A noble return: Gainsborough’s portrait of a French marquis

John Chu, Assistant Curator of Pictures & Sculpture John Chu Assistant Curator of Pictures & Sculpture
The Reynolds Room at Knole

2016 saw the permanent return to Knole of one of the most beautiful and stylish portraits ever to hang on its walls: Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of the French nobleman, Louis-Pierre Quentin de Richebourg, marquis de Champcenetz. The picture is now on view following the reopening of Knole’s showrooms after a major conservation project.

John Chu, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, explains the significance of this picture and explores the dramatic life of the sitter who found shelter in England after fleeing violent revolution in France.

A colourful life

By all accounts, Louis-Pierre Quentin de Richebourg, marquis de Champcenetz lived a life of privilege and daring service. He was, at various times, a soldier who acquitted himself admirably during the American War of Independence; a fashionable Anglophile who counted the art collector, John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset amongst his friends; and a survivor of the deadly assault on the Tuileries Palace in 1792, a deciding moment in the French Revolution.

In the early to mid-1780s, approximately half-way through this colourful existence, Champcenetz sat for Thomas Gainsborough, one of the most highly acclaimed painters of 18th-century Britain. At this time, Champcenetz and the Duke of Dorset had been acquainted for several years and the latter was acquiring landscapes and portraits by Gainsborough on a lavish scale. By 1793 the portrait was recorded at Knole – the Duke's family seat in Kent – where it hung alongside works attributed to Raphael, Correggio and Rembrandt.

An ‘unassuming, but most clever picture’

The portrait – with its compositional simplicity, subtle elegance and nuanced expression – is, in the words of the 1839 guidebook to Knole, an ‘unassuming, but most clever picture ’. The oval, bust-length format was a standard portrait convention of the time. Yet this compositional simplicity belies the brilliance with which Gainsborough brings Champcenetz to life. The way the sitter ever so slightly inclines his head and meets the viewer’s gaze out of the corner of his eye creates the impression of a fleeting encounter. It is an ingeniously captured moment of intimate recognition. 

Gainsborough's portrait is a masterwork of elegant simplicity / NT 2900174
Portrait of the Marquis de Champcenetz by Thomas Gainsborough
Gainsborough's portrait is a masterwork of elegant simplicity / NT 2900174

No less evocative of the sitter’s lively presence is the picture’s expert brushwork. The basic brown ‘ground’ layer of paint, upon which the rest of the picture is built up, is left visible at multiple points beneath the exceptional thinness of Gainsborough’s application, especially in the white ‘stock’ that winds around Champcenetz’s neck, the shadow of his cheek and his powdered hair or wig.

More boldly, the burst of snowy linen and ivory silk on the marquis’s chest is formed of a remarkable flurry of wet-on-wet brushstrokes, the varying thinness and dryness of which conjure up the complex folding and twisting of fine textile. It is a captivating mixture of simplicity and artistic facility.

English adversary or enthusiast?

By the time he sat for Gainsborough, Champcenetz had seen notable action in the field of battle. In the late 1770s, when France entered into open hostilities with Britain in the American War of Independence, Champcenetz supported rebels in Britain’s North American colonies, facing down ‘innumerable dangers’, including several confrontations with British forces and a bout of the plague. 

Despite this spell as a wartime adversary to Britain, there is good reason to believe that Champcenetz was, at heart, an Anglophile. By the 1780s, Champcenetz was moving in the circles of the richest and most prominent anglophile in France: Louis Philippe, duc d’Orléans.

In Gainsborough’s portrait of Champcenetz, the elegant simplicity of the sitter’s costume, not least his blue tailcoat may well be a deliberate signal of his interest in all things English. As a newfound passion for the relaxed sociability of English customs took hold in France, the close-cut tailcoat – such as the example seen here – became a veritable Anglophile uniform. 

Quite distinct from the brightly coloured and highly embroidered French silk suits worn by most noblemen in pre-revolutionary France, this tailcoat spoke of fashionable sporting pursuits and the longed for freedoms of a country estate. Indeed, it is distinctive for the stylish and practical feature of an additional button-down thong on each side of the lapel, presumably to keep the turn-down collar neatly in place during country walks, hunting parties and riding expeditions.

Portrait of the Comte de Provence by Joseph Boze

The French fashion

Throughout the 18th century, it was the French nobleman's patriotic duty to wear brightly coloured and highly embroidered silk suits, such as this example worn by the comte de Provence, Champcenetz's childhood friend, in a portrait by Joseph Boze.

Portrait of Louis-Pierre Quentin de Richebourg, marquis de Champcenetz / Knole

The English fashion

In contrast, the elegant simplicity of Champcenetz's costume is a deliberate adoption of English fashion, as well as a form of rebellion against the obligations and prohibitions of noble attire imposed by the French court.

Intrepid escape

In the decade after he sat for Gainsborough, Champcenetz endured extreme hardship. He was 'gouverneur' of the Tuileries Palace when, on 10 August 1792, it was stormed by Revolutionary forces. Numerous accounts exist of his intrepid escape, which variously describe him hiding amongst the bodies of dead soldiers, being thrown or jumping from a palace window, masquerading as a servant, passing as an Englishman and finally, secreting himself between the mattress and wall of the bed chamber of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, the British mistress of the duc d’Orléans. 

Elliott nursed Champcenetz to a better state of health before marshalling the reluctant assistance of Orléans to smuggle the marquis to the safety of England. There he lived until the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814, maintaining all along his friendship with the Duke of Dorset. Once back in Paris, Champcenetz resumed his duties as 'gouverneur' of the Tuileries until his death in 1822.

Return to Knole

Champcenetz's portrait remained at Knole until 1930, when it was sold to a collector in the United States. There it remained, in several different hands, until its reappearance for sale at auction in 2016 and its acquisition for Knole.

Perhaps fittingly, the travels of the portrait – from London (where it was painted), to Knole (where it resided for over 130 years), to North America (where it stayed for more than 8 decades) and back to Knole in early 2016 – have uncannily mirrored those of Champcenetz himself. Now, this portrait has returned permanently to a place where he found refuge and the solace of friendship in times of international turmoil.

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