DESENFANS, Noel Joseph 1745-1807 and Margaret 1731-1813. Collector and founder/patron of Dulwich Picture Gallery. Noel Desenfans was born in Douai in northern France and came to England in 1769 to earn his living as a language teacher. A financially and socially advantageous marriage in 1776 to Margaret Morris, the rather older aunt of two of his pupils, enabled him to set up as a picture dealer. At this he was successful, and with his protégé, Bourgeois (qv), he pursued social advancement relentlessly. The commission he received in 1790 from King Stanislaus Augustus of Poland, to assemble a collection of great European paintings in order ‘to promote the progress of the fine arts in Poland’, was socially prestigious but ultimately financially embarrassing, as Stanislaus lost his throne in 1795 and died in 1798. The group of paintings collected by Desenfans (which cost him several thousand pounds) ultimately formed the nucleus of the Bourgeois bequest to the future Dulwich Picture Gallery. Desenfans died in 1807, and in 1815 his body was laid in the Mausoleum at the Picture Gallery with those of his wife and friend.
The only self-effacing member of the Desenfans-Bourgeois household, Margaret came from a newly prosperous south Wales family which had recently been granted a baronetcy. Her hasty marriage - at the age of 45 - to a much younger French language teacher without apparent prospects, can hardly have been popular with her family; but her respectable private income was no doubt very welcome to her new husband, Noel Desenfans. As a young woman Margaret had been painted by Reynolds, whose portrait of her hangs in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Although her husband and Bourgeois entertained extensively, Margaret never attended even their mixed soirées. As the surviving member of the trio, Margaret Desenfans played a vital part in fulfilling Bourgeois’ dying wish that the paintings which he and Desenfans had collected should be accommodated at Dulwich in a building to be designed by Sir John Soane. When Soane’s designs had been pared down to a minimum, a shortfall of £4,000 remained, which Mrs Desenfans met from her own resources. The Gallery and Mausoleum were largely completed by the time of her death in 1813.