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: Louis Gauffier and Thomas Penrose in Florence


Phillipe Bordes



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
On the 8th of January, 1793, the French agent in Rome, Hugou de Basseville, advised the French colony of painters to leave the city; the fanatically religious Roman populace had become increasingly hostile toward the French whose Revolutionary republicanism was rumored to be outrageously irreverent. Only five days after this warning Basseville was assassinated and the building of the Académie de France sacked by a Roman mob, the climax of two years of tension. Already by the end of the previous year Ménageot, director of the Académie, had sent some of the pensionnaires to Naples, an habitual practice but in this instance as much for their safety as for the instruction; but the greater number of artists chose to seek refuge in Florence, the first leg of an eventual journey home.1 Among this group were Louis Gauffier (1762-1801),2 a former pensionnaire back in Italy after less than nine months in Paris during the eventful year of 1789, and Francois-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837), newly independent after five years a the Académie de France in Rome.No portraits by Gauffier, peintre d'histoire, are known to have been executed in Rome, and yet in Florence portrait painting was his main occupation. Perhaps as happened to Fabre, his Parisian patrons had emigrated or had been guillotined; probably at first such work was undertaken simply to serve as a temporary source of income. The flourishing market for portraiture in Florence was certainly attractive. Wealthy foreign travelers, particularly English aristocrats who prided themselves on a taste for the arts, were most eager to acquire souvenir portraits commemorating their Grand Tour. But unlike Fabre who painted prestigious life-size portraits, Gauffier reduced the scale of representation to under one-third life-size. This portrait scale and the elegant effect of the figure in a landscape setting is also the specialty of the “trés célèbres” Sablet brothers, Jacques (1749-1803) and Francois (1745-1818). Although elusively peripatetic, Jacques's presence is recorded in Rome during the years 1790 and 1791, at which time his enchanting small portraits were probably admired by the sympathetic Gauffier.3In Florence Gauffier's clientele forms two distinct groups. From 1793 to 1798 his sitters are usually aristocratic and often English; among them, the 1st Marquis and the Marchioness of Ailesbury, the 3rd Lord Holland, Sir Godfrey and Lady Elizabeth Webster, the Earl of Wycombe, the Duke of Sussex, and the Countess of Bessborough.4 Following the first occupation of the city by French troops (March 25 to June 26, 1799) and the definitive second entry into the city (October 15, 1800), French military officers supplant the retreating English tourists; Berthier, Caron d'Hévilly, Michaud, Dumas, Dessolles, Masséna, Championnet and many more ask Gauffier to paint their portraits from 1799 to 1801, the year of the artist's death. In the first years after his arrival in Florence, characteristic of the outdoor portraits is Gauffier's use of a back-drop of foliage or architecture to frame the figure, with only a glimpse of the sun-bathed distance;5 whereas in the later portraits a slightly smaller figure is placed high above a vast, open view, usually that of a city, under a clear Italian sky, producing a monumental effect understandably appealing to ambitious French officers. This mature style is found in the portrait of Thomas Penrose dated 1798.6 The figure sits in the Boboli Gardens with his sketchbook not yet untied on his lap, a panorama of Florence and the hills of Fiesole in the background, the landscape struck by accents of strong light, crowned by passing clouds.But who is this soberly dressed amateur draughtsman, stiff and poised, parson-like, gracefully smiling but devoid of aristocratic ease, and placed in front of an unequivocal picture-postcard view of the city? Apparently not a wealthy man, how is it that Gauffier came to paint his portrait?The English poet Thomas Penrose (1742-1779), whose verses are influenced by Gray and Collins, married Mary Slocock (d. 1840) in 1768; the following year their only child Thomas (1769-1851) was born.7 Prepared for higher education from an early age by his mother, he matriculated at New College, Oxford, on the 23rd of February, 1788 at the age of eighteen.8 By 1790 he had ambitiously published a short book, although preferring to conceal his authorship. The copy of the Sketch of the Lives and Writings of Dante and Petrarch in the British Museum is autographed by the young scholar, “with the respectful comp: of the author T. Penrose of New College: Oxford, to the Trustees of the British Museum.” Restless for adventure, however, rather than immediately completing a degree Penrose chose to travel. On the 20th of September, 1792 “allant en Angleterre par Le Havre ou Dieppe,” he was furnished with a laissez-passer by the municipality of Tours; this document provides a detailed physical description of the traveler: “agé de VINGTDEUX ans, taille de CINQ pieds DEUX pouces, cheveux et sourcils CHATAINS CLAIRS, yeux BLEUS, nez PETIT, bouche MOYENNE, menton ROND, front MOYEN, visage OVAL.”9By 1794, perhaps in order to continue his literary studies, Penrose was in Florence. From that year he served as private secretary to William Frederick Wyndham who was appointed English Envoy to the Grand Duke of Tuscany in March 1794.10 As secretary to the diplomatic representative in Florence, Penrose frequently had the opportunity to meet the wealthy English visitors, including Richard Henry Fox, 3rd Lord Holland (1773-1840). In 1794 the young Lord met Elizabeth Vassal, Lady Webster (1771-1845), who soon abandoned her dull husband Sir Godfrey (b. 1748), with whom she had come to Italy in 1791, for the companionship of Lord Holland. In April 1796 the two lovers returned together to England, in November Lady Webster gave birth to a son, and in the following year Lord Holland married the happy divorcee.11While in Florence, intermittently from 1794 to 1796, Lord Holland bought and commissioned works of art, and upon his departure he asked Penrose to act as his agent in Florence. Lord Holland had especially commissioned history paintings and portraits from Fabre, the most important French artist in Florence painting in the new Davidian style and drawing master to Lady Webster's close friend, the Comtesse d'Albany, Gauffier as well received several commissions, probably on account of his reputation among members of the English community. Unable to take with them all of their paintings, the couple entrusted several to Fabre; these included “un petit portrait en pied de Mylord Holland par Gauffier, celui de Milady Webster, celui du Chevalier Webster, un portrait de femme. . .12 During the year 1797 Fabre prepared cases for shipment which Penrose posted for England. In addition to these portraits, one of Bonaparte by Gauffier was sent to the Hollands but placed in a shipping-case which never reached England.13 Frequently handling these attractive little paintings, Penrose soon succumbed to their charm; on the 6th of March, 1798 he wrote to lady Holland: “Gauffier has just finished my Phiz, & made a good picture.”14For six months, during Wyndham's absence from May 1800, Penrose acted as Chargé d'Affaires. However, this good fortune came to a sudden halt when the aspiring diplomat was forced to leave the city at the approach of the invading French army, which occupied Florence peaceably on the 15th of October, 1800. From Trieste he wrote to Lord Holland on March 2, 1801: “An application to Lord Grenville to make me Secretary of Legation has failed, ci vuol pazienza. I am in a great hurry.”15 Undecided whether to remain in Italy or to return to England, as a last resort he sought the direct assistance of Lord and Lady Holland, expecting a sign of gratitude for his assiduity in managing their affairs in Florence for four years. In October 1801 he wrote to Lady Holland from Udine: “Shall I be deemed intrusive or impertinent if I request your attention for a moment to my own interests & solicit your good offices in my favor? My object is to procure, if possible, the post of secretary of legation, either in Tuscany, if we return thither, or at the court of the Grand Duke elsewhere. Having served eight years as Mr. W's private secretary, & acted as chargé des affaires during the last six months of my residence at Florence, (which gave me an opportunity of making myself better known at the office) I should hope that my application would not appear presumptive.” He concludes his request, “At the age of two and thirty it is a duty I owe to myself to aspire to something. That eight years of my life may not have passed in the fruitless pursuit of unattainable preferment.”16 But not even this tone of high seriousness managed to procure the desired help from the distant aristocrats.Unsuccessful in these diplomatic ambitions, he returned to Oxford and in 1803 received the degree of Bachelor of Civil law, fifteen years after first enrolling. From 1814 until his death on the 8th of February, 1851, he held the vicarship of Writtlecum-Roxwell, Essex, pursuing quietly his scholarly work, obtaining a Doctorate degree from the University of Oxford in 1818. Throughout these uneventful years in a rural English village, the luminous portrait brought from Italy hung in his home, a vivid reminder of the exciting, fashionable world of diplomats, artists, and patrons which he had skirted in the last years of his youth.Philippe Border is Lecturer in the History of Art at the Institute for American Universities, Aix-en-Provence, France. He has published reviews in Connoisseur and is preparing his Ph.D. thesis on art during the French Revolution. A two-part article on Francois-Xavier Fabre will appear later this year in the Burlington Magazine.Endnotes
  1. Paul Marmottan (“Les Peintres Francois et Jacques Sablet.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Sept.-Oct. 1927, pp. 193-210) states that fifty or sixty French artists were ordered out of Naples along with the Sablet brothers in February 1793. But Marmottan misinterprets his source, the letter from Cacault to Le Brun from Florence dated March 1, 1793 (Correspondance des Directeurs de l'Académie de France à Rome eds. J. Guiffrey and A. de Montaiglon, Tome XVI [Paris, 1907], pp. 272-3) which refers to the flight of the Sablet brothers from Naples, and quite independent of this, indicates that there are fifty or sixty French artists in Florence at the time of writing. F. Boyer (Le Monde des Arts en Italie et la France de la Révolution et de l'Empire [Turin, 1969], p. 8) makes clear that only the pensionnaires went to Naples where they received official protection; but around mid-February these artists joined the independent French artists, among them Gauffier and Fabre, in Florence, not having found in Naples “de quoi étudier.
  2. On this artist see R. Crozet, “Louis Gauffier,” Bulletin de la Société d'Histoire e l'Art Francais. Années 1941-1944 (Paris, 1947), pp. 100-113; and Marmottan, “Le Peintre Louis Gauffier,GBA, May, 1926, pp. 281-300.
  3. Cacault refers to the Sablet brothers as “trés célèbres” his letter of March 1, 1793 (see note 1 above). On these painters see the article by Marmottan cited above and the entries in E. Bellier de la Chavignerie, Dictionnaire Général de Artistes de l'Ecole Francaise (Paris, 1868), II, pp. 445-6. Summarily, Francois specialized in landscape views of Italy, and Jacques specialized in portraiture and prototypic Neapolitan folk scenes. The latter exhibited a Collin-Maillard at the Salon of 1796 “peint à Rome en 1790” and a double portrait dated “Roma 1791” is in the Musée Municipal, Brest. Gauffier's predilection for small scale figures in indicated by the rare presence of life-size figures in the history paintings of the Roman period.
  4. The English community in Florence was certainly the largest foreign group in the city, but another point further explains why so many English visitors were attracted to Gauffier. For these aristocrats, Gauffier's portrait art was already familiar on account of its ties with the very popular “conversation portraits” first introduced by Hogarth around 1730.
  5. See for example the portraits of the Marquis of Ailsbury and of his wife dated 1793 (Sotheby's Sale, July 6, 1966, lot 28; formerly Coll. Sir Robert Bird).
  6. 66.20. The John R. Van Derlip Fund. Oil on canvas, 27” x 20 3/4” The history prior to the sale at Sotheby's on April 4, 1962 (lot 56), is not known; but most probably the painting was sold by heirs of the sitter, who is identified in the auction catalog. Mr. Anthony Clark has kindly referred me to a preparatory drawing in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, cataloged as Anonymous No. 1059. This squared drawing measures 155 by 116 mm (6.1 by 4.6 in) and was donated by Carlo Becchis around 1865 (information amiably furnished by M. A. Beaumont). Although there exists numerous tiny reductions in oil executed by Gauffier after his paintings in order to record them, very few preparatory drawings for portraits are known. Another, not linked to a known painting however, was published by M. Sandoz in La Revue de Arts (July-Aug. 1958, p. 197). The technique used in these drawings is sepia wash applied with a brush over an initial pencil sketch. In the painted portrait of Penrose, the major buildings in the background are as prominent as the hills which rise high above the city in the drawing; characteristic of Gauffier's city view, the buildings are noticeably more elongated and refined than the actual models, means by which the artist here adapts the background to the figure, creating a balanced, unified image.
  7. Dictionary of National Biography, ed. S. Lee, Vol. XLIV (London, 1895), pp. 344-345.
  8. J. Foster, Alumni Oxonienses 1715-1886, III (London, 1888), p. 1096. This source mentions “chaplain at Florence,” which may explain the sober dress of Penrose in the portrait, nothing is known of this facet of his life in Florence, nor of his private life.
  9. The laissez-passer is in the British Museum, Dept. of Printed Books.
  10. A number of letters from Penrose to Lord and Lady Holland are in the British Museum, Dept. of Manuscripts: Holland Papers MS. 51650. References to Penrose are often found in letters written by Fabre to the couple (MS. 51637). Mention of Penrose's employment in Florence is found in his letter quoted in the text to Lady Holland from Udine dated October 1801 (MS. 51650, foll. 43-44). Dates of diplomatic service for both Wyndham and Penrose are found in Winter, Repertorium der Diplomatischen Vertreter aller Länder. III Band, 1764-1815 Graz-Cologne, 1965), p. 178, Tuscany.
  11. See the Journal of Elizabeth Lady Holland (1791-1811), 2 vols., ed. The Earl of Ilchester (London, 1908).
  12. The list drawn up by Fabre of paintings entrusted to him is in the Holland Papers MS. 51637, foll. 52-53. The unidentified “portrait de femme” by Gauffier is that of Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough. Apart from the portrait of Sir Godfrey Webster (recently reacquired by descendants), these paints have passed by inheritance to the collection of Lady Tessa Agnew (Viscountess Galway).
  13. Letters from Fabre to Lord Holland dated August 15, 1797 (MS. 51637, foll. 75-76) and February 3, 1798 (MS. 51637, fol. 81).
  14. MS. 51650, fol. 37.
  15. MS. 51650, fol. 5. No year is specified but an allusion to the abdication of the Grand Duke of Tuscany (Treaty of Lunéville, Feb. 9, 1801) indicated the year 1801. Another letter (fol. 41) dated “Trieste Feb. 7, 1801” confirms this.
  16. MS. 51650, foll. 43-44.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Louis Gauffier. French, 1762-1801. Portrait of Dr. Penrose, 1798. Oil on canvas, 27” x 20 3/4”. The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 66.20.
  2. Louis Gauffier. Portrait of Dr. Penrose, 1798. Pencil with brown wash and crayon, 6.1” x 4.6”. Museu Nacional de Arte, Antiga, Lisbon.
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Source: Phillipe Bordes, "Louis Gauffier and Thomas Penrose in Florence," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 60 (1971-1973): 72-75.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009