French Gems at The British Museum

Posted on Feb 1, 2017 by


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Fans of all things French (well, maybe not all) we trotted off to the British Museum to see the Exhibition French Portrait Drawings from Clouet to Courbet. The publicity promised it would be full of gems from the Museum’s collection and did not disappoint (France must be gnashing its teeth). Added Bonus: Because the Museum owns copyright we were allowed to take photographs. A rare treat.

The first exhibit, a drawing by Jean Clouet, was stunning.

We know all about Jean Clouet. We discovered him while researching Leonardo da Vinci: The Amboise Connection, We found to our utter astonishment that he was taught by none other than Leonardo himself in Château Clos Lucé Amboise. Here he had the rare privilege of studying three of Leonardo’s most famous paintings, the Mona Lisa, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist up close and personal. When Leonardo showed Clouet how to use diagonal hatching to give a three dimensional effect, it revolutionised portrait painting in France. Château Clos Lucé was given to Leonardo as a Grace and Favour home by his close friend King François I.

When Clouet was taken into the stable of artists at The Royal Château of Amboise he was paid the same wage as a stable boy. Leonardo elevated the status of artist in France to such an extent, by the time he retired, Clouet, as Court Painter, was paid the same salary as the palace head surgeon.

A reproduction of an engaging portrait of a young, clean shaven François I by Jean Clouet hangs in our stairwell. It was painted not long after the young King’s astonishing victory at the Battle of Marignano in Italy. He must have been about twenty-two at the time. It could not have been painted after 1521 because that year François was obliged to grow a beard.

There was nothing François enjoyed more than taking part in mock battles. One of them, while on a visit to his mother to celebrate Twelfth Night, ended in disaster. A party of courtiers led by the King laid siege to the house of his friend, the Count of Saint Pol, in Romorantin. As he tried to break down the door, one of the Count’s men dropped a burning log on him from an upstairs window. François was knocked senseless. For days his life hung in the balance. The Court was in Romorantin for three months while he recovered from his injuries. The firebrand scarred his chin so Francois grew a beard to hide it. Clouet’s famous portrait of François in the Louvre shows him with the beard.

The Clouet drawings in the Exhibition are in what was known in France as les trois crayons technique (red, black and white). Not as we know crayons, they were chalks. The technique was used for preparatory drawings intended to be fleshed out into formal portraits although in truth the drawings often captured the sitter better than the finished portrait.

Leonardo learned the technique from Jean Clouet’s tutor Jean Perréal when he was in Italy with Charles VIII and later with Louis XII. A French invention, it was unknown in Italy. Perréal, official Painter to the French Court, also taught Leonardo how to make coloured drawing paper after which Leonardo famously used red chalk and red paper. Leonardo, being Leonardo, experimented with Perreal’s chalks and invented pastels using gum arabic. Leonardo being Leonardo and extremely fastidious, probably did not like messy, dusty chalks.

Having visited Château Luynes we smiled to see a 1758 caricature of the Duke of Luynes. The present owner of the Château is a direct descendant.

We were interested to learn that Jean Joseph Bernard began his career at the court of the Stanislas, the exiled King of Poland. We know Place Stanislas in Nancy. It’s magnificent. Stanislas built the complex of grand buildings to impress and honour his son-in-law, Louis XV and his daughter Marie when they visited him. Bernard went on to bigger things. He ended by painting the portraits of the ill-fated Louis XVI, Marie- Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte.

We were also delighted to see Émile Friant, another of our favourite artists, represented. The art museums in Nancy and Strasbourg have fine collections of his work.

The highlight, for us, was the cabinet of medals. Having read so much about them, we view the sitters as old friends. Is that François I with his son Henri II and grandson François? Yes. Is that one of our favourite French kings Louis XII with his wife Anne of Brittany? It is. And OMG! Is that the Dauphin François who died young? It is. Doesn’t he look like his father? The medal of poor Marie-Antoinette was struck after she was murdered. Poor because no-one deserves to be murdered. Except murderers themselves perhaps. There was even a Limoges plaque of the marriage of Louis XIII. Limoges, too, holds happy memories.

As for the building itself. Well. If the British Museum lost its charm for Gershwin in 1937, lord only knows what he would think today. Lost its charm is an understatement. It is true one should never go back. The British Museum in days of yore was polished dark mahogany cabinets, dim lighting, jumbled up dusty artefacts with faded typewritten labels. One felt a sense of adventure peering into the gloom stumbling across jaw dropping finds. It was a proper museum back then. It had atmosphere. Romance. Now it’s an Installation. Bland. Characterless. All we will remember is a massive white edifice – white elephant? – surrounded by places to eat. So sad. Himself had never been to the British Museum. Listening to my excited eulogies he couldn’t wait. Not wanting to rain on his parade I asked tentatively; what do you think? Mmmmmm, said he, bit of a damp squib, a let-down if I’m honest. Not at all what I was expecting. I was expecting to be awestruck. I’m not.

Nor was I. The edifice or whatever it’s called stripped the museum of its charm. The Norman Foster Experience has upstaged it, but not in a good way. I used to daydream about renting a bedsit nearby so that I could visit every day to discover new things. That bubble has certainly burst. I wouldn’t care if I never went back.

Still. Nostalgia aside. We loved the Exhibition and are grateful to the Prints and Drawing Curator for putting it on. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. A truly uplifting experience.

Related articles: Soul Food. LochesChâteau Amboise (1)Château Amboise (2)Loches, ah, Loches. What to make of Loches?StrasbourgChristmas in Limoges. Part One. Christmas in Limoges. Part two.