The career of Francis Bourgeois was an object lesson in finessing a minor talent into a position of substance. He was a painter of limited skills, a deficiency pointed out by some contemporaries as well as by later connoisseurs. His status was summed up neatly in a dictionary of English artists compiled by Samuel Redgrave and published in 1878. Bourgeois’s works, read the no-nonsense entry, may have “a strong feeling for art” but are nevertheless “crude and sketchy, his drawing of figures and animals weak, and his attitudes extravagant and mannered: but he had an influence on the art of his day, which his works would not now earn him”.
However, Bourgeois (1753-1811) still has an influence on the art of today, although not thanks to his paintings – he is now almost forgotten as an artist. It was his collection of more than 350 works – including pictures by Rembrandt, Veronese, Poussin and Van Dyck – that was responsible for the Dulwich Picture Gallery, in south London, the first purpose-built public art gallery in England, which opened in 1817.
This national benefactor was in fact half Swiss, his father Isaac was an émigré watchmaker from near Berne. According to his own memoir, Bourgeois was intended for the army, not least because a friend of his father promised him a commission in the Light Dragoons. Consequently, the young Bourgeois spent much time around soldiers – a familiarity he would later put to use in pictures of cavalry skirmishes.
Things changed with the early death of his mother and his father’s decision to return to Switzerland. At some point in the 1770s Bourgeois was passed into the care of a recently arrived French language teacher named Noël Desenfans. It was his influence that turned Bourgeois towards a career in art and Desenfans procured for his protégé a place in the studio of another French incomer, Philip James de Loutherbourg, whose dramatic paintings were drawing attention. Although Desenfans became a picture dealer when he married an heiress, his links with some of the most prominent painters of the age was not just professional: both he and De Loutherbourg were Freemasons, as were other figures who would go on to play a role in Bourgeois’s career, such as Joshua Reynolds and John Soane.
In 1776 Bourgeois decided to expand his knowledge of art by making a tour of some of the prime collections in Europe. His itinerary took him to Poland, where he met the prince and cleric Michal Jerzy Poniatowski, brother of King Stanislaw II – another acquaintance who was to prove influential.
On his return to England, Bourgeois combined working with Desenfans as a dealer with his own artistic career, and indeed sometimes combining the two when he restored or titivated Desenfans’s pictures. As an independent artist he painted in a variety of genres, from portraits and historical pictures to biblical and Shakespearean scenes, but began to specialise in landscapes. These, in the manner of the Dutch golden age painter Aelbert Cuyp, often feature cattle and they brought him some success.
In 1787 he was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy (RA) – aided by Desenfans talking him up in the press and giving dinners to academicians – and in 1793 he became a full academician, where he joined two other painters of Swiss heritage, Henri Fuseli and Angelica Kauffman. As an RA member, he exhibited regularly and was competent enough for Reynolds, who owned an important collection of Old Masters, to buy one of his landscapes for £100.
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The poet Leigh Hunt described Bourgeois as “a lively, good natural man with a pleasing countenance”, assets that helped him both as a painter and a picture dealer. Nevertheless, he was one of a group of academicians who fell out with the president of the RA Benjamin West and sought to establish a parallel club for painters. The ill-will would eventually result in West suspending Bourgeois from his position on the Academy’s council and it took the intercession of George III, in his role as patron of the RA, to enforce a return to amity.
Through it all, Bourgeois continued to produce his landscapes. This work, Coastal Landscape with a Ferry Boat, of 1796, and now in the Yale Center for British Art, is typical of his pleasant if unremarkable pictures. It is a painting that apes the Dutch style but lacks finesse – the clouds are roughly handled, the meeting of sea and beach is indeterminate, there is no modulation in the dunes. There is also a lopsidedness to the composition: all the human elements are heading to the right hand side of the painting, suggesting that the real point of focus lies elsewhere. The subject, if it really has one, is the central cloud rather than the boat being rowed off the canvas. It is a studio work, composed of separate elements, rather than a scene observed.
In 1891 a Victorian critic said of Bourgeois that once the viewer had extracted the influence of De Loutherbourg (who did dramatic skies and waves much better) “it leaves us with but a poor residuum wherewithal to furbish forth an eulogium of that of Bourgeois”. He was perhaps too stern – the residuum here is effective enough even if somewhat aimless.
If the picture is a symbol of Bourgeois’s competency it was his gift for friendship that brought him distinction. In 1791 Michal Poniatowski visited London and commissioned Bourgeois to paint a portrait of King Stanislaw Augustus, for which the painter was then awarded the Polish Order of Merit, allowing him to style himself a knight, an honour confirmed by George III – who would also appoint him his official landscape painter (Reynolds was his official portraitist). It was as Sir Francis that he and Desenfans were also tasked by Poniatowski with compiling a collection of paintings for his brother the king.
This they did, touring Europe and also picking many works from penurious émigrés escaping from the French Revolution. The collection never made it to Poland, however. In 1795 Catherine the Great’s forces occupied the country and partitioned it, with the king abdicating and dying in exile in St Petersburg in 1798. Desenfans and Bourgeois were left with 180 paintings for which, they claimed, they had paid £9,000 (though the king had likely provided most of the funds up front, if indeed the whole idea of a royal collection was real at all rather than a marketing ploy). Attempts to sell the collection to Catherine’s grandson, Alexander I, failed and lobbying the British government to buy it as the basis for a national collection came to nothing either. An exhibition of the works in 1802 fared no better.
Despite this, Bourgeois continued to accumulate further paintings. As an exasperated Desenfans moaned to the gossipy arts diarist Joseph Farington: “He has been buying up whatever he saw, to put where? In my attic!” It was not a problem he had to put up with for long. Desenfans died in 1807 and left all his pictures to Bourgeois who, with the aid of Desenfans’s widow, was faithful in his support of his mentor’s aims.
In 1810 Bourgeois had a fall from his horse. His leg turned gangrenous but he refused to have it amputated and dismissed his doctor. In the months before his death, however, he decided on Dulwich College as the destination for the pictures and arranged a £10,000 endowment for their upkeep and gave a further £2,000 towards a new gallery to be designed by his friend John Soane. When he died the following year, the bequest contained his own bid for immortality: nine of his own paintings were included among the Old Masters and he was buried, alongside Desenfans and his wife, in a mausoleum at the heart of the gallery. His own landscapes may no longer be on display but he became an exhibit in the greatest creation of his career.
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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis