Sir Peter Francis Bourgeois and the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Noel Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois, circa 1805 by Paul Sandby, watercolour on paper

The Dulwich Picture Gallery was England’s first purpose-built art gallery and considered by some to be England’s first national gallery.  Founded by the bequest of Sir Peter Francis Bourgois, dandy, the gallery was built to display his vast picture collection and dedicated to public viewing, something that had not been done before in Great Britain as art collecting was considered a folly of toffs.

Sir Peter Francis was born in London and lived from 1753 to 1811, thus a known figure during the period known as The Regency.  He was not only a collector of art, but a painter, albeit not a highly collected one.  Paintings by Bourgeois today sell in the $800 – $3000 range at British auction houses. In contrast, Bourgeois’s collection, which sits among the 600 plus paintings located in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, is quite fabulous and today has an estimated value of ????(we’ll let you know when we discover an estimate).  The Dulwich Picture Gallery includes Baroque European paintings bequeathed by Bourgois from his “Royal Collection” along with British paintings, notably, the Linley family portraits donated in 1835 and the Fairfax Murray Gift  in 1911 which also included English portraiture.

Sir Peter Francis Bourgeois became an art dealer with a Frenchman by the name of Noël Desenfans who had moved to Paris in 1769 as a writer.  Desenfans became a father figure to Bourgeois after Bourgeois’ own father abandoned him and his sister after the death of their mother in 1768.  Bourgeois was 15 years old at the time.

Together, Desenfans and Borgeois set up and ran the most successful art dealership in London during The Regency era.  The startup capital for the enterprise came from the dowry of Desenfans’ wife, Margeret Morris.

Stanislaus Augustus, King of Poland, commissioned the dealers to establish a Royal Collection for Poland in the year 1790.  Political turmoil however saw the partition of Poland and it’s eventual disappearance from the map as a state in 1795.  With the abdication of Stanislaus Augustus, Buorgeois and Desenfans ended up as the owners of the “Polish” Royal Collection and attempted to sell it on. They approached both the Tsar of Russia and the British crown but were unsuccessful in selling the collection in its entirety.  Desefens died in 1807 which left the collection in the hands of Buorgeois.  After considering bequeathing the collection to the British Museum whom Buorgeois found to be aristocratic and stuffy, he settled upon Dulwich College, with the stipulation that the paintings be made available for the ‘inspection of the public’.

What follows is a description of the founding of the Dulwich Gallery—that appeared in The Art Journal – New Series,  published by  J.S. Virtue and Co. Ltd., London in 1891—along with a not so flattering description of Buorgeois as painter:

SIR FRANCIS BOURGEOIS, R.A.

Sir Francis Bourgeois, who was born in 1756, elected an Associate in 1787, and a Royal Academician in 1793, was not remarkable as a painter, and is chiefly noteworthy to us as the donor of the Dulwich collection. The visitors who frequent that gallery are probably little mindful of the storms which drifted those Art treasures into their present haven. To account for their presence there, they would have to search backwards into troublous times, to the days of the Great Frederick of Prussia and the partition of Poland. Their history is curious and mysterious. They were purchased for Stanislas Poniatowsky, the last King of Poland, by a certain picture-dealer, Noel Desenfans, with money supplied to him by the king. Stanislas abdicated after the partition of his kingdom, but why his property was not sent to him, king or no king, and whether he claimed it or not, are unknown to us ; the pictures remained with Desenfans, were bequeathed by him to his friend Bour geois, and he bequeathed them to Dulwich College.

In 1776 Bourgeois travelled on the Continent, and went to Poland, carrying letters of introduction from Desenfans to King Stanislas, who conferred on him the knighthood of the Order of Merit, and this honour was subsequently confirmed to him by King George III. He painted landscapes in the style of De Loutherbourg, whose pupil he had been, and we think our readers will ask no more of us, and be prepared to admit that when we have subtracted from the art of De Loutherbourg what invention and imagination he possessed, and all his technical dexterity, it leaves us but a poor residuum where withal to furbish forth an eulogium of that of Bourgeois. He died in 1811 of a fall from his horse.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is located at:

Gallery Road
London
SE21 7AD

Helen Hillyard, Assistant Curator, to arrange an appointment: h.hillyard@dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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