Brandoin and Gibbon in Lausanne, c1787: a drawing rediscovered and a letter explained.

Author:Hauptman, William
Position:Michel-Vincent Brandoin and Edward Gibbon

If the name Michel-Vincent Brandoin (2) is remembered by historians of art, particularly in Britain, it is as a result of a single work: a print made after his drawing, The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Painting in the Year 1771 (3) (Pl 1). This was the first illustration known of these manifestations, only the third after its foundation when they were still held at the cramped Pall Mall house before the move to the grander setting of Somerset House. Swiss by birth, Brandoin followed initially in the family textile business in Amsterdam and Turin before settling in London in the late 1750s. His transition from family business interests to the pictorial arts was accomplished by late 1762 when he devoted himself to working as a watercolourist from his apartments in Chelsea. How he made his living at this time is not recorded, but there are notations in his surviving Account Book' that he taught English and Swiss amateurs, and possibly acted as a picture dealer. (4) However, by 1769 Brandoin was working in the Poland Street studio of Paul Sandby, conceivably as a student, evidence for which appears in an unpublished manuscript in which the first sentence reads: 'Monr Sandby m'appris en 1769 a bouillir le bistre ... & par la lui donner du brillant & de la transparence.' (5) The manuscript was no doubt intended to record modern watercolour techniques, quite possibly with the objective of writing a procedural manual. It is surely in this goal that Brandoin visited other studios of watercolour painters active in London, including in the manuscript heretofore unknown records on the working methods--and watercolour palettes--of not only Sandby, but also Charles-Louis Clerisseau, Francesco Zuccarelli, Antonio Zucchi, and others. In the following year, Brandoin entered the Royal Academy school, no doubt on the advice of Sandby; he was 37, the oldest student at the time and the first instance known in his biography of professional training. (6) While under the supervision of his teachers, Brandoin was already making a name for himself as an astringent caricaturist of British social customs through satiric drawings published regularly by Robert Sayer.

Despite success in the crowded field of pictorial caricature and social satire, Brandoin decided in late 1772 to return to his native city of Vevey where he continued teaching and undertaking a variety of projects and commissions, including topographical illustration, the decorative arts, and architectural ventures, only remnants of which still remain. Several of these commissions were for a variety of sepulchral monuments, as the neo-classic one for the wife of the Russian count Grigory Orloff in 1781, (7) another for the Necker family in Coppet in 1786, (8) and yet another as a memorial to the poet Salomon Gessner in 1789, about which Brandoin asked the opinion of no less a connoisseur than William Beckford. (9) By this time Brandoin had known Beckford for several years, after having accompanied him in 1786 on a tour of Switzerland subsequent to his wife's death; Brandoin provided some topographical studies for his patron, which he praised. (10) Even though many of Brandoin's commissions at this time were for landscapes, the mainstay for Swiss artists at the time, he also had an unusual client in the Swiss adventurer and scholar Antoine-Louis de Polier, who commissioned him to produce copies of the extensive collection of Indian artifacts he brought back to Lausanne from his three-decade long service in the British army in India, which he, too, described enthusiastically to Beckford. (11) Brandoin was, in other words, an extremely versatile artist who undertook artistic endeavors in diverse areas that gained him an enviable reputation as one of the most important artistic figures of the area. When touring Switzerland in 1784, Sophie von La Roche, the German femme de letters, friend of Goethe, and the most famous female writer in Germany at the time, sought Brandoin out in Vevey--as 'herren Brandwin' and then later 'Herr Bruntwein'--as a principal dignitary in the area to meet. (12)


Gibbon's portrait

With Brandoin's multiple connections to both Swiss and English society in the 1780s, it would seem peculiar that he did not encounter Edward Gibbon after the historian retired to Lausanne in late September, 1783. Indications of an indirect association between Brandoin and Gibbon have been recorded obliquely for decades but with few substantial details emerging. A hint on the Brandoin/Gibbon relationship came to light in 1976 when a letter from Brandoin to Jacques-Georges Deyverdun, meant for the attention of Gibbon, was included in an exhibition devoted to Gibbon's three sojourns to Lausanne,B but which has not been mentioned in any of the modern Gibbon literature. The letter, at the time in a private collection, concerned an allegorical watercolour that Brandoin intended to present to Gibbon, possibly in connection with his completion of the Decline and Fall; the catalogue of the exhibition cited a small portion of the text, but provided no additional information. In the pictorial arts, the main document that places Brandoin and Gibbon together is a seemingly exaggerated caricature of the historian known previously only through an undated lithograph signed by Brandoin and C. Constans (Pl 2). The enigmatic history of this print has never been elucidated, partly because little information has come to light on the obscure lithographer, Charles-Louis Constans, or the circumstances around the production and then circulation of the print. Indeed, so murky a figure is Constans that standard biographical dictionaries do not even provide dates for him, noting only that he was a both a lithographer and a porcelain painter working in Sevres from 1803 to 1840. (14) From secondary sources, however, it is known that he was the proprietor of a print shop in Paris at the 5, rue Neuve-St-Augustin in about 1818. After having received a brevet, which permitted him to open his establishment as both artist and printer, (15) he was named an official dessinateur at the Manufacture royale de Sevres and employed the porcelain under his care for the creation of prints that won wide him acclaim. In 1823 he showed a series of twelve prints, called Les Caprices de Sevres, which were highly commended when shown in the Louvre. (16) Beside his activities in Sevres, Constans also maintained a lively independent business of making lithographs of portraits, picturesque views, genre scenes, and even natural history, after paintings that he sold in his premises. (17) At some point he was named Chefdu Depot at Sevres and it appears to have been in this high post that on 9 May 1838 he was inducted as a Chevalier in the Legion d'Honneur. (18) How it came about that Constans, a respected French lithographer and print dealer known for his special care and professionalism and who worked and at times lived in Sevres, made the print after Brandoin's drawing, or even how he obtained the original drawing, can only be guessed.


It may be assumed that Constans' print of Gibbons was also sold at his shop, no doubt for the English trade, and with these customers in mind, Constans sold copies to London dealers where the market for a portrait of Gibbon would be more propitious. Constans' print became a source for illustration for numerous articles on the historian afterwards. One of the earliest reproductions of it appeared in 1830, where it provided the crudely fashioned frontispiece for a small article on Gibbon's stay in Lausanne. (19) The anonymous writer noted that he had seen the print at 'Molteno's, in Pall Mall', a reference to the print shop of George Anthony Molteno who established it in Pall Mall in 1780 and was then taken over by his son John Anthony in association with Colnaghi; surely, the print originated from Constans' shop. But in the article no additional information is provided except that 'The portrait, we think, must have been taken during Gibbon's last abode in Lausanne, between the age of forty-six and fifty-six'. In DM Low's biography of Gibbon, the same lithograph is reproduced, but without discussion of the work or the conditions under which it was made, or indeed any information about Brandoin or his relationship to Gibbon and his large circle of friends. (20)


Questions of provenance

With Brandoin's original portrait drawing of Gibbon in his garden now known to have survived (Pl 3), it is worthwhile to review the circumstances under which Brandoin drew the portrait in Lausanne. It equally provides the incentive for considering once more the history of Gibbon's last residence and his Swiss associates, particularly since the abundance of Gibbon studies do not rely in the main on the extant documentation in Swiss archives. The drawing, purchased at auction along with an invoice sent to Gibbon for services rendered, is not signed, but it can be attributed to Brandoin on the basis of the distinctive manner of drawing the trees and leaves, which accords with Brandoin's extant drawings, particularly the topographical scenes, housed in the Musee historique de Vevey. The provenance of the drawing before its recent purchase is not recorded; its previous owner, however, appeared to have no immediate connection to Gibbon or to Swiss sources. In Constans' lithograph, the notation at the bottom indicated that the original drawing was in the possession 'Monsr le Profer Levade. de Lausanne', a reference to Jean-David-Paul-Etienne Levade (Pl 4), Gibbon's close friend and librarian whom he saw regularly in the 1780s. (21) When Low published the print in his biography, he repeated the same information, but added that at the time of publication (1937) the original drawing had not been traced. Few of the biographies of Gibbon reveal much of Levade's curious character except in regard to his continual services to Gibbon in a variety of...

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