Rehabilitating Marie-Antoinette’s favourite: the princesse de Lamballe

Open any book on the reign of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette or the French Revolution and the reader will invariably find one or two sentences recounting the grisly manner of the princesse de Lamballe’s death during the September massacres.

Print by Verité after a 1782 portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) (print published after 1792). Credit: Gallica / BnF.

Print by Verité after a 1782 portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) (print published after 1792). Credit: Gallica / BnF.

Marie-Thérèse Louise de Savoie-Carignan, the princesse de Lamballe (1749-1792), once a central figure of Marie-Antoinette’s court, is today largely forgotten, reduced to a fittingly sensational anecdote illustrating the bloodshed that ensued in Paris during the last turbulent years of the eighteenth century. The princess’s true character and activities have long been lost in the mawkish narratives peddled by the wave of nineteenth-century biographies that succeeded her death. This sentimental revival of interest in her person was closely interwoven with the propaganda that attended the royalist cult of Marie-Antoinette and has coloured all subsequent interpretations.

My research focuses on the portraiture and patronage of the princesse, and through an examination of the many portraits the princess sat for and her role as patron and collector, I hope to redress these longstanding lacunae and recover something of her former influence and contribution. An accomplished noble amateur, traveller, bibliophile, freemason, salonnière, patron and collector, not to mention the highest ranking courtier in the queen’s household, Lamballe presents an ideal case study, particularly as her widowed, childless, professional and independent status presents a rare alternative to the more orthodox paradigms within her milieu.

The princesse de Lamballe’s chaumière at Rambouillet. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

The princesse de Lamballe’s chaumière at Rambouillet. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

In determining the governing ideologies in the princess’s iconographical programme and by tracing the mechanics of her engagement with different groups of artists and craftsmen, I hope to identify a wider range of motives and cultural meaning than has previously been ascribed to female court portraiture and patronage of this period and to cast further light on the taste of her mistress, Marie-Antoinette.

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation Travel Grant/BSECS Travelling Award I was able to travel to Paris to visit archives, libraries and critical sites pertaining to the princess. Among these were Rambouillet and the Parc Monceau. English gardens were perhaps the most expansive example of Lamballe’s patronage, and she was almost certainly influenced in this taste by the example of her brother-in-law, the duc de Chartres, with his English gardens at the château de Raincy and Monceau.

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The colonnade at the Parc Monceau. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

In 1779-1780 Lamballe’s father-in-law, the duc de Penthièvre, commissioned a jardin anglais for her in the grounds at Rambouillet, his birthplace and favourite residence, at an easy distance from Paris where the princess frequently joined him when released from her duties in the city or at court. This new endeavour took its cue from, and overlapped with, the planning of her mistress and friend Marie-Antoinette’s jardin anglo-chinois in the grounds of the Petit Trianon created between 1777-1781.

– Sarah Grant

Judging a book by its binding

Photo by irene

Waddesdon Manor

Anyone who has visited Waddesdon Manor will have been struck by the Morning Room, in which rows of impressively large books are carefully encased in cabinets. For most visitors, these books remain nothing more than particularly expensive decorations since there is little opportunity to handle or open them.

Thankfully, recent projects have been lifting the covers (as it were) on the contents, revealing satirical and rabble-rousing content that contrasts with the seemingly royalist surroundings. Waddesdon Manor was built in the late nineteenth century in a neo-Renaissance style by Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleurs for the baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Ferdinand was a historian fascinated by early modern France and Waddesdon Manor features many royal relics including Marie-Antoinette’s desk, and the large state portrait of Louis XVI by Callet. With rooms filled with Sèvres porcelain, and tapestries from the royal Gobelins and Beauvais workshops, Waddesdon exudes opulence rather than radical politics.

This fascinating disparity was exploited by my colleague Paul Davidson and me, when we co-curated an exhibition at Waddesdon in 2011, called ‘A Subversive Art: Prints of the French Revolution’, to demonstrate the radical content of four such volumes: The Tableaux de la Révolution. Our method to entice visitors to the exhibition was to create a treasure-hunt-like trail throughout the manor, leaving incendiary prints of Louis XVI, Madame de Polignac, Marie-Antoinette, and the Duc d’Orléans next to their rather more grandiose depictions. While the exhibition is now over, you can still consult the contents of the volumes online, and through these series of videos featuring Katherine Astbury as well as Paul and me.

These are by no means the only books at Waddesdon Manor whose content may surprise you. The Saint-Aubin Livre de Caricatures tant Bonnes que mauvaises is an incendiary book from the age of enlightenment. A mixture of politically astute commentary and scatological sketches, it is also available to consult online, and is the subject of an important study edited by Colin Jones, Juliet Carey and Emily Richardson.

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However, if the binding itself intrigues you as much as the content, then Waddesdon’s Catalogue of Printed Books and Bookbindings, edited by the Voltaire Foundation’s late founder Giles Barber, will certainly be of interest. This catalogue of French 18th century books and bindings at Waddesdon will be published later this year.

Claire Trévien