to say - in front of Scots - that this is not by Raeburn, by your Scottish artist, but by a Frenchman, " he told the Sunday Herald yesterday. 

Meslay's political sensitivity got the better of him. "I found it embarrassing - it would be like a Scot coming to say that the most beautiful painting by David [the French neoclassical painter and revolutionary] in the Louvre was by Raeburn.  [The Herald, art. cit]  

In his 2012 book, Dr Lloyd even reported agreement from Pierre Rosenberg, whom he met at a conference; the doyen of French art history commented, "that the Danloux attribution was absolutely right and that the picture could never have been painted by Raeburn".  [see The Scotsman,  20 Jan 2013.]

The lack of documentary evidence is, however,  still a major stumbling block.

In January 2013 the Times reported that Dr Lloyd had appealed to owners of Scottish private collections for help to trace a new Raeburn portrait of the Revd Walker.  Raeburn is known to have painted at least twenty portraits of clergymen, including one of the Revd Walter Buchanan now in a private collection.  The portrait Dr Lloyd wants is a similar conventional image,  "a formal head-and-shoulders image of Walker in clerical uniform with black robes, white collar and powdered hair".  The article states only that there is "evidence that such  a portrait of Walker was auctioned" but it is not clear what this evidence is or how it relates to the provenance of the Skating Minister. [Times, 21 Jan 2013]

Personally, I think it is worth standing back for a moment and asking what it is which makes this little picture so appealing and so suited as a modern Scottish national symbol?  It is surely the Reverend's pose, private and purposeful but at the same time slightly playful, gliding over the ice with an unself-conscious kick of the back leg.  It is a perfect image of a man of the late Enlightenment - and so very.....well, Danloux.


This small picture, showing a figure in action, is quite unlike other known portraits by Raeburn.
Notice for The Skating Minister on the National Galleries of Scotland website:

 It was in the mid-1790s that his inventiveness, which might have had a freer rein in a different climate, led him to paint the unique little full length of his skating friend, the Revd Robert Walker, better known as The Skating Minister (NG Scot.). Its combination of poise, precision, and humour have made it by far Raeburn's most famous painting; indeed, by a quirk of taste, since its virtual rediscovery in 1949 it has gained a degree of popularity unique in British art.
David Thomson, Dictionary of National Biography online - Entry for Raeburn by David Thomson, last revised 2008

The most famous painting associated with Raeburn, depicting Reverend Dr Robert Walker (1755–1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch, also known as ‘The Skating Minister’ a damaged and restored work acquired cheaply at auction in 1949 by the Scottish National Gallery, has long had its attribution doubted by many observers on account of its unusual small-scale format and the artificially balletic posture of the silhouetted figure gliding over the frozen loch. I have argued elsewhere (The Burlington Magazine, July 2005) that a more likely painter of this sporting portrait is the versatile French émigré artist, Henri-Pierre Danloux, who was active in Scotland during the late 1790s. Recent images of the picture taken with x-radiography and infrared reflectography certainly demonstrate emphatically that the painting is utterly alien to Raeburn’s normal mode of underpainting, where lead white paint is heavily used to lay in the facial features, and which is mostly absent in ‘The Skating Minister’. The vast majority of independent authorities on European painting around 1800 reject the traditional Raeburn attribution and are supportive of the proposed Danloux re-attribution.
Stephen Lloyd "Artist in focus: Henry Raeburn"  ArtUK website, post of 25 Oct 2012


The two articles from the Burlington Magazine are available in full on JStor: 

Stephen Lloyd, "'Elegant and graceful attitudes': The painter of the 'Skating Minister',  The Burlington Magazine, vol. 147,  no. 1228, July 2005 p.474-486  [available on JStor]
Thomson, Duncan. “Raeburn Revisited: The 'Skating Minister'.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 149, no. 1248, 2007, p. 185–190.

Articles in the Scottish press: 

"Experts confess: we always suspected this wasn't a Raeburn:  doubts over iconic work kept quiet for years", The Herald 17 April 2005

Raeburn expert to the rescue of striken skater.  The Scotsman 17 April 2005

"Family records 'prove' skater is Raeburn's"  The Scotsman 29 April 2005

Tim Cornwell, "Henry Raeburn's Skating Minister on thin ice after x-ray study", The Scotsman,  20 January 2013.

Other articles

 "Mystery over Raeburn prompts a hunt for his missing minister", The Times, 21 January 2013 ,

"X-rays suggest Skating Minister 'not by Raeburn'",  BBC News, post of 23 January 2013

 Clarisse Godard Desmarest, "Scotland: Nation, Enlightenment and Empire
The Remaking of Scotland: Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860, an exhibition presented in Edinburgh at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 16 June 2018 – 27 June 2021",, 13 September 2018.
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