Philip Mould: What happened when I discovered a very old transvestite
In his inaugural column, the art dealer and historian learns a thing or two about 18th century transvestites
As a dealer in portraits I have become accustomed to seeing painted faces of questionable beauty. Portraits of old ladies wearing bonnets and rather rotund men can sometimes have a habit of outstaying their welcome whilst a portrait of a pretty girl could sometimes be sold 10 times over.
The image placed before me back in November, however, left me completely perplexed.
Described as a ‘Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in her Hat’, dated 1792, and loosely attributed to the American-born portraitist Gilbert Stuart, the image had a rather confrontational effect. The lady’s complexion was hard and cold, much akin to delicate complexions of the ladies as painted by Thomas Lawrence during that period. I was intrigued.
Nearly every great painter has a Catalogue Raisonne; a compilation of every known work in public and private hands, sometimes spread over several volumes, and an invaluable resource for scholars and dealers alike.
Perhaps the most definitive catalogue of Stuart’s work is the 1926 publication ‘Gilbert Stuart, an Illustrated Descriptive list of his Works, a set of books consulted by us numerous times over the years. Sure enough, in volume three I saw the mysterious Lady staring back at me, fully attributed to the American painter. Although still not convinced by the attribution to Stuart, I turned to page 278 of volume one, detailing a brief biography of the mystifying sitter and was dumbfounded by what I read;
“He? As I read on, all became clearer. The brutish woman was in fact a man, none other than Chevalier D’Eon, a French diplomatist and widely regarded as the patron saint of transvestites”
“Chevalier D’Eon: He was Charles Genevieve Louise Auguste Andree Timothee D’Eon de Beaumont, French diplomatist.”
He? As I read on, all became clearer. The brutish woman was in fact a man, none other than Chevalier D’Eon, a French diplomatist and widely regarded as the patron saint of transvestites.
D’Eon’s career was effectively determined by his involvement in Louis XV’s secret service, called the “secret du roi”, which he joined in 1755. I was partly relieved to read that I was not the first Englishman to be fooled by D’Eon as by 1763 he was working in London to secure the continent peace - as well as spy for Louis XV. As a reward for his good service, he was given a pension and appointed to the Order of St Louis and made Minister Plenipotentiary in London.
However, D’Eon soon fell out with the French Ambassador in London, Guerchy, whom he accused of poisoning him. After his pleas for assistance from Louis XV were ignored, D’Eon petulantly published a series of highly confidential secret documents. The publication caused a sensation, but also led to a libel suit from Guerchy, and after D’Eon was found guilty by the High Court in London, he absconded by dressing as a woman.
Eventually Louis XV agreed to pay off D’Eon in order to prevent publication of further secret documents. But after Louis XVI succeeded the throne in 1774, D’Eon was forced to agree a new deal in which his pension would be paid, but only if he continued to dress as a woman – an order made in part, it seems, to help control his tempestuous nature.
It appears at this stage that D’Eon was a reluctant transvestite, for although contemporary gossip claimed that he always had been a woman – with bets being made on his true sex – D’Eon himself continued to attempt to wear male dress, even at one stage (in 1779) being imprisoned for doing so. By the time of his final return to London in 1785, D’Eon had adopted female dress full-time.
The French Revolution finally ended his sporadic pension from the French government, and for a while he had hopes that he would be able to serve the new regime, as seen by the tricolour in his hat here. But his later years were spent in increasing decline; he spent some time in a debtor’s prison, and even had to sell his precious Order of St Louis. In England, he had become so well known as an energetic woman that there was genuine surprise when he was found, in a posthumous medical examination, to have male organs that were “in every respect perfectly formed”.
On the painting’s arrival at my gallery a few weeks later I was able to confirm my doubts as to it’s authenticity as a work by Gilbert Stuart. Although later meddled with, the original signature clearly read ‘T. Stewart’, relating to the English painter Thomas Stewart (b.1766), a friend of George Stubbs and a successful, although largely forgotten painter, who exhibited some 24 works at the Royal Academy between 1784-1801.
Stewart appears to have had a wealthy clientèle, having exhibited portraits of George III and the actor John Packer, as well as a fine portrait found in the London Borough of Richmond’s art collection of the brewer John Lewis (1713-1792).
Philip Mould OBE is a renowned hunter of lost paintings. An international art dealer with a large gallery in London’s West End, he is also an established author and broadcaster, and one of the country’s foremost authorities on British portrait painting and has been dubbed ‘the art detective’.
Philip has been sleuthing paintings for nearly 25 years. Discovering the Winslow Homer painting on the Antiques Roadshow, where he is one of the team of art specialists, was what ignited his recent BBC1 series Fake or Fortune, which he presented with journalist Fiona Bruce. They have now finished filming their second series to be broadcast in Autumn 2012.
From 1988-2011 Philip Mould was official art adviser to the House of Commons and to the House of Lords. His books on art discoveries include “Sleepers - In Search of Lost Old Masters” and “Sleuth”.