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Recording of discussion on the Duchess and the Terror

The recording of last November’s Roundtable, ‘The French Revolutionary Terror from the Margins: The Letters of the duchesse d’Elbeuf‘, is now available online. This event was organised as part of the Modern French History Seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research in London (IHR). It was chaired by Dr Sanja Perovic (KCL).

The Roundtable is in four parts. It begins with a presentation by Dr Richard Taws (UCL), co-curator of an ongoing exhibition at UCL Art Gallery which featured the duchess, ‘Witnessing Terror: French Revolutionary Prints, 1792-4’ (see the blog post from 18 February 2020 for further details on this). From 10m40s in the recording, Colin Jones takes over to give an overview of the Letters and of the life and character of the Duchess herself. Next, at 26m08s, Simon Macdonald takes over to address how the Letters were handled by the revolutionary authorities after the Duchess was denounced and arrested in January 1794. Finally, from 32m50s, Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley introduces the translation work which forms another part of the project, and provides the audience with further highlights from the Letters that offer insight into the content and style of the Duchess’ writing.

The IHR Modern French History seminar has recordings of many other events and discussions available via the French History Network Blog (linked to The Society for the Study of French History).

What happened to the duchess of Elbeuf’s pictures?

Simon Macdonald writes:

A previous blog entry here noted that we don’t have any portrait of the duchess of Elbeuf, and we don’t even know for sure whether she had an art collection as such. Maybe she just didn’t much like paintings? Eighteenth-century France was full of art-historically significant names — Jean Siméon Chardin’s still lifes, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, Jacques-Louis David’s history paintings. But that doesn’t mean that everyone at the time was enamoured of the fruits of the palette.

Still, we know she had a huge house in central Paris (see below). And, with so much wall space to fill, it seems unlikely that she had absolutely no pictures on them. In fact, we know quite a lot about the things she owned at the time of her death because more or less all her property then passed into the hands of the government.

The principal elevation of the duchess’ Paris residence, the hôtel d’Elbeuf (AN N/III/Seine/850)

Property confiscated by the revolutionary state, or which passed to the state by other kinds of forfeiture or sequestration, was carefully documented, with a view to finding items of value. That ‘value’ could come in the form of information. For example, a diary such as the kept by the duchess might hold secrets which could be politically useful to the regime. For that reason, officials felt it was worth reading — and worth retaining in the state archives. But mostly ‘value’ meant monetizable assets. This included real estate, investments, furniture, and indeed just about any kind of bric-a-brac which might attract a buyer at auction. Occasionally, particularly rare or valuable artefacts might be deemed sufficiently important to be turned into museum items — today’s Louvre Museum, for instance, is full of things like this — or to be placed in public libraries.

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