Saturday 30 October 2021

Laborde - Life and death of a financier

Monsieur de Laborde, you will perhaps be astonished that, without the honour of knowing you, I have come to ask you to lend me 100 louis? - Monsieur, replied Laborde laughing, you will be even more astonished  to learn that, knowing you, I am prepared to lend them to you.
Quoted Janzé, Les financiers d'autrefois (1886), p.268.

I am remaining in France.  I have never done any harm to anyone. 
Letter from Laborde, received by Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun during her exile in Rome in 1789-90; quoted in her memoirs. 

Laborde by Alexander Roslin,
Cover image from the biography by Jean-Pierre Thomas & François d'Ormesson

Here are a few more notes on the owner of La Ferté and Méréville.  A  new scholarly biography of Laborde by François d'Ormesson and Jean-Pierre appeared in 2001, reissued this year.  I have  not managed to find a copy of this; what follows is just based on sources I found for free on the Web.

Financial activities

The career of the great  banker and financier Jean-Joseph Laborde illustrates perfectly rise to dominance in late 18th-century France of a homogenous nobility of wealth, a  monied aristocracy which played a determining role in the promotion of Enlightenment values and the formation of fashionable artistic taste.

Jean-Joseph Laborde was born in Jaca in Aragon in 1724, the son of a French merchant based in Spain.  As a young man he amassed a fortune in maritime trade, which he used as the basis for a career in international banking.  By the time he was thirty he was possibly the wealthiest individual in France.  He coupled impeccable skills as a money manager with unassailable creditworthiness in the eyes of European lenders.  In 1758 the government enlisted him to secure a loan from Spain, and a year later he was called to Paris from his base in Bayonne to assume the position of Court banker.  Thereafter Laborde managed vertiginous sums - hundreds of millions of livres between 1759 and 1765 - that he personally borrowed from Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Brussels, and advanced to the French crown.  It was thanks in no small part to his services that French finances survived the Seven Years War.  He was persuaded become a Fermier-Général but he found the role burdensome and at odds with his liberal economic views.   In 1767 he resigned from his public duties, and set up a Caisse d'escompte,  a private organisation which took on responsible for lending money to the Crown. 

After his retirement, Laborde continued to engage extensively in private financial speculations. According to one estimate his total fortune at this time approached 120 million livres.  Like many of his wealthy peers, he invested heavily in the colonies.  He owned three vast sugar plantations in Saint-Dominigue, and privately maintaining six ships to import the sugar into Europe.  After 1783 Laborde's ships regularly transported slaves from Africa to the Antilles.   As Gabriel Wick notes, the funds used to build Méréville  derived from the misery and toil of 1,400 enslaved Africans.   Hubert Robert estimated that the slave revolt of 1791 in Saint-Domingue stood to lose Laborde  800,000 livres in annual income (Wick, Méréville,  p.67) 

Laborde's other major financial venture on the eve of Revolution was  closer to home.  Between 1767 and 1788 he invested heavily in the expansion and development of Paris to the north, beyond the boulevards.  He bought building land, which required reclamation - for instance the area of marshland in the rue Chantereine, today rue de la Victoire, which he bought for 15,000 livres in September 1787. He himself owned two houses in the area  - the first in the rue Grange Neuve Batelière, today the rue Drouot, the grounds of which formed the basis for his initial speculation; he subsequently moved to the rue d'Artois, now rue Lafitte.  He sold on to those close to him; his brother in law, the Royal Treasurer Joseph Michault d'Harvelay and the Austrian ambassador Mercy d'Argenteau bought houses from him in the rue d'Artois.   In 1788 ground rents from his  properties in Paris accounted for 20% of his income., whilst the plantations in in Saint-Domingue represented just over 13%. (See Valmori, p.)

Social position

Laborde claimed in his memoirs, that he was born "in the most narrow mediocrity"; but his rise to fortune was accompanied by a seemingly seamless acceptance into the ranks of the nobility.  In 1761 he became Marquis de Laborde, and in 1785 Louis XVI granted him the hereditary title of Marquis de Méréville. Strategic marriage bound his family both to the wider world of international finance and to the old Court nobility.  In 1760 Laborde himself married the twenty-two year-old Rosalie-Claire Josèphe Nettine, daughter of  the Austrian Court banker Barbe Louise Josèphe Stoupy, vicomtesse de Nettine. This was one of a series of strategic unions which provided the financial basis for the Franco-Austrian alliance sponsored by Choiseul.  Despite the age difference, Laborde was delighted with his young wife, whom he describes in a letter to Voltaire as "the temple of virtue" and "his best friend" .  The union was a fruitful one with six sons and two daughters surviving to adulthood, a happiness marred only by the tragic death of two sons with the La Pérouse expedition in 1786. Laborde's daughters also made advantageous marriages,  Pauline in 1783 to the future duc des Cars and Nathalie in 1790 to Charles de Noailles, later duc de Mouchy.  This Nathalie it was who later became the mistress of Chateaubriand.

Nathalie de Laborde at Méréville, by Dutailly, c. 1805 

 Laborde was also evidently a key figure in a wide, complex series of  social networks, bound together by obligation and friendship.  His granddaughter, the vicomtesse  Alfred de Noailles, explained that Laborde was "endowed with true tact" and appreciated by all classes of society.  Courtiers and nobility had need of him and he knew how to oblige them gracefully.  They came to him through taste, by  preference. As a consequence he moved in the highest social circles and enjoyed a flattering intimacy with princes of the blood, ministers and great personages both in French and abroad. (cited in the article "Laborde" in Michaud's Biographie universelle)  

Among his connections were the prince de Conti, the duc d'Orléans, the Austrian ambassador Mercy-Argenteau, the duc de Gontaut, the duchesse de Gramont, and, above all Choiseul.  Calonne's mistress and second wife was Laborde's sister-in-law. Although his public career had been closely tied to the fortunes of Choiseul, Laborde viewed the relationship not as one of patronage, but  as a bond of profound friendship:    In a letter of 2nd March 1761, he reminds Choiseul,  "no one has loved you more delicately than I have loved you".  After the minister's disgrace in December 1770, Laborde gave his services to rescue Choiseul's depleted fortune and, together with his wife, was an honoured guest at Chanteloup. 

Laborde was himself a lavish host.  His generosity towards his guests was legendary - as the account by Alexandre de Beauharnais of his visit to La Ferté confirms.  According to the duc des Cars, "The house of my father-in-law brought together the most distinguished company in Paris, men of importance, both French and foreign, men of letters and distinguished artists...He also received many guests at his residence in the country" (quoted Radish, p.407).  Among his correspondents, we may cite Voltaire who was never slow to sense a financial opportunity and in 1765 sent Laborde 30,000 livres to invest on his behalf.

 Despite his dazzling affluence, Laborde was known for his unpretentious manner and his affection towards his family.  Marmontel later remembered with regret "the old court banker, M de la Borde":

Engaged by the invitations of M. de la Borde, I visited, and sometimes dined with him:  I found him honourable, but simple, enjoying his prosperity without pride or boasting, and with an equanimity that is the more estimable because it is very difficult to be so caressed by fortune without a little giddiness.  How many favours had heaven heaped upon him!  Great opulence, a universal reputation for rectitude and loyalty, the confidence of Europe, unbounded credit; and, at home, six-well-bred children, a wife of a prudent, mild and lovely disposition, with decency and modesty that had nothing studied in them, exemplary in her attentions to her husband and children, in short, conduct such as envy itself found irreproachable...  
What was wanting to the wishes of a man so completely happy?  He has perished on the scaffold, without any other crime than his riches....

 In 1769 Laborde commissioned from Greuze the painting known as La Mère Bien Aimée (1769) which shows a huntsman returning joyfully from the chase to greet his young wife and an exuberant pile of children.  The  central figure is said, with some plausibly, to be a likeness of Laborde himself;

Madrid, private collection of the  comte de la Viñaza, marquis de Laborde

 As a member of the liberal aristocracy,  Laborde prided himself on his patriotism, virtue and social responsibility and aligned himself with those philosophers who praised luxury and riches as an engine of economic prosperity.  In his memoirs he insists on his standing as an international businessman, as distinct from a  mere "financier", by which he means primarily a royal tax-farmer:

I have always retained a strong attachment to commerce;  it is the vocation of a true citizen.  A négotiant, who operates on the grand scale, brings activity to all the different orders within the State through the fruits of his work.  Agriculture, industry, the arts, workmen of all sorts, benefit from his operations.   I have twenty fishing vessels in America, the East Indies, the West Indies, Guinea.  How many people are employed, how much money is put into circulation; people and  gentlemen alike benefit by the creation of an advantageous market for their produce. (quoted Durand, p.153)

His homes, his art collections, his gardens

Laborde's role as a patron of the arts was dictated primarily by his passion for building and entertaining. In the course of his life Laborde acquired numerous properties, many of which he rapidly sold on. At a given moment had estates in Limousin, Guyenne, north of Paris, Lorraine, Bourgogne, le Perche and Beauce. In Paris he  successively occupied three hôtels, on the right bank of the Seine.  The second of these, in the rue de la Grange-Batelière, he acquired in 1762 from the Farmer-General and collector Étienne Bouret.  In December 1765 Horace Walpole, dined with Laborde  and paints a memorable picture of  its large size and opulence.   It appears  that the house had been sold to Laborde together with its entire contents - furnishings, decorative objects and paintings (including  in the grand cabinet eight  grand mythologies by Francois Lemoyne - the "very bad pictures" which Walpole disliked) (see Bailey, p.216)

Yesterday I dined at La Borde's, the great banker of the Court. Lord! madam, how little and poor all your houses in London will look after his!  In the first place, you must have a garden half as long as the Mall, and then you must have fourteen windows, each as long as the other half, looking into it, and each window must consist of only eight panes of looking glass; you must have a first and second ante-chamber, and they must have nothing in them but dirty servants. Next must be the grand cabinet, hung with red damask, in gold frames, and covered with eight large and very bad pictures, that cost four thousand pounds. I cannot afford them you a farthing cheaper. Under these, to give an air of lightness, must be hung bas-reliefs in marble ; then there must be immense armoires of tortoise shell and ormolu, inlaid with medals; and then you may go into the petit cabinet, and then into the great salle, and the gallery, and the billiard room, and the eating room; and all these must be hung with crystal lustres, and looking glasses from top to bottom; and then you must stuff them fuller than they will hold with granite tables and porphyry urns, and bronzes, and statues, and vases, and the Lord or the devil knows what. But for fear you should ruin yourself or the nation, the Duchess de Gramont must give you this and Madame de Marsan that; and if you have anybody that has any taste to advise you, your eating room must be hung with huge hunting pieces in frames of all coloured gold, and at top of one of them you may have a setting dog, who having sprung a wooden partridge, it may be flying a yard off against the wainscot. To warm and light this palace it must cost you eight and twenty thousand livres a year in wood and candles. If you cannot afford that, you must stay till my Lord Clive returns with the rest of the Indies.  
Walpole to the Countess of Suffolk, Paris, December 5th 1765

In 1771 Laborde sold this house to the financier and collector Grimod de la  Reyniere.  In 1779 or 1780 he moved into a new hôtel, designed  by the architect Barré. This was situated in the rue d'Artois (subsequently rue Cerutti) and formed part of his investment properties to the north of Paris. The chronicles of the time have left us no description of this hôtel or its furnishings. William  Beckford, who ws Laborde's guest in the winter 1783,  found the place "damp as a grotto" despite the "blazing fires and blazing company" (See Radisch, p. 406-7.) 

For his great country seats at La Ferté and Méréville Laborde employed the most prominent modern French  architects, sculptors and painters, including Hubert Robert as his landscape designer. Among his most notable commissions was the splendid set of eight large canvasses by Jacob Vernet which adorned the grand gallery at La Ferté, and later at Méréville.  In later years, perhaps following the lead of his wife's brother-in-law Ange Laurent de Lalive de July, he also began to actively promote young French artists and to commission works without a primarily decorative purpose (See Bailey, p. 64-65).  An inventory drawn up by Naigeon, on 6 Thermidor Year II, lists the pictures which once hung in the rue d'Artois; included are the Greuze, the self-portrait and portrait of Robert by Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, and  two large history paintings by up-and-coming artists: The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus by Claude Vernet and La mort d'Abel by François-Xavier Fabre.

Carle Vernet | The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (

The Revolution

François Louis Jean Joseph de Laborde de Méréville,
 garde du Trésor royal.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
The beginning of the Revolution found Laborde, in his late sixties, at the zenith of his fortune.  In 1785 he had been elevated to the hereditary nobility.  His two daughters, Pauline and Nathalie had married into great aristocratic families.  His eldest son François, who had served in the navy with distinction in the American War of Independence, was  designated to follow his father into finance; Laborde acquired for him, for an impossibly large sum, the post of garde du Trésor royal. In  1788 paternal satisfaction was marred only by François's desire to marry an unsuitable woman: no less than Theresa Cabarrus, later Mme Tallien and princesse de Chimay.

As members of the liberal aristocracy, Laborde and his family  welcomed the Revolution.   François was elected as a deputy for the Third Estate of Estampes. In the Constituent he became a prominent member of the group which centred round the Lambeth brothers and the Feuillants, advocates of  Constitutional Monarchy.   Laborde père financed the their newspaper Le Logographe
Following the flight to Varennes,  Laborde and his son entered into enthusiastic relations with Barnave and, like him, attempted to establish an accord with Marie-Antoinette.  A letter from Marie-Antoinette to Mercy-Argenteau, dated 6th May 1791  reports that she had been approached by the elderly banker but did not trust him (cited Kermina, 2018). 

Following the fall of the monarchy,  suspicion towards Laborde and his family inevitably deepened.  In 1792 François acquired part of the fabulous Orléans collection of paintings and, through the intermediary of the English Boyd Bank,  had it transported to London; he himself  emigrated to England in the spring of 1793. The elderly financier, however, was still determined to stay in France. His fortunes had been badly hit by the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, but he placed his hopes in the French expeditionary force, which was commanded by his nephew the marquis de Montesquiou-Fézenszac. He imprudently journeyed to the Atlantic ports to oversee the arming of his ships.  Meanwhile in the Convention  patriotic distrust towards international bankers gained momentum, orchestrated by the Girondin Minister Étienne Clavière (see Valmori, 2017). 

In April 1792 Laborde left Paris definitively for Méréville. According to his great-granddaughter, "He returned to Méréville to await unfolding events, like a condemned man whose day of execution is not yet fixed...this enchanted setting of so many domestic joys and noble pleasures, this temple of French hospitality, was to become the uncertain and precarious refuge of an honourable but persecuted man."  (Notice sur Mme la vicomtesse de Noailles 1855, p. 9.) 

In October 1793, the three former Court-bankers Laborde, Jean-Baptiste Magon de la Balue, and Simon Julien Le Normand were denounced to the Committee of General Security.  Laborde was incriminated by his links to Spain and by his association with the  discredited Finance Minister Terray. He was arrested at Méréville  on 7th November 1793 and his papers placed under seal.  It is noted that the local commune, which had benefited from his patronage,  tried in vain to prevent his imprisonment and sent a deputation to the Convention on his behalf. 

Imprisonment and execution 

Laborde was taken first to the Luxembourg prison, where he was reunited with the maréchal de Mouchy and his wife, the grand-parents of his son-in-law Noailles.   According to one account, he was so shocked at their situation, that he was at first unable to speak [ Memoir of the Luxembourg prison, p.170]

On 2nd November the Fermiers-Généraux,  "ces vampires du peuple", were arrested.  Although Laborde had long ago left their ranks, his name was inevitably associated with them.

On  22nd February he was denounced by president of the Conseil Générale  in Marne, and on 1st March 1794 transferred to Sainte-Pélagie.  A month later he was taken to the Conciergerie to await trial.  Here he received a final note from his wife:  "Have courage, mon ami: show the energy which accords with your innocence.  I am without cease by your side.  Mon ami, I love you with an incomparable tenderness.  Have courage my friend, and God will bless us.  I love you beyond all expression" (cited Kermina, 2018)

On 18th April 1794 Laborde appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal with eighteen others. The prisoners were only loosely known to each other;   most had been compromised by their associations with Mme de Billens, the mistress of Ker of Boyd's Bank, who had been condemned shortly before.  Among the defendants were Laborde's niece Jeanne-Marie de Nogué  and Antoine Geneste, the young representative of the bank in Paris. The court was presided over by  René-François Dumas. Laborde unwisely undertook his own defence.  Incriminated by his son's emigration, he was convicted in short order of conspiring to transfer national assets abroad and, with all but one of his fellow defendants, condemned to death.  Due to the high profile of the prisoners, extra troops were employed:  the two carts which bore them to the place de la Révolution were surrounded by forty gendarmes.  In the event the precaution proved unnecessary.  

There is no final anecdote from the foot of the guillotine, but here, since it brings the hallucinatory horror of the moment suddenly closer, is a list of those decapitated that afternoon:

    1. Jean-Joseph Laborde, aged 72. Former government banker.
    2. Antoine-Henri Geneste, aged 27 years. Banker.
    3. Pierre Hariaque de Guibeville, aged 72. former president of the Parlement of Paris. 
    4. Marie-Claude-Emile Hariaque, aged 45. Widow of the former maître des requêtes Bonnaire.
    5. Her daughter, Marie-Charlotte Debonnaire, aged 21. Divorced wife of the former royal army officer Lepelletier. 
    6. Marie Lalaurencie Charras, aged 42. "Fille", former noble.
    7. Didier-René-François Mesnard de Chousy, aged 74. Former ambassador. 
    8. His son Jean-Didier-René Mesnard de Chousy, aged 35. Officer of the royal household.
    9. Marie-Adriennne-Gonnet, Widow Vieville, aged 49.
    10. Adélaide-Marguerite de Merle, divorce wife of Duchilleau, aged 41.
    11. Louis-George Gougenot,aged 36,  Maître d'hôtel du Roi and former syndic of the Compagnie des Indes.  Gougenot had been the trusty go-between of Marie-Antoinette and Fersen. See Marie Antoinette forum.
    12. Angélique-Michel-d'Estat-Bellecourt, aged 33 years. The brother of Mme de Billens.
    13. His wife, Jeanne-Marie Nogué, aged 36.  Widow of Rolin d'Ivry, former maitre des requetes.
    14. Sébastien Roltat, aged 52.  Former noble.
    15. His son, René Roltat, aged 32. Former officer in the royal dragoons.
    16. Jean Robin, aged 43. Servant in the Hariague-Guibeville household.
    17. Francois-Michel Paymal, aged 29. Also a servant of the Hariague family.
    Jean-Dupont, aged 28.  domestic servant of Mesnard de Chousy, was acquitted.

    [See Wallon, Histoire du tribunal révolutionnaire, vol.3, p.247-57]


    Françoise Kermina, "Jean-Joseph de Laborde 1724-1794" in Heurs et malheurs des grands argentiers (2018).  Google Books (Extracts)

    Durand, Yves-René, et al. “Mémoires de Jean-Joseph de Laborde, Fermier Général et Banquier de La Cour.” Annuaire-Bulletin de La Société de l’histoire de France, 1968, pp. 73–162.
    Laborde's memoirs only cover the period of his public career and are not that illuminating (at least for financial illiterates like me) 

     Jean-François Delmas, “Le mécénat des financiers au XVIII  siècle: étude comparative de cinq collections de peinture",  Histoire, Économie et Société, 1995,  vol. 14( 1) p.51-70.

    Colin B. Bailey, Patriotic taste:  collecting modern art in pre-Revolutionary Paris (Yale U.P, 2002)

     Niccolò Valmori, "Les origines d’un malentendu tragique : les banquiers et la Révolution française", Annales historiques de la Révolution française, vol. 388, no. 2, 2017, pp. 53-74.

    Here are the details of the new biography:

    François d'Ormesson and Jean-Pierre Thomas,  Jean-Joseph de Laborde, banquier de Louis XV, mécène des Lumières  (new ed., Tallandier, 2021; originally published in 2002).  
     Jean-Joseph de Laborde - Éditions Tallandier

    No comments:

    Post a Comment

    Print Friendly and PDF