Jean Houel's Voyage Pittoresque des Isles

Pittoresque des Isles de Sicile, de Malte et de Lipari

An exhibition by Montserrat Recasens

The purpose of this exhibition is to introduce academics, students and the general public to the enormous historical, cultural, artistic and archaeological value of one of the many treasures preserved at the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives in the University of Wales Trinity Saint David: VOYAGE PITTORESQUE DES ISLES DE SICILE, DE MALTE ET DE LIPARI, où l’on traite des Antiquités qui s’y trouvent encore; des principaux Phénomènes que la Nature y offre; du Costume des Habitans, & de Quelques Usages by Jean HOÜEL.

Jean-Pierre-Laurent Hoüel (Rouen 1735–Paris 1813) was a French painter, engraver and architect. Under the influence of the Enlightenment and its great culmination, the Encyclopédie,he became interested in a variety of intellectual disciplines: Archaeology, Anthropology, Geology, History and Topography. Hoüel was a cultivated man who took part in the French Revolution and illustrated various revolutionary events in his work.

Le voyage Pittoresque by Hoüel is a travel diary characteristic of the 18th century in which the author reveals both his scientific and aesthetic vocation. His book has enormous documentary value due to the accuracy of the illustrations and the richness of the text, which includes didactic notes and autobiographical and travel anecdotes.

Hoüel’s journey was funded by the king of France, Louis XVI. On 16th March 1776 Hoüel embarked at Marseille and arrived at Naples after a hundred hours at sea. This was his second stay in Italy. On 12th May 1776, Hoüel left Naples and arrived at Palermo harbour thirty-eight hours later. Although he was only intending to be in Sicily for one year, he eventually stayed there for four years. Why? He was certainly fascinated by the island, but he also had a materialistic reason. During this period, he took notes and made drawings in order to publish a book. His financial support was tendered on the condition that the money advanced by the king should be returned along with the proceeds of the published book.

However, the repayment was demanded too soon for Hoüel and the artist decided to repay part of the debt by donating some Sicilian paintings. Forty-six gouaches were chosen to enlarge the Painting Museum of Versailles (today preserved at the Louvre). Eventually, Hoüel and his creditor, the Compte Angiviller (administrator of the King’s properties) went their separate ways and the painter was left to manage the publication of his book himself. The Russian Empress Catherine II became interested in the acquisition of Hoüel’s ‘Cabinet’, comprising approximately five hundred gouaches, for which she paid forty thousand pounds. The works were sent to Saint Petersburg; 240 drawings disappeared and 264 works are now preserved at the HermitageMuseum. By comparing the works held in the Louvre and Hermitage, it can be confirmed that Hoüel made some copies of his Sicilian paintings: one with no people represented on it and a later version with figures. The more complete works were those selected to illustrate the Voyage Pittoresque.

On 12th May, 1776 Hoüel’s Sicilian travel began. He left Naples at six in the evening and it took him thirty-six hours to get from Naples to Palermo.

The preservation of this work at the Roderic Bowen Library adds an epilogue to this extraordinary story about a book that travelled across epochs and places, and a traveller that documented with passion and scientific interest the traces of the ancient past for his contemporaries and for future generations.

The four folio volumes contain 264 aquatint plates on 263 leaves (plates 245 and 246 printed on the same leaf), all printed in sepia. The volumes were donated to St David’s College by Sir Thomas Phillips in a consignment dated February 18471.

Thomas Phillips, though born in London, was a Radnorshire man who became a surgeon employed by the East India Company, accumulating a substantial fortune after many years' service in India. Retiring to London in 1817, he devoted the rest of his life to furthering education in Wales.

Phillips had already begun to establish small libraries in India with the aim of enhancing the minds and moral character of serving soldiers and, after retiring to Brunswick Square, he started to make substantial gifts of money, books and curiosities to many individuals and institutions in London, the Welsh Borders and South Wales. St David's College, Lampeter was one of these beneficiaries, and during the years 1834 to 1851 he dispatched 22,500 volumes to the library in fifty-nine consignments, as well as endowing scholarships and a Chair of Natural Science. Although it seems likely that some of these books had belonged to his own personal collection, most had been acquired in London sale-rooms and book shops for dispatch to Lampeter, and many contain provenance evidence and annotations of former owners, including some notable collectors of the eighteenth century2.

The armorial bookplates inside the front covers of the volumes indicate that the previous owner of these books had been R.M. Trench Chiswell Esq. Originally named Richard Muilman, Trench Chiswell was a London merchant and antiquarian. Born c.1735, Chiswell was the only son of Peter Muilman, an eminent Dutch merchant, of Kirb Hall, Essex, and Mary Trench (Chiswell). In 1772, on the death of his mother’s brother, Richard Chiswell, Richard came into possession of Debden Hall and of a fortunate worth approximately £120,000. It was at this time that he assumed the name of Trench Chiswell. He rebuilt the family mansion at Debden and laid out a large sum in improving his estate. On his father’s death, in 1790, Chiswell inherited estates estimated at £350,000; this was the year he was elected MP for Aldborough, Yorkshire, where he served until his death, supporting the government of William Pitt the Younger. In 1791 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Chiswell made some literary collections relating to the history of Essex, and is said to have possessed some ‘fine Caxtons,' which were accidentally burned during his lifetime. Owing to a series of unsuccessful speculations in connection with West India estates, Chiswell’s mind became deranged, and he shot himself at his home at Debden on 3rd Feb. 17973.

The selection of illustrations chosen for this exhibition aims to demonstrate the variety of topics which interested an enlightened intellectual of the 18th century and are also of relevance to us.

Notes

  1. Library Accessions Register 1846 – 1867
  2. http://www.trinitysaintdavid.ac.uk/en/rbla/onlineexhibitions/thomasphillipsexhibition/biographyofthomasphillips/ 11/04/13
  3. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Dictionary_of_National_Biography_volume_10.djvu/274 11/04/13

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