Dulwich Picture Gallery I


1.2 Noel Desenfans, Sir Francis Bourgeois and the Polish King

The most important collectors associated with Dulwich Picture Gallery are Noel Desenfans (1744–1807) and Sir Francis Bourgeois (1753–1811) [1].1 They were seen as foreigners living in London and were not accepted by high society in a way they would have liked. Desenfans was born in France and studied in Douai and later in Paris. Bourgeois’ father came from Switzerland, but his mother was English. Desenfans came to London in 1769 as a teacher of languages; in 1776 he married Margaret Morris (1737–1814), from a prosperous Welsh family [2]. In 1784 they moved into 38 Charlotte (now Hallam) Street in Marylebone, to which No. 39 was added a few years later.2 Bourgeois lived there as well.3 Desenfans became an art dealer, probably with his wife’s money, although an inheritance from an uncle is also mentioned as the start of his commercial career. Through art Desenfans and Bourgeois endeavoured to improve their status in several ways. Desenfans took the young Bourgeois under his wing, and arranged for him to study, albeit briefly, with the French artist Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg II (1740–1812) in London c. 1775–6. In 1787 Bourgeois became an Associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1793 a full member. At the request of King Stanislaus II August of Poland (1732–98), in 1790 Desenfans was commissioned to bring together pictures to be added to the King’s private collection in Warsaw [3]. That collection, for which agents were working all over Europe, included paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Gaspard Dughet (1615–75) and Van Dyck.4 The circumstances of this request are not clear. It is not known whether the names of the artists were specified, and whether it was the King’s aim to found a national gallery, as is sometimes suggested.5 London was then the place to form such a collection, as many French aristocratic collections had been brought there to be sold after the French Revolution. However in 1795 Poland was occupied by Russia and partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria, and the King abdicated, dying in exile three years later. As a consequence Desenfans was left with the pictures that had been meant for Warsaw. The Russian tsar, having succeeded Stanislaus August as the ruler of much of Poland, could arguably be viewed as having taken responsibility for the late King’s considerable debts, so Desenfans tried to persuade the next two tsars to buy the collection, via the British Ambassador in St Petersburg, but without success.6

The Polish connection had brought both men honours: Desenfans had been made Consul-General of Poland, while Bourgeois received a Polish knighthood, which was ratified by King George III (1738–1820): hence Sir Francis Bourgeois [4]. In 1791 he was appointed painter to the King of Poland, and in 1794 landscape painter to George III. Notwithstanding those honours Bourgeois cannot really be considered a good painter.7

James Northcote
Portrait of Noel Joseph Desenfans (1744-1807), c. 1796
canvas, oil paint 73,3 x 60,9 cm
Dulwich (London), Dulwich Picture Gallery, inv./cat.nr. DPG28

Moussa Ayoub after Joshua Reynolds
Margaret Desenfans- Morris (1737-1814), 1930
canvas, oil paint 75,9 x 63,5 cm
Dulwich (London), Dulwich Picture Gallery, inv./cat.nr. DPG627

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun
Portrait of Stanislas II August Poniatowski (1732-1798), last King of Poland, c. 1795-1796
canvas, oil paint 98 x 78 cm
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, inv./cat.nr. MV5878

James Northcote
Portrait of Sir Francis Bourgeois (1756-1811), c. 1795
canvas, oil paint 76,2 x 63,5 cm
Dulwich (London), Dulwich Picture Gallery, inv./cat.nr. DPG172

Traces of Bourgeois’ activities may be found on the pictures at Dulwich. He created at least two pairs, in 18th-century style, to make decorative ensembles on the walls.8 Van Dyck’s Madonna and Child (DPG90) was enlarged to be a pendant of Charity (DPG81), and Peasants conversing (DPG76) by Teniers was adapted to form a pair with A Castle and its Proprietors (DPG95). (The Dulwich collection also counts ‘real’ pairs, intended by their maker.9) Even more radical were the interferences by Bourgeois on two pictures then considered to be by Aelbert Cuyp: on A River Landscape (DPG60) he not only enlarged the panel but also painted cows, which were finally removed in the 1990s; they are now only visible on the aquatint by Cockburn [5-6], the first Keeper of the Gallery (see below). On Cattle near a River (DPG245; now Calraet) – which John Ruskin (1819–1900) singled out for criticism – there were a ship and a post in the water with multiple reflections, most probably by Bourgeois, that are no longer visible.10

Only fragments of the Desenfans and Bourgeois archives have survived. At least fourteen auctions and other sales were organized by Desenfans, for which sometimes very summary catalogues were made. In addition, at least two inventories were produced of their home in Charlotte Street (1790–91 and 1813).11 Other material includes correspondence with the famous Parisian art dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748–1813),12 who was one of the main suppliers of Desenfans’ art trade, and in several aspects his role model.13 Nevertheless, the information seldom provides a definitive answer when it comes to individual paintings, which can be recognized only in exceptional cases.

From the existing material three things can be concluded. First, pictures were coming and going in the Desenfans and Bourgeois household at least until 1804. That was also the case when Desenfans was supposed to have ceased art dealing and to have been collecting only for the King of Poland, as he himself had said (1790–95).14 Secondly, pictures that were offered for sale at auction or at private sales often did not sell and stayed in the collection.15 It seems that the same pictures were repeatedly offered for sale, but we cannot be sure as dimensions were seldom given. Thirdly, until 1802 Desenfans and Bourgeois were still hoping to sell their collection as a whole, for instance to a Russian tsar.

An exhibition catalogue made for the so-called ‘Polish Sale’ in 1802 was used some months later as a sale catalogue. The auction was not very successful, and many of the pictures stayed in the collection.16 Notwithstanding the lengthy descriptions of about 660 paintings in this catalogue, only 32 can be identified as still being in the Dulwich collection today,17 of which four are Flemish and eleven Dutch.18 It is likely that Desenfans was making use of the colourful ‘Polish connection’ in an attempt to sell off other stock-in-trade as well as a handful of ‘Polish’ pieces. It is also possible that the ‘real’ collection genuinely acquired for Stanislaus was held back, and indeed more than 120 of the current Dulwich collection duly appeared in the Insurance List created in 1804, hanging in their Marylebone house.19

After 1802 there seems to have been a change of plan. In Desenfans’ will, dated 8 October 1803, he leaves his collection not to his wife but to Bourgeois. From then on Bourgeois effectively took over responsibility for the pictures, and – more collector than dealer – within seven years he was to more than double the size of the collection.20 At first he and Desenfans considered leaving the pictures to the British Museum, but this was thought to be too aristocratic.21 Desenfans died in 1807. Three years later, in 1810, Bourgeois hatched a plan to open their house and its collections to the public as a gallery, but the owner of the land in Charlotte Street refused.22 Bourgeois himself died after a horse-riding accident in 1811. All 369 pictures23 were bequeathed to what is now Dulwich College, probably because the school already had a gallery housing the pictures of Alleyn and Cartwright, but also with an awareness of the benefits of being beyond the reach of London smog.24 This college is now a famous public school occupying a grand Victorian building near the Gallery. At the time, however, it was a small school in the south of London, for some time also called Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, after Edward Alleyn who founded it in 1619.25 Bourgeois also left a sum of money to have the existing building adapted by the famous architect Sir John Soane (1752–1837), a friend of theirs. Soane, however, recognized that a new gallery would be necessary, for which neither Bourgeois’ legacy nor the College’s contribution was sufficient, even though Soane waived his fee;26 Margaret Desenfans stepped in to close the funding gap.27 The three benefactors are buried in the mausoleum in the middle of Dulwich Picture Gallery. Soane’s building, the first purpose-built public art gallery of Great Britain, was opened to the public in 1817. Members of the Royal Academy had access to the pictures for study purposes from 1815.28

Aelbert Cuyp
River landscape with two anglers, c. 1640
panel (oak), oil paint 16 x 36,8 cm
lower right : A cuijp
Dulwich (London), Dulwich Picture Gallery, inv./cat.nr. DPG60

Ralph Cockburn after Aelbert Cuyp
Landscape, with Cattle, 1816-1820
paper, aquatint 130 x 179 mm
Dulwich (London), Dulwich Picture Gallery

As Bourgeois had foreseen that a school was not equipped to take care of a picture collection, he provided for a yearly supervision of the collection by members of the Royal Academy.29 In return they were treated to a dinner or lunch and they could borrow some six pictures each year for the pupils (or members) of the Royal Academy to copy.30 Earlier in 1799 Desenfans had published a threefold plan to improve the quality of contemporary art and artists. He proposed adding three galleries to the British Museum: a gallery with portraits of important people since George III came to the throne, an overview of the works of all kinds by contemporary British artists, and a gallery with antiquities and Old Masters.31 The Trustees of the British Museum were not pleased that they had not been consulted before publication of the plan. It took another 25 years for the National Gallery, 57 years for the National Portrait Gallery, and 98 years for the Tate Gallery to be opened.

The picture gallery of Dulwich College attracted much attention from authors and artists in the early 19th century,32 as it was open to the public before the National Gallery existed. Initially its collection was also more important: when the National Gallery opened in 1824 in the Pall Mall house of John Julius Angerstein (1735–1823), whose collection of 38 pictures had been acquired by Parliament to form the basis of a National Gallery, it had about one-tenth of the number of pictures then at Dulwich.


1 Ingamells 2008, p. 87; Waterfield 1985/1994, pp. 9–17.

2 Moulden 2009, p. 9. For Hallam Street see also Temple & Thom 2017, pp. 603–6.

3 According to Waterfield (1989, p. 36) Bourgeois never had his own home until after Desenfans’ death.

4 For Stanislaus August’s existing collection see Starcky & Rottermund 2011; Bomford & Waterfield 1992. Agents involved are named in Juszczak & Małachowicz 2009, p. 16.

5 As for example in Butterwick 1998, p. 218: Stanislaus August asked Desenfans ‘to investigate the possibilities of buying major works of art, in order to start a national gallery’. According to Juszczak & Małachowicz (2009, p. 17) ‘there is no substantial evidence to confirm that he [the Polish King] intended […] to open a national gallery in Warsaw’.

6 Warner 1881, no. 11 (Memorial to Paul I, 6 May 1798), p. 220, no. 12 (Mémoire to Alexander I, 22 June 1801), pp. 220–22.

7 For Bourgeois’s career as an artist see Waterfield 1989. Ingamells 2008 includes 22 of his pictures, to which can be added the sketch on the reverse of DPG73 (Van Dyck).

8 See Bergvelt 2004b, pp. 36, 211 (notes 92–4).

9 Devised as pairs are Hoet (DPG176, DPG179); Hooch (DPG23, DPG26), Huysum (DPG42, DPG61), Romeyn (DPG3, DPG5); Ryckhals (DPG515, DPG516), Swanevelt (DPG136, DPG219) and Wijnants (DPG114, 117). See also under Teniers for several pairs which were probably devised by Teniers as such.

10 According to Denning they were added by Bourgeois: see DPG245. When they disappeared is not clear.

11 And a undated list, handwritten by Desenfans, of 370 ‘Pictures to be sold’ (early 1790s?): see Warner 1881, p. 220, no. 9. This list is also a kind of inventory as it is organized by room.

12 Warner 1881, pp. 210–20, MS. No. XVI, nos 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 10.

13 Le Brun in his Parisian home also had a gallery with pictures which was more or less accessible to the public. He wrote a plan to improve the arts in his country by rearranging the Muséum national: see Pommier & Le Brun 1992/1793, and McClellan 1999, p. 105. Le Brun was a much more important figure in the art market in Paris than Desenfans was in London: see also Le Brun’s Galerie with 201 reproduction prints after Flemish, Dutch and German pictures, Lebrun 1792–6. For his role in the Parisian art market in the 1780s see Michel 2007, pp. 82–7.

14 Desenfans claimed to have foregone his usual income of £2,000–3,000 per annum through devoting himself to the King’s business: see Dejardin 2009a, p. 6.

15 That caused confusion for later researchers, who thought that these sales were ‘real’ sales (see for instance in the provenance of DPG99, Rembrandt’s portrait of Jacques de Gheyn III, note 27). Desenfans aimed not only to monetize his paintings but above all to put himself and his collection in the spotlight, so that his paintings became more valuable in the long term and he himself could be considered an important collector/dealer: he wanted to raise his status.

16 Confusingly Whitley (1928a, p. 32) mentions some of the pictures and the results of the sale in 1802 as if they had been sold. But the pictures were bought in at the prices given.

17 The 32 works comprised 11 Italian, 1 Spanish, 3 French, 1 Swiss, 11 Dutch, 4 Flemish and 1 British.

18 The pictures were DPG90 (Van Dyck); Rubens (DPG125, another version of DPG48; DPG143); Cuyp (DPG348 and DPG124), Both (DPG208), Lapp ( DPG330; then Dujardin); Wouwerman (DPG82); De Gelder (DPG126; then Rembrandt); Van der Werff (DPG147); Ostade (DPG45) and three by Dou (DPG56), of which one is now a Brekelenkam (DPG50) and one is attributed to Godefridus Schalcken (DPG191). See also Dejardin 2009, p. 12.

19 See Dejardin 2009a, p. 13. Otherwise (part of) the pictures may have been acquired between 1802 (the ‘Polish Sale’) and 1804 (the making of the Insurance List). The Insurance List was made on 6 July 1804 and comprised the most important pictures (124) in the collection that had to be insured against fire: see Warner 1881, pp. 223–7.

20 See Dejardin 2009a, p 14.

21 See entries for 24 July 1807 and 13 Dec. 1810, Farington, viii, p. 3096, and x, p. 3822, as cited by Conlin 2002, ch. 2, p. 10 (note 31); also in Conlin 2006, pp. 40, 490 (note 63).

22 See Waterfield 1985/1994, p. 17. Perhaps the Duke of Portland was afraid of the nuisance the artists and the public would cause in the street. For the letters, all dated Jan. 1810, see Appendix C in Richter & Sparkes 1880, pp. 205–6.

23 Britton’s inventory of 1813 only exists in manuscript; he listed 366 pictures, but he says on his last page that there were 371 pictures. However he mentions 4 extra pictures (40*; 41*, 42* and 43*) and he skipped no. 190, which makes 369 pictures.

24 The pictures of the 17th-century benefactors were not combined in the Soane building with the Desenfans/Bourgeois collection until 1892. At least until 1883 Alleyn and Cartwright’s pictures had been left hanging in the old picture gallery of the College or elsewhere in the College: Cook 1914, p. v.

25 For the history of the College see Piggott 2008.

26 Information from Ian Dejardin, August 2015.

27 She gave not only money but also silverware, linen and furniture to be used at the yearly reception of the Royal Academy members who came to supervise the collection. About the furniture see Moulden 2009; about the yearly reception and inspection, see Waterfield 1988, pp. 8–10, 31–4.

28 Hoock 2004, p. 9, Beresford 1998, p. 10. For the history of Soane’s building see Nevola 2000, Waterfield 1996, and Waterfield 1987.

29 However they rarely made comments: Waterfield 1985/1994, p. 32. See also note 44.

30 A chronological list had been made of all pictures borrowed for the RA, but that did not make it into the catalogue of the Rich Summer of Art exhibition (Waterfield 1988); it only survives in the DPG archives. For the attendees at the Gallery Luncheon of 1894 see Waterfield 1988, p. 30 (fig.); for copies made by RA members or pupils, see under DPG127 (Anthony van Dyck), DPG163 (Rembrandt), DPG126 (Arent de Gelder, then Rembrandt) and DPG168 (Ruisdael).

31 Desenfans 1799, p. 33; see also Pointon 1993, pp. 229–30.

32 Many of the 19th-century comments are published in the entries in the catalogue by Cook (1914, and Cook 1926); for a discussion, see Waterfield 1988.

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