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

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.

Monday 10 September 2018

Joseph Vernet - The people of the Ports of France

One would say ... that he begins by creating the country, and that he has men, women and children in reserve from which he peoples his canvas, as one populates colonies;  then he makes for the the weather, the sky, the season, the happiness, the unhappiness that pleases him...Jupiter calls that to govern the world, and he is wrong.  Vernet calls that to make paintings, and he is right.
The marquis de Marigny, commenting on the art of Vernet.

Joseph Vernet's magnificent paintings of the Ports of France represent one of the most joyous accomplishments of 18th-century culture.  Today if we wanted official testimony to the diversity and commercial vibrancy of a country's ports, we would probably produce plans and statistics; in the 18th-century the French government commissioned a great artist to create a series of ambitious and visionary landscape paintings depicting the life of the ports in all its glory.

All but two of Vernet's series are normally on  display in the Musée nationale de la marine in Paris which is at present closed for refurbishment. The following is taken mostly from the museum's multimedia presentation., As well as background information, the resource provides reproductions, with zooms onto particular details. I have concentrated mainly on the people: Vernet includes a wealth of little genre scenes, which amount to a facinating - albeit slightly idealised - social record.

The Ports of France on display in the Musée de la marine in Paris
All of the paintings are oil on canvas, with the same dimensions of 165cm  by 263 cm.


In March 1753, after twenty years in Rome, the landscape painter Joseph Vernet moved to Marseilles with his family. The reason which prompted him to leave Italy, where he enjoyed a high reputation and assured income, remains obscure.  According to one hypothesis, his father-in-law, a captain in the papal navy,  had run foul of the Inquisition and needed his support.  Equally, there may have been professional reasons: in 1752 an an Academy of Painting was in Marseilles under the protection of the governer of Provence, the duc de Villars and the Royal Superintendant of Buildings, the marquis de Marigny.  On 27th September 1754 Vernet found himself well placed when Marigny commissioned him to paint "all the ports of France".  He presented the first of his two views of Marseilles in mid-October.  The  pictures were exhibited to acclaim in Paris in the Salon of 1755.

Entrance to the Port of Marseilles, 1754 

The first canvas depicts the tête de More, a promontory situated to the right of the entrance to the port, which was an established lieu de promenade for the society of Marseilles. In the background stand the fort Saint-Jean and the citadel of Saint-Nicolas which defended the entry to the harbour.  In the mid-ground a three-masted vessel makes its way out to sea guided by two tugs. Around it are a multitude of other smaller vessels - fishing boats and pleasure craft. 

This picture is particularly rich in figures - Vernet's noted that he  depicts the "various amusements of the inhabitants of the town". 

A group of the well-to-do  - possibly the friends and relations of Vernet - picnic on the rocks in the morning sunshine: the tablecloth is spread out, the glasses full of red wine, the conversation  animated. 

In the foreground Vernet depicts himself at work, in the company of his father-in-law Mark Parker, and his young son Livio. He includes the portrait of a famous Marseilles character, a fisherman called Annibal Camoux who was said to be 117 years old.The woman in yellow with a blue hat who presents him is in all probability Vernet's wife Virginie..

To the right of the canvas a group of sailors and their wives perform an impromptu dance to  to the sound of flute and drum. Other people eat or read; young people swim or tend their nets.  At  the extreme left are naked bathers and fishermen with their trousers rolled up above their knees, searching for crabs and shellfish.

Interior of the Port of Marseilles, seen from the pavilion of the clocktower in the Park, 1754
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

This picture shows the basin of the port, framed by the facades of the dwellings and warehouses of the merchants. Sea-going ships are being careened or are about to depart,  surrounded by a crowd of smaller vessels. In the foreground Vernet showcases the diverse population of a great international port.

The paniers of the Marseillais merchants overflow with seafood and with the colourful produce of Provence - figues, quinces, oranges, peaches.  Turkish negociants can be seen in their exotic robes.

A group of elegantly attired ladies and seigneurs stand out in their fine silks, with a naval officer sporting his cross of the order of Saint-Louis;  a priest holds out his snuffbox whilst a beggar asks for alms.

View of the Gulf of Bandol:  The Madrague or fishing for tuna.
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Vernet largely completed his picture of Bandol by January 1754 when he was still working in Marseilles and it received a highly favourable reception in the Salon of 1755.  A "Madrague" is a seine net used in Mediterranean to capture tuna fish.  Once the huge fish are trapped, the fishermen bring up the net and set about them with boat hooks and harpoons. The first catches, in early spring, attacted crowds of spectators.  The scene takes place at sunrise, the normal time for fishing. The subject, which had been commissioned by Marigny, excited much comment from Parisians, who were totally unfamiliar with this battle between men and fish.

See Henri Farragio, "Données historiques sur les anciennes madragues françaises de Méditerranée", paper from the Tuna Trap Symposium May 2011


Vernet arrived in Toulon in September 1754 and exhibited three views of the Port in the Salon of 1757.  The first view, which focuses on the military activity of the port;  shows the new docks and naval shipyard.  In the foreground is the parc d'artillerie, where officers show visitors round, or exchange instructions with the engineers.

Toulon, View of the New Port, seen from the Artillery Ground, 1754 
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Toulon, View of the town and the roadstead of Toulon, 1756 

This second picture, very much a study of Toulon society, shows the view from a country house on the mountain behind the port.  Ladies and seigneurs assemble on a terrace where final preparations for luncheon are being made. The host greets his guests; gentlemen chat or play boules, huntsmen bring in their kill.

Toulon, View of the Old Port, from the warehouses for provisions, 1756 
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

In the 1750s Toulon had been one of the last ports to receive government  permission to participate in colonial commerce and the slave trade. Vernet's view of the old dock illustrates elements of the triangular trade:  grain and building materials from the metropolis piled up awaiting export;  barrels of sugar or rum imported from the Caribbean being loaded onto wagons.

 In the centre well-dressed investors point out a lone black man hoisting a barrel, perhaps of sugar.

When the arsenal in Marseilles was closed down in 1748 the galleys were temporarily transferred to Toulon, where they remained until 1762.  Vernet depicts an alignment of eleven galleys: two are ready for sea; the others, covered with a black and white canvas tent, serve as lodging for the chiourmeBy this period the galeriens were mainly employed in the docks; some can be seen in the crowd, wearing their bonnets rouges and dragging their heavy chains.

The Port of Antibes, viewed from the land, 1756
Musée national de la Marine, Paris
Early in 1756, with his three paintings of Toulon completed, Vernet moved on to Antibes.  During his stay he took the opportunity to return to his native Avignon, where he was greeted with enthusiasm.  

Vernet seems to have been less interested in the maritime activity of the sleepy port than in  capturing the landscape of the French Riviera. His composition shows a sunset, against the dramatic backdrop of the Alps.  The scene is full of the oranges and other fruits and flowers of spring.   Two groups of young niçoises pick figs and oranges.  A peasant woman, in the straw hat typical of the region, offers a lady a bouquet of orange blossoms, whilst an officer and a woman with a parasol admire the sunset from a terrace.  

To the left can be seen the famous Fort Carré of Antibes. In the foreground a band of the troops  enter the port with their waggon and possessions, accompanied impatiently by an officer on horseback, with a tricorne hat.

View of the port of Cette, 1756-57
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Vernet stayed for six months in Cette [Sète] from November 1756 to May 1757. After he had completed his preliminary sketches, he wanted to move on to Bordeaux but Marigny insisted that he stay and finish the canvas in situ.  The port is depicted from the seaward side, in one of the storms which so often occurred there. A Maltese brigantine, unable to enter the harbour, rides out the weather on a sandbank. This composition too was received with enthusiasm in Paris; Fréron, for example, commended Vernet in the Année littéraire, for his capture of one of the "most striking spectacles of nature".  


Joseph Vernet, Ports de France. Multi-media presentation, Musée de la Marine

Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire, "Les ports au xviiie siècle", L'histoire par l'image, Dec.2012

P.-A.-M. Miger Les ports de France peints par Joseph Vernet et Hue (Paris 1812)
Print Friendly and PDF