Tales from the Archive: A Right Royal Obsession

What might we expect a typical nineteenth-century French library to contain? There are authors of the period who are famous on both sides of the Channel: Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac. Alongside these, there are a whole host of writers who at the time were well-known but have since slipped into obscurity. We might also hazard that the pinnacles of French thought that emerged during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, what we might call the ‘classics’, would also put in an appearance; people like Voltaire, Rousseau, La Fontaine and Rabelais. The library of John and Joséphine Bowes that has been preserved in the Museum’s archive contains volumes by all of these writers, and many others. What we might be less likely to expect, however, is the enormous number of volumes relating to French royalty.

Equestrian Portrait of Louis XIV, after Pierre Mignard (1610-1695), B.M.286
Equestrian Portrait of Louis XIV, after Pierre Mignard (1610-1695), B.M.286

In addition to novels and poetry, the collection contains memoirs, biographies, correspondence, and other paraphernalia relating to the rulers of France. In fact, there are dedicated works detailing the life and times of every king and emperor from Napoleon III, ruler at the time of the Bowes’ collecting activities, all the way back to Charles VIII, the last king of the Valois dynasty who ruled France between 1483 and 1498. That amounts to volumes on eighteen different monarchs and emperors. Whilst for some rulers there is a single dedicated work, like Hauréau’s François premier et sa cour (Francis I and his Court) or Pierre de l’Estoile’s Journal de Henri III (Diary of Henry III), the House of Bourbon proves an especially fascinating object, and there are ten volumes on Louis XIV alone. These are supplemented by a volume of prints that contain engraved portraits of every French king from Louis XIV to Pharamond, allegedly the first Frankish king who ruled during the 5th century A.D.

Portraits des rois de France, volume of engravings of every king of France until Louis XIV, 2003.432/P.A
Portraits des rois de France, volume of engravings of every king of France until Louis XIV, 2003.432/P.A

The collection does not limit itself to just the monarchs; there are volumes that address their courts, too. Unlike the memoirs, letters or biographies, these reveal a much less ‘official’ history, exposing a much more gossipy side to life at the French court. There are no fewer than three different volumes of ‘intrigues galantes’, tales of love affairs and courtship from throughout French history, and the Bowes also purchased Guérin’s Nuits de Versailles, ou les grands seigneurs en deshabillé (Versailles Nights, or Great Men in a State of Undress). The title of this text is revealing enough in itself (pun intended), and the book was even successful enough to spawn a sequel: Soirées de Trianon. Suite aux Nuits de Versailles (Trianon Evenings. Sequel to Versailles Nights).

The three volumes of intrigues galantes that form part of the Bowes library.
The three volumes of intrigues galantes that form part of the Bowes library.

Moreover, much like the rest of the Museum’s collection this interest in royalty goes beyond national borders. In addition to texts on French monarchs, there are works on (and even by) Frederick the Great of Prussia, and unsurprisingly given John Bowes’ nationality the library also contains volumes on British monarchs. Though here their collection is less comprehensive, covering only Henry VIII and the Stuarts. The fascination with royalty seems a particularly French affair.

Where does this interest come from? The fact that these books had sequels and subsequent editions makes it clear that the Bowes weren’t the only people buying them. Perhaps we can compare this to the sort of Will and Kate fever that swept the UK after the Royal Wedding, and the sense of national pride witnessed at occasions like the Queen’s jubilee. Royalty has always had an allure. But even so, the Bowes collection seems excessive. Perhaps these volumes were part of Joséphine trying to educate herself on French history, as a means of fitting in with the salon society her marriage to John brought her into.
What I think is more likely, though, is that they were intended as part of the Museum’s collection. There is a general sense across the Museum that John and Joséphine felt an urge to collect recent French history, particularly given the context of France’s tumultuous political climate since 1789. With revolutions, regime changes, and coups d’état occurring in almost every decade of the first half of the century (1815, 1830, 1848, 1851 all saw rulers being deposed), and power shifting between the houses of Bourbon, Orléans, and Bonaparte, tenure upon the French throne seemed anything but assured, and if the end of one monarch’s reign gives rise to memorialisation and questions of legacy and posterity, history could seemingly be made at any moment. Napoleon III’s twenty two years as France’s head of state suddenly have an air of stability.

Emperor Napoleon III, 1867, Jules de Vignon, B.M.1052
Emperor Napoleon III, 1867, Jules de Vignon, B.M.1052

As France’s head of state from 1848 until 1870, Napoleon III’s rule coincides in large part with the collecting activities of John and Joséphine Bowes. His rule can also be said to have further fostered an interest in French cultural heritage that began under Napoleon I, what the French call their patrimoine. He commissioned Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to restore the world-famous cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris, the ancient city of Carcassonne, and the Château de Vincennes, as well as converting the former prison at Mont-Saint-Michel into a public monument. Additionally, Napoleon III had Baron Haussmann redesign Paris, a process known as Haussmannisation.
Whilst ostensibly for the public good, Haussmann’s renovations in the 1850s and 60s both changed the face of Paris to the city we know today, and prompted literary and artistic reflections on the physical traces of history these renovations would sweep away as whole streets simply ceased to exist. The Bowes were no doubt keenly aware of these developments; an outlet of Monbro fils aîné, the fashionable furniture firm from whom the Bowes bought a large number of quality items currently on display in the Museum, was forced to close as their store on Rue Basse-du-Rempart was to be demolished to make way for the expansion of the Boulevard des Capucines, itself immortalised in Jean Béraud’s painting of the hexagonal kiosk, an innovation of Haussmann. Furthermore, the Église de la Trinité, the Bowes’ local church in Paris where Joséphine Bowes would eventually be first buried after her death in 1874, was one of several new churches built by Haussmann as part of his project. The Bowes therefore lived in Paris at a time when Paris was recreating itself, which may well partly explain their impulse to preserve and display the history that was rapidly being hidden.

Kiosque à Paris (boulevard des Capucines) vers 1880-1884, Jean Béraud, Baltimore, Walters Art Museum.
Kiosque à Paris (boulevard des Capucines) vers 1880-1884, Jean Béraud, Baltimore, Walters Art Museum.

What the French library held in the Museum archive amounts to, then, is a monument to French history, a history the Bowes and their museum project sought to preserve and display to the public. By cataloguing the contents of this library this is a project we hope to continue.

By James Illingworth, PhD student


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