A halcyon exile at beautiful Chanteloup

10 January 2012

A beautiful portrait painted in 1775 by Jacques Wilbaut of the Duc de Choiseul with his mistress, the Comtesse de Brionne and best friend, Abbé Barthélmy, enjoying each other’s company in one of Choiseul’s beautiful salons in his château at Chanteloup.

The Duc, once such a favourite of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour had failed to secure the good wishes of La Pompadour’s successor in the King’s bed and thanks to a falling out with Madame du Barry, he found himself banished from court and Paris in 1770 and exiled to his country estate in the Touraine. His last great diplomatic action was to mastermind the marriage of the Dauphin Louis and Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, which took place amidst great pomp in May of that year.

Undaunted by this set back in his fortunes, the Duc set about making his already beautiful château, which had been first built in 1715 for the Princesse des Ursins, a worthy rival to Versailles and then filled it with a constant parade of all the most glamorous, witty and elegant people in French high society, much to the undoubted chagrin of the King and his favourite.

The Duc’s life at Chanteloup was not a dull one, although we are often told by writers of the time that being rusticated from court was a fate worse than death. He retired there with his wife, mistress and sister, the intimidating Béatrix, Duchesse de Gramont and seemed to have a very merry time.

A constant presence at Chanteloup was the Duc’s mistress, Louise-Julie-Constance de Rohan, Comtesse de Brionne, one of the most beautiful and witty women of the age. The young Princesse de Ligne, who was a regular visitor to Chanteloup with her best friend, the teenage Comtesse de Choiseul-Stainville, remarked in her memoirs that she was rather scared of Madame de Brionne.

Monsieur Thierry Andre, whose family have owned the magnificent Chinese styled Pagoda, that is all that now remains of exquisite Chanteloup very kindly identified this painting of Madame de Brionne posing as either Venus or Helen of Troy for me. It is still owned by his family and is a particularly lovely piece of work.

The Duc’s beautiful and exceptionally forgiving and sweet natured wife, Louise Honorine de Crozat, Duchesse de Choiseul also shared his exile. The beautiful portrait above of the Duchesse was also identified for me by Monsieur Andre and was painted by Greuze while the Duc and Duchesse were resident in Rome.

This painting was described by Margaret Trouncer in her book about the Duchesse: ‘A Duchess of Versailles‘:

Greuze, who painted her in Rome… has caught her look of reserve – the eyes of a woman who has wept much in secret. A delicate pastel in the possession of Mademoiselle d’Orliac of Chanteloup in Touraine shows the charming hair style, with her chestnut coloured hair arranged in five natural widows’ peaks over her brow; delicate, sensitive eyebrows; a long, slender neck, small nose, full lips. There is an air of serene disenchantment in the eyes. In both portraits there is ample proof that the duchesse was very fastidious and fashionable in her dress and that her hair was arranged by skilled hands. (This was to be expected as she had four ladies maids.) Greuze tucks a bunch of full blown roses into her bodice and there are cherries painted on her ruched coatee. Her sleeves are full lace ruffles, and she has negligently thrown a filmy scarf around her shoulders.’

During this period the Choiseul couple’s closest friend (he had a huge crush on the Duchesse and rightly so as she sounds adorable) and chronicler of life at Chanteloup via his letters to Madame du Deffand (Madame de Choiseul’s best friend) was the Abbé Barthélmy and I love his description of Amèlie de Boufflers, Duchesse de Lauzun (whose Paris home was to become the Hôtel de Biron after her rakish husband, Armand, who was Madame de Choiseul’s nephew and probably Monsieur de Choiseul’s son – still with me?) inherited the title of Duc de Biron in 1788) making omelettes:

Madame de Lauzun goes tomorrow and that is the greatest event in these regions. Do you know that no one in France possesses to a higher degree a quality which you never knew she possessed, and that is the making of scrambled eggs? It is a real talent. She can’t remember when she learnt. I think it must have been when she was born. Chance uncovered this gift and immediately it was put to the test. Yesterday morning, epoch forever memorable in  the history of eggs, at luncheon, all the necessary implements for this great operation were brought in. A chafing dish, new porcelain… some broth, salt, pepper and some eggs. And here is Madame de Lauzun, who at first trembles and blushes and then afterwards with intrepid courage breaks her eggs, crushes them in the saucepan, turns them to right and left and round about with a precision and success quite unparalleled. One has never eaten anything so excellent. The experiment was made on a small scale as there were only six eggs. It will be tried tomorrow on a bigger scale.’

I love the details of life at Chanteloup – I loved reading about the immense ball that the Duc held for the servants of his friends who had visited him during his exile during the end of Louis XV’s reign, which was in every way the equal of the balls that he threw for their masters and mistresses. I also loved learning more about the splendid Chinese style pagoda he built in the grounds, inside which were stone tablets carved with the 210 names of the people who had visited Choiseul at Chanteloup during his exile. He was clearly enormously grateful to those who had stood beside him and keen to show his gratitude as after all, exile from Paris and, more to the point, Versailles, at this time was social and political death.

Etienne François, Duc de Choiseul, moved by the tokens of friendship, kindness and attention with which he was favoured during his exile, from a great number of people eager to come to this place, built this monument to show his eternal gratitude.’

In October 1778, there was a wedding held at Chanteloup between the Duc’s eldest niece Marie-Stéphanie de Choiseul-Stainville and her cousin, Claude-Antoine de Choiseul-Beaupré, who was raised as Chanteloup. The young couple would inherit the titles of Duc and Duchesse de Choiseul when their uncle died.

Before dinner we went to the cabinet de toilette of (the Duchesse) where the presents were displayed. I have not enough talent to describe them. Numberless poufs of all shapes and colours… cuffs most splendidly dripping with blonde lace, coats, dressing-jackets. After dinner, the new bride brought into the drawing room presents for the company; a purse for everyone; the ladies got a fan in addition to this; the bishops and abbés a gold cord for their hats.’

‘We gathered in the drawing room at noon. The men in the uniform of Chanteloup; the ladies, as arranged, in blue dresses with yellow ribbons. You will dispense me from describing the rest of the clothes to you; all that I can say to you is that it was a very fine succession of ventres bleus. The married pair were dressed in… Oh, as for those two, I can tell you nothing. At twelve thirty, we went to the chapel, the archbishop closed the procession… looking vey well, he did not preach a sermon, as arranged; he said the prayers of the ritual, the curé said Mass, the bridal pair said yes, and we left as we had come.’

‘We dined as usual. We were twenty seven at table. We played cards until seven when the comic opera began… Supper and everybody went to bed. No fireworks, no noise.

A very quiet, restrained wedding then. It’s always interesting to see how weddings were conducted during this period.

Mademoiselle d’Orliac described life at Chanteloup:

This moving noisy motley company, what do they all do there? They dine, they sup in full court dress, smothered in all their diamonds. They call on each other in their private rooms. They act plays and the little Duchesse excels. They compose verses and the Chevalier de Boufflers is the most inspired. They write fairy stories and the most successful is the one that Madame de Choiseul dedicates to Madame de Brionne: La princesse enchantée. They play billiards, backgammon and reversi. The Duc is at his tapestry loom telling court anecdotes. They do gold threadwork, they work on gold or ivory shuttles. Balbâtre is here with his harpsichord and gives evening concerts. There are hunts, there are calls, the abbé breaks his collar bone, the Duc injures his wrist. There are outings on the lake, Madame de Coigny sings with Vaudreuil in the bedecked frigate and the banks are lit up with multi coloured little lamps. They go to see the harvest. They are fill of admiration for the thirty thousand golden sheaves which resemble peasant women grouped for tittle-tattle. The tables are served every day for forty to sixty guests. The life they lead is untiringly joyous, dazzling and witty.

Sigh. Say what you like about the French aristocracy of the eighteenth century, but they really knew how to enjoy life.

I’ll end here with a description by Horace Walpole of the outfit worn by the Duchesse de Choiseul at the wedding of her nephew, the Duc de Lauzun and Amèlie de Boufflers in February 1766.

‘I supped last night with the Duchesse de Choiseul, and saw a magnificent robe she was wear today for a great wedding between a Biron and a Boufflers. It is of blue satin, embroidered all over with a mosaic diamond wise, with gold; in every diamond is a silver star edged with gold, and surrounded with spangles in the same way, it is trimmed with double sables, crossed with frogging and tassels of gold; her head, neck, breast and arms, covered with diamonds. She will be quite the fairy queen, for it is the prettiest little reasonable, amiable Titania you ever saw – but Oberon does not love it. He prefers a great mortal, Hermione, his sister.’

This last was a reference to rumours that the Duc de Choiseul was overly close to his nasty sister, Béatrix, Duchesse de Gramont. Awkwardness!

The Duc’s exile didn’t last forever and he returned to court until 1774 when Louis XV died and was succeeded by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who gratefully favoured the Duc as one of the most active agents (along with his great friend Madame de Pompadour) behind the Franco-Austrian alliance and therefore their marriage.

The great château was sold after the Duc’s death in 1785 to the Duc de Penthièvre, father in law of the Princesse de Lamballe and Duc d’Orléans and then was confiscated during the revolution, swapping owners many times until it was finally demolished and its stone and other materials shamelessly plundered.

All that now remains is the graceful Pagoda, built for the Duc de Choiseul between 1775 and 1778 by his architect Le Camus. It towers over the forest of Amboise and was intended to act as a monument by the grateful Duc to the many friends who visited him during his exile from Versailles. It is touching that it should now be all that remains of his once great château.

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