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.

Monday, 24 September 2018

The Toison d'Or

In 1749 Louis XV was inducted into the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece (Toison d'Or). For the occasion the Court jeweller André Jacquemin mounted the great French Blue diamond and other gems from the Crown Jewels into an elaborate insignia, which was known as the La Toison d'or de la parure de couleur ("Golden Fleece of the Coloured Adornment").   Professor Farges, in an interview published on the MNHN website, notes that so many exceptional stones had never before been put in the same setting. The result was a "masterpiece of Rococo jewellery",  a splendid and unimaginably precious object  -  if to modern eyes, a thoroughly bizarre one.  As well the French Blue, the parure included the  32-carat "Bazu" diamond, and a red spinel of 108-carets, cut into the shape of a dragon.  There were also three yellow sapphires and five diamonds of 10 carats each.  83 small diamonds painted red on the back represented the fire from the dragon's mouth and a further 112 painted yellow represented the Golden Fleece.

The Roman Catholic order of the Golden Fleece (Toison d'Or) was originally founded by Philip the Good of Burgundy in 1430 and still exists today;  according to Wikipedia it is "referred to as the most prestigious and exclusive order of chivalry in the world". In the 18th century the Spanish branch of the order was headed by the French monarch's Bourbon cousins and was, therefore, a potent symbol of Bourbon power. The insignia features the fleece itself, an emblem of authority and kingship, and the ever watchful dragon from whom Jason stole it.  Louis XV is depicted in several paintings wearing the parure attached to his coat.  It was later presented to both Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, though there is no evidence that either of them wore it.

This illustration by Pierre-André Jacquemin, discovered in the 1980s is the only surviving contemporary drawing of the insignia and the only known coloured representation of the French Blue diamond:

 Reproduced on the Smithsonian Institution website:

The Côte-de-Bretagne spinel

The creation of the Toison d'Or provided an opportunity to reset a number of valuable, if underused, Crown Jewels.  The red spinel, known as the Côte-de-Bretagne, was the very oldest gem in the royal coffers, one of eight coloured stones which had originally belonged to Anne of Bretagne, wife of Louis XII, and her mother Marguerite de Foix.  Its companions had disappeared long ago in the French Wars of Religion. It was shaped into a dragon breathing "covetous flames" in 1750 by Jacques Guay, graveur en pierres fines du cabinet du roi.

Drawings by Lucien Hirsz depicting  a lead cast, now lost,  of the Toison d'Or.
(Bapst, Histoire des joyaux de la couronne de France (1889)  p.268-9) 

The  spinel was the sole original element of the Toison d'Or to be recovered from the 1792 theft.  In 1796 a painter called Brard, on mission in Hamburg, reported to the Revolutionary government that the dragon was in the possession of a certain Lancry, an agent of Cadet-Guillot.  Lancry met with Brard and his colleague Panel with a view to selling rubies to the French government; the French ambassador in Hamburg, was authorised to offer 50,000 livres.  It is not clear whether the spinel was recovered at this time.  It was said at one point to have been in the possession of the Royalist general Danican, and may alternatively have returned to France with the comte de Provence at the Restoration.

Today it sits, looking a little sad and incongruous,  in its case in the Louvre:

Côte de Bretagne spinel, the only surviving fragment of the Toison d'Or insignia , Louvre

The Bazu diamond  

The second diamond is usually identified as the "Bazu" diamond (named after David Bazeu, who sold it to Louis XIV in 1669).  The illustration by Jacquemin depicts a large clear square gem but the engraving  in Bapst's book, based on a later cast, shows a different, hexagonal stone.  In his interview, Professor Farges stated that he was researching the whereabouts of the second diamond and might have found some clues.  He is reported to have discovered a glass model of an anonymous diamond which may be the Bazu in the British Museum  - I haven't been able to find any further details.  Scott Sucher initially based his reproductions on Bapst's colourless hexagonal jewel, but for the replica Toison d'Or  a  light-blue "Baroque cushion" was preferred.
See Sucher,

A Replica

Made available by François Farge
The project for a replica originated with the sponsors of the 2011 documentary film by Thierry Piantanida.  François Farges acted as consultant, whilst the Genevan jeweller Herbert Horovitz funded and co-ordinated the work.

A gouache (left) by the Genevan artist Pascal Monney, produced in 2008 as part of the project, is an accurate representation based on the research of Farges and his colleagues.

The various elements took over eighteen months to assemble.  Scott Sucher cut the French Blue and the Bazu out of CZ and modelled the other larger diamonds and sapphires, which were cut in India from synthetic materials.  The spinel was recreated in red glass by Etienne Leperlier, using wax moulds prepared by Pascal Monney. The metalwork and stone setting were undertaken by Jean Minassian in Geneva.  

The finished  insignia is six inches high and weighs about six ounces. 

In 2010, 218 years after its theft, the replica was ceremonially presented at the Hôtel de la Marine, which once housed the Garde-Meuble.  It was also temporarily exhibited in the Natural History Museum in Nice in 2011-12.

At present the replica is back in the vaults in Geneva, whilst a sponsor is sought to  meet the cost of the materials:   Professor Farges hopes it will ultimately be  possible to put it on permanent display in the Mineralogical Gallery of the MNHN in Paris..  

Presentation of the Toison d'Or at the Ministre de la Marine
Herbert Horovitz (left) and François Farges (right)


Entry for the Toison d'Or replica on the website of Herbert Horovitz sàrl

Interview with François Farges, MNHN website.

 Scott Sucher's account of his involvement:

Video of the replica on exhibition in Nice in 2012:

Saturday, 22 September 2018

The French Blue: New light on an old jewel

In 2008 experts were able to use new - cutting-edge? - digital technology to reconstruct accurately for the first time the appearance the lost French Blue diamond which was once part of the French Crown Jewels.  The result was quite unexpected and provided an illuminating insight into the France of Louis XIV.   At the same time new light was shed on the ultimate fate of the gem after its theft from the Garde-Meuble in 1792.

History of the diamond

The French Blue almost certainly originated from the Kollur mine in Golconda in India. It was sold to Louis XIV by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in 1668 and recut by the court jeweller Jean Pitau between 1669 and 1672.  In 1749 Louis XV had the stone reset as part of the great ceremonial insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece (Toison d'Or). In 1787 the diamond was briefly removed from its setting by the physicist  Mathurin-Jacques Brisson who investigated the specific gravity of various coloured diamonds. In 1792 it was among the gems stolen from the Garde-Meuble and never recovered. Germain Bapst, the 19th-century historian of the French Crown Jewels, concluded that one of the thieves, Cadet Guillot, left Paris with the Toison d'Or, from which he detached the French Blue and the Côte de Bretagne spinel (a red stone, cut into the shape of a dragon).  The latter resurfaced in Hamberg in 1797 and was reintegrated into the Crown Jewels in 1824. 
The Hope Diamond 
Evalyn Walsh McLean wearing the Hope Diamond 
In 1812 the London Huguenot jeweller John Francillon reported that he had been invited to examine a fine deep blue diamond weighing 177 grains  on behalf of the diamond merchant Daniel Eliason. This stone, known today as the Hope Diamond, after its first known owner Henry Philip Hope (1774-1839), was in all probability cut from the French Blue.  This diamond was listed in inventory of the Hope collection in 1839 and remained in the Hope family until 1901. It then passed through the hands of a number of dealers until in 1910 it was sold by Cartier to Mrs Evalyn Walsh McLean of Washington D.C. In 1949 it was bought by the jeweller Harry Winston who in 1958 donated to the Smithsonian.

The reconstruction 

The new breakthrough in investigations came in December 2007 when Professor François Farges, Professor of Mineralogy at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris discovered a lead replica of the French Blue in the MNHM collections.  He invited  Matrix Diamond Technology in Antwerp to  produce a 3D imagining model comparable to one which had been made of  the Hope Diamond in 2005.  The renowned gem replicator Scott Sucher, from New Mexico, who had been involved with the 2005 project, analysed the new scans.  Sucher had to painstakingly remove the flaws to uncover the seventy-eight facets that made up the stone.  Farges then commissioned Sucher to make a precise replica from cubic zirconia (CZ).  They were now in a position to confirm that the Hope Diamond had indeed been cut from the French Blue.

Professor Farges's discovery was the subject of a 2011 Arte documentary; here he is in the preview:

Thierry Piantanida, A la poursuite du diamant bleu diffusé sur Arte en avril 2011

The French Blue is known to have been one of the first gems fashioned in the brilliant style. Whilst the traditional Mughal triangular cut of the original jewel sought to preserve its weight, Pitau's design, which later became known as the "rose de Paris", sacrificed weight for scintillating effect. (The diamond was cut from an enormous 112-carats to 69 carats) The cut featured seven shallow radiating facets. An inventory record from 1691 states that the gem had been "set into  gold and mounted on a stick"; the facets reflected the gold in such a way to create a sun pattern with seven radial beams. According to Professor Farges:

The blue diamond reclaims its place as the masterpiece of Baroque lapidary art, thanks to its seven-fold symmetry, which was extremely complex to cut.  Almost forgotten since its theft in 1792, the diamond features a central "rose" which shines like a sun.  Was this a symbol desired by the sun-king himself? 

He concluded that the piece was not intended to worn but to be placed on display to impress foreign diplomats with the wealth and power of France.

This video of an authorised replica by the French lapidarist Patric Dubec shows the reflective qualities of the diamond well: 

Although historians had a rough idea of the diamond's appearance from drawings, the brilliance of its blue and the degree of scintillation came as a complete surprise: Dr Jeffrey Post, Chair of the Department of Mineral Sciences and curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian, who has spent over a decade study in the Hope Diamond, told a press conference:

It is not quite as spectacular as taking the DNA from the blood of a mosquito and creating a dinosaur I mean it is not like we are going to make Jurassic Park out of this, but on the other hand we have used modern technology to bring back the history of a diamond that no one has seen since 1792. We are putting ourselves back into the eyes of Louis XIV to see what he saw. We are bringing that diamond back out of history here to today.

The fate of the French Blue after 1792

The discovery of the lead cast strengthens the conclusion that the stolen French Blue was indeed taken to London where it was cut down into the Hope Diamond. 

Who was responsible? New documentary evidence provides a clue:

The lead cast was part of a collection donated to the MNHN by Charles Achard (1794-1872), one of a dynasty of Huguenot jewellers.  The original creator of the cast remains unknown.  The collection was catalogued for the museum in 1850, but according to Professor Farges, the entry for the cast became muddled.  The correct label should read:  "Model of a diamond of remarkable clarity belonging to Mr Hoppe of London.”  

The implication is clear:  Henry Philip Hope must once have owned the French Blue.  If so, then it was Hope himself who had the Hope Diamond cut. In Scott Sucher's view the intention was definitely to disguise the diamond, with certain facets offset, so as to make the colour appear darker.  

See Scott Sucher's page on the Hope Diamond:

To an extent it all fits: Hope was one of Achard père's best customers, so he ought to have been well informed.  However, there are still a few problems:.

1.  The text by John Francillon suggests that in 1812 the Hope Diamond was in the custody of the diamond merchant Daniel Eliason.  Hope may have been trying to sell the diamond at the time, but it seems more natural to assume that he acquired it subsequently.

2. Can the diamond of "remarkable clarity" referred to in the catalogue really be the French Blue?  It would have been a lot more more natural to remark on its blueness, its triangular cut or its enormous size.

3.  Achard (or the subsequent cataloguer) would surely have recognised a cast of the French Blue, so why draw attention to Hope's ownership of a stolen jewel?

Myself, I think the jury is still out on Hope's culpability.


MNMN, Dossier: "Le spectre du diamant bleu de Louis XIV"

Professor Farge's discoveries were the subject of an Arte documentary by Thierry Piantanida, broadcast in April 2011 [see clip above], English version produced by National Geographic as "The Secret of the Hope Diamond".  The latter is available as a dvd.

This post by Carolyn McDowall on the CultureConceptCircle website follows the documentary:

The older documentary from the Smithsonian Channel, "Mystery of the Hope Diamond" (2010) has all the background (and Lucy Worsley).
See also the Smithsonian Hope diamond pages

Replicas of Tavernier's original diamond, of the French Blue and the Hope Diamond. 
Created  by  John Hatleberg of New York and unveiled at the Smithsonian in October 2017.  
On show here with the real Hope Diamond.

Reports on the new research:

Decouvertes majeures autour du diamant blue de la Couronne, MNHN Press notice, 18.11.2008

François Farges,Scott Sucher, Herbert Horovitz, and Jean-Marc Fourcault, "The French Blue and the Hope: new data from the discovery of a historical lead cast", Gems & Gemology 45(1) 2009: p.4-19

François Farges, John Vinson, John J. Rehr and Jeffrey E. Post "The Rediscovery of the 'French Blue' diamond". Europhysics News 2012, 43(1): 22-25

Joseph Stromberg, "The Hope Diamond Was Once a Symbol for Louis XIV, the Sun King", Smithsonian Magazine, 28.01.2014

Website of François Farges

Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Theft of the Crown Jewels in September 1792

A great robbery

In September 1792, thieves broke into the Garde-Meuble and, in the course of a five-day spree, stole the French Crown Jewels....

In September 1792 the national emergency left little room for concern with the Crown Jewels.  As recently as 16th August Cambon had proposed to the Legislative Assembly that they should be sold off to refloat the assignat.  In theory they were safely under lock and key in the Garde-Meuble, situated in the place Louis XV, now the place de la Concorde. The building is the one which today houses the Ministre de la Marine.  In the late eighteenth century this was still quite a remote location; the square was bordered by a ditch, and there was no lighting beyond the two lamps attached to the side of the Garde-Meuble itself.

Alexandre-Jean Noël(?) , Place Louis XV c,1775-1787  Getty Museum
The longstanding intendant of the Garde-meuble Thierry de la Ville d'Avray, had recently been arrested and on 2nd September, he was murdered at the Abbaye prison.   Roland appointed as his successor the painter Jean-Bernard Restout (son of the famous Jansenist artist).  In the previous year Restout had been responsible for a 50-page inventory which had valued the Jewels at 24 million livres.  

Monday, 17 September 2018

Jewels of SW19?

Southside House on the edge of Wimbledon Common boasts, among other curios, a string of pearls said to have been worn by Marie-Antoinette on the day of her execution. The pearls were presented to the owner of the house, John Pennington, by  the Empress Josephine. They were a reward for the help that he had given to fleeing émigrés when he was a young official at the British Embassy in Paris. The necklace is presumed to have been a gift to Josephine from Paul Barras. Napoleon, it was said, could not bear the presence of so tragic a momento. The pearls were apparently happily worn by John Pennington's wife. Only a single string remains since the rest of the gems were doled out  by the unhappy French queen as bribes to her gaoler.

A bit of a tall story? Well, let's say more of a family legend...

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Marie-Antoinette's jewellery

A forthcoming auction of Royal jewels

This November sees the sale by Sotheby's in Geneva of the fabulous  Bourbon-Parma collection of royal jewellery, which is set to fetch a cool $5 million. Among the treasures are several pieces which belonged to Marie-Antoinette. The most spectacular is an enormous pearl (26 mm x 18m) on a diamont pendant, estimated to be worth $1-2 million.  There is also a necklace with more than 300 natural pearls ($200,000-$300,0000) and a pair of pearl drop earrings  ($30,000-$50,000). A diamond parure made for Louise of France, grand-daughter of Charles X, contains five gems which also once belonged to Marie-Antoinette.

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