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Happy New Year

1 January 2018

H.H. Princess Marie Louise
H.H. Princess Marie Louise

This year (in March) we will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the formal establishment of the National Portrait Gallery. In the life of institutions, twenty years is not a long time. From the vantage point of middle age, twenty years certainly feels disturbingly brief. I suppose it all depends on how you take the measure of time. Twenty years ago the Art Gallery of South Australia didn’t have or use email. We managed perfectly well without it, but I can’t quite remember how. Quite often I yearn for those less frenetic and far less constantly distracting days. In that context, twenty years feels like an eternity. Anyhow, this has prompted me to think about the ebbing and flowing rhythms of time.

I am also reminded that in the late 1970s, a friend of mine was taken to visit the widowed English grandmother of a university acquaintance of his somewhere in Shropshire. The acquaintance warned my friend beforehand that the old lady’s preferred conversational gambit upon sitting down to lunch was to turn to her next-door neighbour and launch proceedings with the startling phrase: “As the Dalai Lama said to me…” My friend was duly seated next to the grandmother and, sure enough, as predicted, this was what she actually said—and my friend got the giggles.

Presumably, by disclosing in this bold manner an easy acquaintanceship with such an eminent, even unlikely person (at least in deepest Shropshire), the stratagem may achieve an immediate effect of heightened drama and enable you to conduct the rest of your conversation entirely unimpeded. From time to time I have chanced upon other examples of this ingenious practice, most of which were deployed by ladies either rich in experience, or very old indeed. I must try it.

Empress Eugénie, 1880 by W & D Downey

In her eccentric memoirs, for example, H.H. Princess Marie Louise — my favourite royal — recalled being told by a French diplomat, M. de Fleuriau, that as a very young man he had been granted an audience with the Empress Eugénie (who died in 1920, aged 94) at the Tuileries. During the audience the Empress told him that a previous caller, the 85 year-old Sophie, baronne de Bawr, had many years earlier, in 1792, heard the duchesse de Richelieu toss into the conversation as casually as possible a remark that began «Oui, comme mon mari disait à Louis XIV… » (“Yes, as my husband used to say to Louis XIV...”)

This was Jeanne de Lavaulx, who became duchesse de Richelieu in 1780 by marrying Louis-François-Armand du Plessis, second duc de Richelieu (1696–1788), marshal of France, and a great-nephew of the eponymous cardinal.

By then the duc was eighty-four years old and she was his third wife. Somewhat taken aback by this astonishing span of years, the Empress expressed much interest, and it duly emerged that in about 1704 or 1705, aged eight or nine, the duc had served as a page to the Sun King at Versailles. Louis XIV died in 1715.

Louis XIV and the Doge of Genoa, 1685 by Claude Guy-Halle

Jeanne Cathérine Josèphe, a daughter of the comte de Lavaulx (a nobleman of Lorraine) was born in 1741. She married, first, on March 6, 1764, the chevalier Edmond de Rothe, a gentilhomme of Irish descent (one of the fabled Wild Geese), who died at Mauritius in 1772, by which time she had produced four children. Some years later, as a result of an accident on the Pont-Neuf in which her carriage overturned, Mme. de Rothe, by then a widow of thirty-nine, met the elderly but spry duc de Richelieu, or, rather, he met her, and soon afterwards proposed marriage.

The point of all this is that the eyewitness baton, here—passing from the very old to the very much younger in only five relays, i.e. from King Louis XIV (b. 1638) to the duc de Richelieu (ca. 1704); thence to his duchesse (ca. 1780); then to the baronne de Bawr (1792); then to the Empress Eugénie and M. de Fleuriau (on the same day in ca. 1858), and finally (ca. 1914) to the historically-minded Louie (d. 1956)—connects overlapping, intersecting lifespans that sprawl over more than three centuries, 318 years to be exact, compared with which twenty years merely amount to the blink of an eye.

Happy New Year!