Dulwich Artist in Residence - Sir Francis Bourgeois (1756-1811)
By Brian Green
You know you really have to feel rather sorry for Bourgeois. Unlike his mentor, Noel Desenfans, there is no road in Duwich named after him. Yes, admittedly, the residents of such a road might feel aggrieved if the road they lived in was called Bourgeois, but then again they might feel flattered if it were named Sir Peter Bourgeois Way or Francis Bourgeois Close. All the same, he has been a bit let down despite the poet Leigh Hunt telling us, “ he was a lively, good natural man with a pleasing countenance”. And perhaps even worse, his reputation as an artist has not endured apparently. John Ingamells notes in the current Dulwich Picture Gallery Catalogue that Bourgeois was an artist of limited ability. Giles Waterfield is rather more forgiving; ‘His paintings, well received in many quarters in his own day attracted notable purchasers, though later opinion has been less kind.’
Two hundred and four years after he made it quite clear what he wanted done with his collection after his death his wishes are still not carried out. And not only that: on his deathbed, when he expressed a wish to add some codicils to his Will in which he left his entire art collection to Dulwich, his lawyer avoided him. By the time the lawyer got around to it a month later, Sir Peter Francis Bourgeois was dead.
What Bourgeois wanted was that his collection, which included twenty-two of his own
works and which decorated the walls of the house at 31 Charlotte Street which he had shared with Margaret and Noel Desenfans, would be seen by as many people as possible - and especially by the president and members of the Royal Academy. To attract their attendance he wanted to offer a splendid dinner at the collection's new home which he anticipated to be in the rebuilt gallery located in the west wing of Dulwich College.
Only one of his pictures, a self-portrait is on display. Of the others, one was destroyed in World War 11 (several others were damaged), six are away on permanent loan and the rest are in store. Not quite what he had in mind when he left his and Noel Desenfans’ collection to Dulwich.
According to the Memoirs of Sir Francis Bourgeois RA, published in the Freemasons’ Magazine in May 1795, (Peter) Francis Bourgeois was born in London in 1756 of Swiss
ancestry (his father Isaac Emmanuel was born in 1726 in Yveden in the Canton of Berne, and his mother Elizabeth Gordon (or Garden) was English). His Swiss family’s tree shows that he had a brother, Emmanuel and sister Jeanne. According to his memoirs, his father originally intended that his son should have a military career and the boy was presented to George Eliot (later Lord Heathfield the defender of Gibraltar), a friend of his father, who promised that when he was of suitable age he would procure a commission for him in the Light Dragoons, a regiment which Eliot had raised. Soon after however, Colonel Bourgeois, a near relation in Switzerland, sent for the child, intending to put him into a military academy.
According to Francis Bourgeois however, his father could not consent to part with his son at so early an age and he remained in England. His father still did not give up his plan for his son to have a military career and Francis was constantly attending the reviewing of troops and making himself conversant with their exercises and manoeuvres. Or at least, this is the version of his life that Peter Francis Bourgeois preferred to let be known.
It would appear that his English mother, Elizabeth Gordon, died, possibly after giving birth to a daughter, Elizabeth Maria in February 1767. The child also seems not to have survived. A year later, in 1768, Noel Desenfans arrived in England from his native France. One account tells that Desenfans took lodgings at Isaac Bourgeois’ watchmaker’s shop at 22 Haymarket and that a friendship formed between the two men. When Isaac Bourgeois determined to return to his native Switzerland, he entrusted the upbringing of his son to Desenfans. This important event is not mentioned by Francis in his Memoirs although he does say towards the end that he has “ long possessed the friendship of that distinguished connoisseur and liberal patron of the arts, Mr Desenfans.”
Isaac Bourgeois must have taken his daughter, Jeanne, with him back to Switzerland, because an undated letter of introduction of his daughter sent to Desenfans by Isaac exists in the archives of Dulwich College. This letter therefore throws doubt on Desenfans being a lodger at the Haymarket shop, where he would of course have already met Jeanne Bourgeois. A Mme. Bourgeois was still living in Yvedon, in Switzerland, the birthplace of Isaac Borgeois, in 1816, giving private lessons in music, French, Geometry and Arithmetic.
Desenfans’ connection with Isaac Bourgeois, and also with Joshua Reynolds, John Soane, Philip de Loutherbourg, may well have been facilitated by his place in Freemasonry - Reynolds was a Masonic Grand Master, Loutherbourg produced a number of Masonic images and Soane designed Freemason’s Hall. Furthermore, Isaac Bourgeois seems to have come from a well-established prosperous family, rather than from the humble origins we are led to believe.
It was while viewing military exercises at the behest of his father that young Francis began to portray what he was seeing and was particularly successful in his depictions of cavalry, or as the Memoirs puts it: “exchanging the sword for the more peaceful pencil”. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Richard Wilson and Thomas Gainsborough gave him encouragement and later he became a pupil of Philip de Loutherbourg. Loutherbourg had come to England from France in 1771 and had become the theatrical scenery and effects designer for David Garrick at Drury Lane. Loutherbroug was also an exponent of landscapes which told a story; action paintings, particularly depictions of bandits, a genre which was currently very popular. Although Bourgeois was already painting military figures in his landscapes, Loutherbourg’s influence can be clearly seen even though his pupilage lasted only some six months. One of Loutherbourg’s paintings showing the similarity of styles is in Dulwich Picture Gallery.
It may have been the marriage of Desenfans to Margaret Morris in 1775 which cut short Bourgeois’ apprenticeship with Loutherbourg. Noel Desenfans had eloped with Margaret Morris, and married at St Marylebone Church, much to the shock of her family. She was aged 45 and he was 30. Presumably Bourgeois’ wish to give the newly-weds some space coincided with his deciding to break out on his own. He expressed a desire study the old masters and he notes that his “respectable connections” secured him an easy introduction to a number of private collections he wished to study. He was also to able to indulge in his new passion of portraying nature now that he had picked up the principles of painting from Loutherbourg..
So how did these ‘respectable connections’ come about? The likeliest explanation is to found in the person of his mentor, Noel Desenfans. We have already seen that he had a position in Freemasonry, and Desenfans also attended the University of Douai, an alma mater he shared with two friends, the statesman Charles Auguste Calonne and the actor John Charles Kemble. The disparity in their ages precludes them being fellow students although they may well have been members of a Masonic lodge and frequented the literary clubs which flourished in France during the Enlightenment. Letters of introduction must have facilitated Desenfans’ entry into the London bluestocking salon of Elizabeth Montagu who became his mentor and the recipient of his famous letter in defence of Fenelon. Similarly, Francis Bourgeois appears to have embarked on his two year artistic odyssey armed with similar letters. It was likely that his introduction to the Polish court, which would lead later to greater things, probably came through the connection of Desenfans being a member the salon of Mme Geoffrin of Paris who had ambitions of taking Stanislaw, King of Poland under her wing.
On his return from his travels around 1777, Francis Bourgeois, now aged 21, became a resident at the home of the newly-wed Mr and Mrs Desenfans. He also seems to have become the junior partner in Desenfans’ art dealing business, acting as his agent in the buying and selling of pictures, as well as carrying out restoration and varnishing of some of the acquired paintings. He was friendly with Thomas Gainsborough and told the diarist and fellow Academician Joseph Farington that when he called on him, Gainsborough was painting a half-length portrait and that he was struck by the haughty appearance and “observed it to Gainsborough, who expressed satisfaction at this remark as it proved that he had hit the character - Pitt.” Bougeois also told Farington that Gainsborough had told him that, “he talked bawdy to the King and morality to the Prince of Wales.”
Bourgeois’ own early productions were landscapes with figures and sea-pieces but later the influence of Cuyp led to numerous landscapes with cattle. There was a ready market for such works among England’s gentry who were taking great pride in their estates and livestock. Bourgeois, with his intimate knowledge of the art market continued to produce a steady stream of such works of both genres to grace the parlours of the increasingly affluent. Such pictures, small sized paintings, typically sold at 50 guineas, or double that for a larger landscape. As late as 1803 at the Royal Academy exhibition, of his six works shown, four were landscapes, one was a river scene with a boat and the last, an action painting of a skirmish.
He was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy in 1787 and in 1793 he was elected as one of the 40 Royal Academicians. His tributary picture to the Academy found a prestigious spot when it was hung in the Council Room at Somerset House. As an Academician he was expected to present works for the annual exhibition and also to offer tuition to students. Bourgeois did not like taking pupils; Farington’s diary of 1796 records that “he (Bourgeois) had been subjected to much inconvenience while young Dashwood was with him for a short time and would never again experience it”. However Bourgeois could not ignore a command from the King to take as a student, Richard Barrett, the son of a royal estate worker who showed promise in art, as a pupil in 1804.
In 1790 Bourgeois’ connection with the Polish royal family bore fruit and led to a commission for Desenfans and he to collect pictures to form the nucleus of a projected National Gallery for Poland. He had become friends with Michael Ponitonski, the king’s brother, when he visited the Polish court following Desenfans’ marriage. In 1791 Bourgeois was appointed Court Painter to Stanislaus Augustus, King of Poland who conferred on him a knighthood of the Order of Merit. Somewhere, there is the portrait of Stanislaw which gained him this title. However, in 1795, before delivery of the paintings Desenfans and Bourgeois had amassed, and which included nine by Bourgeois, could take place, Poland had been invaded by Russia, partitioned, and Stanislaw deposed.
Meanwhile, in 1794, Bourgeois had been appointed Landscape Painter to George III and his Polish title was later confirmed by the English crown. This title attracted the venom of the writer/satirist Anthony Pasquin (John Williams) who published a scathing attack in the Observer on Bourgeois’ submission in 1795 ( Mr Kemble, in Coriolanus Act 4) , to the Academy’s annual exhibition,
“We hesitate to criticize this picture, lest it should be supposed it is in our wish to goad or offend this worthy knight of Poland; but what remarks can or should be offered, are the result off observation of such specimens of inability? Here the drawing , colouring, costume, composition and similitude of character, are all imperfect: the principal figure conveys no idea of the muscular and manly person of Mr Kemble, much less the victor of Corioli; it appears rather as a bantam hero among the fantoccini, crowing, but not denouncing; and angry, but not tremulous. Sir Francis appears to us, to know little of the professional requisites of an Historical Painter, that we shall venture, briefly to point them out…”
Bourgeois was naturally upset and mentioned it to Farington who advised him not to mind it.
Bourgeois submission of ‘Landscape and Cattle, sunset’ received a better notice in the Morning Post May 1797:
“It gives us some pleasure to signify, that this titled Gentleman is in a state of improvement; this picture is more natural than any we have been accustomed to behold from the same pencil: he has dropped the prominent failings of his master Loutherbourg, and assumed the style of Cuyp, although he cannot copy his magic touches in the aerial department….”
Bourgeois’ submissions over the next few years, although small in number, received complimentary notices. Previously, in 1790, Sir Joshua Reynolds had paid Bourgeois £100 for one of his large landscapes with cattle which had been exhibited in that year’s Academy exhibition and which one newspaper claimed had been painted in four days, but which Reynolds said was one of Bourgeois’ best productions. Reynolds hung it in his parlour. Sir John Soane also possessed three of his pictures and John Northcote also had a sketch.
At the Academy, Bourgeois was a member of a small group of Academicians which included John Singleton Copley, Beechey, Tresham and Sandby, who felt frustrated by the lack of sufficient influence they had in the society. They disagreed with the powers assumed by the president, Benjamin West and in 1800, to show their displeasure, decided to establish a breakaway club in opposition to the Royal Academy Club and fixed on the Thatched House Tavern as its venue and arranged their meetings to coincide with those of the Academy Club. The group claimed that the King approved of the plan. Ill-feeling was rife within the Academy; West and Copley, both Americans and once friends were now bitter enemies, a state made worse by the success of West over Copley in the election as President of the Royal Academy following Reynolds’ death and his closeness to the King. West had also made some snide remarks to Farington about both Bourgeois’ roots and Desenfans’ art dealing.
In January 1803 Bourgeois was elected a member of the Royal Academy Council and also to the committee to arrange the exhibition of that year. Among the other members elected were Copley, J MW Turner, James Wyatt and John Soane. The year started badly for the already divided Academy. The antagonism between Copley and West had worsened. Copley had requested more time to complete his submission for the exhibition which was a work comprising fifteen full-length portraits of the Knachbull family. At the time he was in severe financial difficulties and having the painting in the exhibition was crucial for him. It was agreed by the Council, which sat in the absence through ill-health of West, that Copley should have more time in view of the immensity of the work. On hearing this, West objected and made a formal complaint, pointing out that the late submission broke the Academy’s rules. Copley then made two requests to withdraw his picture. However, the Academy rules stated that once a picture had been accepted and printed in the catalogue it could not be withdrawn. Bourgeois seconded a motion to comply with Copley’s request to withdraw because the catalogue which would have included the work had not yet been printed.
At another meeting of the council shortly after, with West still absent through ill-health, Copley was elected as chairman of the exhibition committee but most members left the room. The remaining members reviewed some of the submissions for exhibition and it was reported that the submission by Benjamin West of a painting titled Hagar and Ishmael had already been exhibited some years before. It was against the rules to exhibit the same picture twice. The press got hold of the story, reporting that “The members of the Council were indignant at the deception, regarded each other for some time with silent astonishment”. The Secretary responded by saying the Council positively denied this and alluded to West’s illness for causing the mistake to take place. West wrote to the committee pointing out that the picture was so reworked as to be a completely different one from that originally offered. The committee decided to defer consideration of West’s letter and West wrote a second letter which was again deferred. Finally, at their May meeting, the committee decided to reject the picture.
West’s furious reaction was to persuade the general assembly of the Royal Academy to suspend Copley, Wyatt, Soane, Yenn and Bourgeois from the Council and to order the secretary to excise from the minute book the pages referring to the resolution to reject West’s painting. Appeals were made by both parties to the King, who by this time was frustrated by the dissension of the various groups within the Academy. The King, feeling his age and tired of the long-winded West, nevertheless smoothed things over and ordered the erasure of the suspension of Bourgeois and the others and the spat blew over.
In 1810 Bourgeois had a fall while riding, probably fracturing his left hip. It is likely that gangrene set in, in his left foot, causing months of pain. The accident focused Bourgeois’ mind upon his affairs and especially the future of the art collection which had been left to him on Noel Desenfans death in 1807. He was quite determined that it should be preserved for posterity by placing it on view to the public. Noel Desenfans had some years earlier failed to persuade the government to establish a National Gallery in England by offering to it the collection. Meanwhile, the collection of over 300 paintings crowded every wall of their house in Charlotte Street. Bourgeois had remained an avid collector, Desenfans complaining to Farington that “He has been buying up whatever he saw, to put where? In my attic!”
Bourgeois attempted to buy the freehold of the house in Charlotte Street in order to turn it into a museum, but negotiations with the Duke of Portland who was the freeholder, failed. So what to do ? Possibly the earlier poor relations with West who was still president of the Academy persisted, or there was some further friction because it was said that the Academy had given him some offence and so that avenue appeared to be blocked.
He had also taken note of what Thomas Grenville had told him (Lord Buckingham was a Trustee of the British Museum), that he had visited the British Museum to see the rules and concluded that the Governors exercised the right - of putting up and taking down and getting rid of anything they might choose, for instance, they have the right of disposing of a picture….” So for Bourgeois, who wanted to keep the collection intact, that avenue was also closed. But Bourgeois had found a third possibility and one which might preserve his art collection for the posterity he hoped for.
He had become friendly with the Revd. Robert Corry a few years earlier, probably shortly before Corry became a Fellow of Dulwich College in 1806. Jane Ross says that the Revd Corry said prayers in the private chapel in the Charlotte Street house built by Soane to contain the mausoleum for Noel Desenfans. Bourgeois had visited the College frequently. “He was much pleased with the place - its stillness and apparent retirement tho so near the Metropolis, it’s having its own Gallery and Chapel”. . According to Corry, “Bourgeois had a kind of horror of his pictures being retouched or ‘improved’ upon by any Dabbler in the Art”. He became resolved to bequeath his collection to the College and accordingly appointed Corry and Mr Greenwell, his solicitor, as trustees and executors to carry the plan into effect.
Bourgeois announced this to Corry in December 1810, and the following day the latter hurried down to the Temple where the College’s Warden, Lancelot Baugh Allen, had his lawyer’s office, to inform him of the matter. Allen, probably in jest said to Corry that he hoped he had been given a good legacy and Corry told him that he and Greenwell had been given £1000 each. Corry asked Allen what he thought of the business and Allen told him, “nothing would give me greater pleasure and would do everything I possibly could to effect his intention.”
The two men then went to Charlotte Street for a two-hour meeting with the very sick Sir Francis Bourgeois. Allen, being a lawyer (he later became a police solicitor), made careful notes of the meeting, and observed “After considering and wanting to keep the collection for posterity for the benefit of the public, he was better satisfied with the unpretending merit of Dulwich College than with the grand institutions and came to the resolution of leaving the whole to them
Discussions opened on the how the business might be conducted. Bourgeois proposed an endowment of £10,000 for the maintenance of the collection, covering cleaning, repairs to the frames and wages of two attendants. He was very keen on an annual dinner to be given to the president and members of the Royal Academy who would at the same time inspect the condition of the collection and advise on which pictures required cleaning. He left the matter of charging an entry fee to view the collection to the College. As far as the (at the time) anticipated costs involved in rebuilding the College’s ruinous west wing, which included the existing gallery, estimated at £4000 were concerned, Bourgeois said he would meet the College half way and offered a further £2000 to rebuild it. His wish, he said, and he knew also of Mrs Desenfans, was to have their remains and those of Mr Desenfans removed to the Chapel and that he would provide for this to take place. This was readily agreed to.
Discussion then proceeded in which architectural style should be employed for the rebuilt west wing and Gothic was agreed upon as being appropriate. Bourgeois asked which architect the College intended to employ and Allen responded by asking Bourgeois who he suggested. “What do you think of Soane?”, he replied. Allen said that he thought that Soane did not approve of the Gothic style but Bourgeois replied that in general that was true, but the Chapel was built by Inigo Jones and Soane was one of his most enthusiastic admirers and that he could be depended upon and would not make it an expensive business. And so it was agreed.
Bourgeois was clearly pleased with the result of the discussion with Lancelot Baugh Allen and said in closing “If Mr Desenfans could put his head out of the grave he might be able to see them (the paintings) as much in the same state as he left them in.”
On January 8th 1811, having declined an amputation of his leg, and dismissing his physician, Sir Francis Bourgeois died. His body was later entombed in the Mausoleum of Dulwich Picture Gallery - truly an artist in residence.