Wednesday 5 April 2023

Lavoisier at Freschines

The château de Freschines at Villefrancoeur, twenty kilometres north of Blois, once belonged to Lavoisier. This fine 18th-century mansion is yet another historic French property which has  recently been happily preserved for posterity. Having served for forty years as a  psychiatric hospital, the house was put on the market in January 2013.  It stood empty and neglected for a further six years until 2019, when it was finally rescued by the Austrian architect Elisabeth Herring.  It has since been opened as an Airbnb so, for a (relatively) modest price, you can actually go and stay there.  As the video below shows, the ongoing restoration is a labour of love.  The atmosphere is stylish but relaxed, mostly 18th-century in inspiration, but with a few quirky mementos of the house's long years as an asylum.

"Château  de Lavoisier" - website of  the Château de Freschines

TV Tours-Val de Loire: PATRIMOINE / Portes ouvertes au château de Freschines

Lavoisier the landowner

In the late 1770, under the influence of Du Pont Nemour and the Physiocrats, Lavoisier became seriously interested in agricultural economics.  He initially experimented on the estate he had inherited at Le Bourget, then from 1778 began to acquire land in the Beauce.  In March 1778 he purchased, within a few days of each other, the estate of  Champrenault, which had belonged to the future American War hero, the comte de Rochambeau, and Freschines, both near the commune of Villefrancoeur. In 1784 he acquired as a final major addition, the seigneurie of Thoisy (parish of La Chapelle-Vendômoise). In total his holdings amounted to about 1,100 hectares (2,250 acres) for an  investment of some 389,000 livres. 

Facsimiles of documents relating to Lavoisier's 1778 purchases can be found on the website of the Departmental archives for Loir-et-Cher (See below)  The archives also hold  "lettres à terrier" dated 1781 which authorise Lavoisier as seigneur of Freschines to renew the register of landholdings, rents and dues.  According to the website, this exercise exemplifies the "feudal reaction" of the 1780s -  certainly Lavoisier, as a careful administrator, would have been keen to know the exact extent of his property.  The details of the various transactions, are available in an article by Amédée Cauchie, published in 1900, which gives a good sense of the complexities of tenure and the encumbrances of the various manors.

Loir-et-Cher Departmental Archives, "Rendez-vous de l'histoire 2017: Sciences en Loir-et-Cher sous l'Ancien Régime:  Lavoisier en Loir-et-Cher"

Amédée Cauchie, "Le domaine de Freschines sous Lavoisier",  Mémoires de la Société de Sciences et Lettres du Loir-et-Cher, 1900, 14(2): p. 47-71.

The château

View of Lavoisier's estate at Freschines
Denis Duveen, A bibliography of the works of Antoine Lavoisier, supplement. Frontispiece.

The house at Freschines, which now became Lavoisier's country residence, already bore the mark of the newly moneyed financial aristocracy.  The previous owner of the estate had been Jean-Baptiste Bégon, conseiller du roi et receveur général des Finances, a protegé of Madame de Pompadour. It was  Bégon who was responsible for the construction of the present château in 1763.  The imposing classical design was the work of the royal architect Jean-Baptiste Collet, who was in charge of various prestigious projects in the area: the châteaux of Candé-sur-Beuvron, Madon and du Plessis-Villelouet, plus additions at Chambord and Menar, and the gardens of the bishop of Blois. 

Pierre de Bizemont, a local expert on Collet, visited Freschines in 2019 and pronounced himself well pleased with the château's state of preservation. The 18th-century wing was substantially intact; there were original fireplaces and even an 18th-century carved wooden screen in the sacristy.  (The chapel itself is a 19th-century addition.) 

The promotional video on the Château website also shows gilded mouldings (left) which look as though they must be be original features.

Despite the fact that the Lavoisiers spent comparatively little time at the house, the interior was lavishly appointed. The inventories drawn up when the property was sequestered in 1794 make it possible to reconstruct the furnishings in some detail. The inventories are reproduced by Cauchie and the main features summarised by J.-P. Poirier in his biography of Lavoisier:

The Lavoisiers lived in the château, a handsome rectangular building of three stories overlooking a lawn surrounded by large old trees.  The main entrance, reached by a long flight of stone steps, opened into a hall decorated with elegant stucco. The reception rooms on the ground floor offered a fine view of the countryside.  In one, a set of armchairs was covered with tapestries depicting animals from La Fontaine's  fables.  In another, the gilded chairs were upholstered in a red flower-patterned damask with touches of white, blue and yellow.  Gracing the dining room were two mahogany sideboards and a large table whose centre was adorned by a wooden fountain painted to look like marble.

On the other side of the grand salon was the wood-panelled library.... [Here] Lavoisier kept six large ledgers to record the results of his agronomic experiments as well as a few scientific instruments.

Upstairs were six bedrooms, three with adjoining bathrooms, each decorated with different coloured hangings;  red damask with blue flowers; blue damask with white flowers, red moire with green flowers, red and white striped moire. The furniture was painted. On the third floor, the rooms were less luxurious, the furniture less handsome, and the hangings were made of printed calico, cotton woven in a flame pattern and painted fabric.
Poirier, Lavoisier: chemist, biologist, economist (Engl. trans. 1998), p.124-5.

The inventories  also confirm the existence of an extensive laboratory at Freschines.  This was housed in a "vast building", close to the stable, part of the old 15th-century château which had been converted into a farm. 

The vieux château still stands: when the local archaeological society visited Freschines in 2005, it was owned by  Michel Jouanneau, the mayor of Villefrancoeur.  

 Postcard of Freschines, with the old château in the background

Lavoisier was able to spare time to visit Freschines for only a few weeks, two or three times a year, in spring and at harvest time. Madame Lavoisier, it seems, was a reluctant visitor: she was uninterested in agriculture and disliked the conservative small-town society on offer.  She at first she took an interest in the development of local trade and industry, such as cotton spinning and hosiery production; but  soon returned to Paris, where she began a liaison with Dupont Nemours. 

Agricultural reform

 In 1788 Lavoisier  was able to present the results of ten years of agronomic research at Freschines to the Society of Agriculture in Paris and to the Committee of Agriculture, set up by the Controller of Finance in 1785, of which he was secretary and prime-mover.

His report emphasised the need for practical experiment and the relevance of agricultural production to the wider context of national wealth: "It is not simply in armchairs that economics must be studied; it is only by a well planned investigation of an extensive development of land, by sustained calculations over a number of years on the distribution of recurring wealth, that one can form an accurate idea of what contributes to the prosperity of a large kingdom." (translated in Poirier, p.121)

Lavoisier's own work was characterised not only by an interest in the scientific basis of agricultural improvement but also by scrupulous attention to local conditions.  As the basis for his study  he  cultivated 120 hectares of the poorest soil directly, and took over a half-lease on arable land on three other farms, making 360 hectares in all.  Although he was Freschines for only a few weeks each year,  he keep close control of operations through the intermediary of  his intendant, the Blois notary Louis Michel Lefebvre, who visited at least once a fortnight. The estate steward, Joseph Roger and his son-in-law Nicolas Mercier, were in charge of the day-to-day work.  Precise measurements and costings were  entered into the ledgers kept in the library - those for the period 1781-87 have survived in the dossiers of the Archives de l’Académie des sciences (see Beretta, note 34).

Lavoisier sought to improve the fertility of his land by supporting more livestock.  He created artificial meadows, experimented with forage crops and introduced the cultivation of turnips and potatoes.  Breeding stock was imported, sheep from Spain and cows from Choiseul's model vacherie at Chanteloup. Although initial results were encouraging, Lavoisier admitted that progress had been slow and fraught with setbacks. It had taken eight or ten years of considerable investment to get a return, and even then his wheat yield had improved only slightly.  He had not realised an income of even 5 percent on his invested capital.  The problems besetting French agriculture were financial as well as technical;  the peasant farmer, hampered by short-term leases, was caught in a cycle of poverty: "At the end of the year, the cultivator has nothing left;  he counts himself lucky if he can make ends meet".  The taille destroyed incentives to improvement and even wealthier farmers saw little point in investing in agriculture when they could get better returns on government bonds.

The production at Freschines continued to improve in the years after 1788. According to Madame Lavoisier, by 1793 the wheat harvest had doubled, yielding ten times the amount sown, and the number of livestock had increased fivefold.  Farmers in the Blois region had also accepted Lavoisier's innovations:  potatoes, artificial meadows, and the use of sheep folds as a means of fertilising the soil.


 Lavoisier, "Résultats de quelques expériences d'agriculture, et réflexions sur leurs relations avec l'économie politique" Oeuvres, vol. 2 (1862) [On Google Books]. 

Lavoisier's work as an agricultural reformer is conveniently summarised in Douglas McKie's  biography, Antoine Lavoisier: scientist, economist, social reformer (1952), chpts 18-19, p. 203-30. (Available on Internet Archive)   See also Poirier, Lavoisier (1998), p.121-127. (On Internet Archive)
On Lavoisier's equipment at Freschines: Marco Beretta and Paolo Brenni, The Arsenal of eighteenth-century chemistry: the laboratories of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794)  [Nuncius , Volume: 10], 2022.  Chapter 3, "Sites of experiments" [Open access book].

Lavoisier and the people of Villefrancoeur

View of Villefrancoeur from    

Lavoisier played his role in the community with good grace. 

 On Sundays he attended the church in Villefrancoeur with its seigneurial pew and, afterwards, dispensed justice in the traditional manner.  During the Revolutionary years he was to create an elementary school in Villefrancoeur and provided a salary 450 livres a year for the teacher, though, according to J-P Poirier, far from making himself loved he succeeded only in earning the resentment of the local curé. The first schoolmaster Jean-François Bellanger was appointed in  June 1792.

Meghan Roberts in her 2016 book Sentimental Savants emphasises the importance of Freschines for Lavoisier's self-image.  "Lavoisier cast himself as an enlightened patriarch and benevolent public reformer. The estate became an "enlightened oasis" which featured values close to Lavoisier's heart: public education, charity and strong family ties." (p.152, limited preview on Google Books)

This is perhaps a little exaggerated.  The image of Lavoisier as a much loved patriarch comes almost entirely from  posthumous eulogies. Lavoisier's own writings - notoriously - have little in the way of personal comment: he totally lacked the effusive sentimentality which came so easily to many men of his generation. Lavoisier was also a modernist.  Although he was acutely aware of the plight of the poor, and capable of acts of considerable generosity, he saw the solution to poverty not in paternalistic charity but in economic progress and fiscal reform. 

In the immediate pre-Revolutionary years, Lavoisier became more involved in the local affairs, at least at provincial level.  Following the devastating drought of 1785, he was a prime mover in the foundation of the Committee of Agriculturea short-lived but ambitious government sponsored initiative to steer French agriculture.  In 1788 he generously offered the mayor of Blois a loan without interest for 50,000 livres to alleviate shortages caused by the poor grain harvest.  From September 1787 he was a  prominent member of  the new Provincial Assembly set up in Orléans, where he advocated a sweeping programme of fiscal reforms. 

During the years which followed, Lavoisier's provincial base became an important element in identifying his Revolutionary credentials. In the run up to the Estates-General,  he  sought election as a deputy for the Third Estate of Blois.  The first phase of the elective process took place at parish level.  Lavoisier, as chief landowner, was chosen to represent Villefrancoeur. 

The  Loir-et-Cher archives preserves the cahier de doléances for the parish of La Chapelle-Vendômoise, where Lavoisier's estate of Thoisy was located.

Cahier de doléances for the parish of La Chapelle-Vendômoise.  The cahier for Villefrancoeur does not survive, but Lavoisier participated in drawing up this one, in his capacity as landowner of the parish.  He is named first in the list of  inhabitants.  His influence is visible in the first article of cahier which speaks of the exercise of "personal and individual liberty".  One of the two deputies from the parish was Lefebvre, Lavoisier's intendant.

For the text, see  Département de Loir-et-Cher. Cahiers de doléances du bailliage de Blois... pour les États généraux de 1789 [Internet Archive], p.58ff.

Although his hopes of election were ultimately frustrated, Lavoisier continued to support the patriots of Blois. He offered accommodation and hospitality to the representatives who came to Paris for Fête de la Fédération in 1790, one of whom was Lefebvre.  

Lavoisier made his final visit to Freschines in the autumn of 1792.  He set out on 15th September and stayed for two months, through the momentous events of Valmy, the September massacres and the declaration of the Republic.  At Villefrancoeur he attempted to support village celebrations by having a  tree of liberty planted in the public square and donating a considerable sum of money to the local National Guard. (p.298-9)   He returned to Paris in November 1792 for the reopening of the Academy of Sciences.

Later history of the château

In 1795 Freschines was restored to Marie Lavoisier, who in 1803 sold the house to the diplomat Charles René de la Forest.   In 1863 the property was purchased by Joseph Law, marquis de Lauriston, on whose death it was inherited by his son-in-law, Le Général, Comte de Vibraye. His daughter, the Comtesse de Vienne ultimately ceded it to the nuns of the Providence de Blois, who still owned it when Douglas McKie visited in the early 1950s:  

Today the château has become a maison de repos in the charge of the Catholic sisters from Blois and externally it is unchanged.  Beneath the fine old trees, including some magnificent cedars, Lavoisier must have walked during his visits there; to the south, towards Blois, is a delightful tree-lined vista.  A short distance away is the little village of Villefrancoeur, for the children of which Lavoisier built the first school, long since demolished.  In the church is a beautifully decorated statue of St. Laurent, so clearly of the eighteenth century that is is not unreasonable to hazard a guess that it may have been the gift of Lavoisier.  Further off are the various other lands that he farmed.  This old house will always be interesting as the only habitation of Lavoisier that is now standing.  In the grounds there is the earlier château, built in  the fifteenth century and still inhabited, where, according to tradition, Catherine de Medici once lived.
 Douglas McKie, Antoine Lavoisier: scientist, economist, social reformer (1952), p.217


From Madame Lavoisier's biographical notes:

The work of the tireless Duhamel had given Lavoisier many new ideas about agricultural production. In 1779 he established a farm for practical experiment and observation on his estate at Freschines, near Blois

He introduced potatoes, which were unknown before him.  Artificial meadows were established where none had existed.  The farm was stocked with fine livestock.  Precise registers entries were kept each piece of ground and its produce - one could say, there was a running account for each piece of land. All the work, the farming methods, the sowings and harvests were recorded: on one side the costs, on the other the production....The success was such that by the fifteen year the yield of wheat had doubled and the number of livestock the land could support had increased fivefold.

In this place, where Lavoisier did so much useful work, he should be imagined among the local people. He acted as magistrate of the peace, to resolve disputes between neighbours or to restore a son to paternal obedience; he set an example of patriarchal virtues; he cared for the sick not just by financial aid but by visits, attentions, exhortations to patience and hope.  He founded a school for the young generation.  He always sold foodstuffs at below market price out of consideration for those who were ashamed to receive charity, and were thus the more to be pitied.  In a year of great famine, he came to the aid of the people of Blois. He advanced fifty thousand francs to the magistrates to buy corn...and feed the town, without asking for interest or for a single extra centime in return.
Translated from: Charles C. Gillispie  "Notice biographique de Lavoisier par Madame Lavoisier", Revue d'histoire des sciences et de leurs applications,  1956. Vol.9(1): p. 52-61.

Eulogy of Lavoisier by Antoine François Fourcroy  

Without ceremony or comment he assisted a host of unfortunates. The inhabitants of several communes in the department of Loir-et-Cher where he owned land, will long remember his kindness and active humanity.  How many times did he and his worthy wife offer them refuge from indigence and misery!  How many tears have they shed together!  His kindness and virtue, will perpetuate Lavoisier's memory among the unfortunate, just as his genius is immortalised among friends of science and the arts.
Fourcroy , Notice sur la vie et les travaux de Lavoisier, lue, le 15 Thermidor, an 4, au Lycée des Arts (Paris, 1796), p.43-4. [On Google Books]

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