Curated with visual rigour by Robert Reason, this exhibition is a distillation of a key aspect of Roche as a collector and brings a diverse range of work including portraits, furniture, porcelain and memorabilia together for the first time. The overall focus of the Roche collection is European neoclassical design of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While European design tastes of the period flirted with a multitude of design influences which found separate expression in the Regency style in Britain and Empire style in France, a common thread of recognition of ornamental and design principles from Greek antiquity means that most works look as if they belong to the same family.
There is an exception of the orient. Napoleon’s 1798–1801 military campaign in Ottoman Egypt and Syria opened European eyes to the exotic wonders and history of ancient Egypt. The influence of various publications, particularly Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte, published in 1802, and the public fascination with archaeological discoveries spilled into public taste for decorative and household ware which incorporated Egyptian motifs and references. This parallels the trend which emerged in the later 18th century of neoclassical design, inspired by archaeological excavations at Herculaneum from 1738 and Pompeii in 1748.
Egyptomania as it spread through Europe appeared in a variety of forms in furniture, metal work and ceramics. The Roche collection has outstanding examples of furniture and other items, incorporating Egyptian motifs on regular display. In the Kings, Queens and Courtiers exhibition, Egypt declares its presence through a late 19th century bronze sculpture, after Jean-Leon Gerome, depicting Napoleon entering Cairo on July 25, (having slaughtered the Mameluke cavalry) during his victorious three-year campaign. That this item was produced more than 70 years after Napoleon’s death is testimony to his enduring appeal to elements of the French nation.
After Martin van den Bogaert, called Desjardins (France 1637-1694) , The Sun King, Louis XIV (France 1638-1715), on horseback , c.1710, ormolu, bronze, marble
If drawn to the figure of Napoleon and his era, then step to the centre of the gallery to admire one of a pair of duelling pistols presented by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Thornton in 1802 to Napoleon as First Consul of France. The stock is inlaid with the word ‘Marengo’, a battle in 1800 between French and Austrian armies that resulted in around 10,000 dead or wounded. There is no blood on such convivial exchanges of gifts between army men but it’s there if you care to look.
Nearby is another item which speaks of both enduring affection in which royalty may be held as well as a tangible link with The Little Corporal – or as the English would have it – The Devil’s Favourite. A bust-length portrait of the Prussian royal Queen Louise (1776–1810) was created 90 years after her death. She is remembered for her meeting with Napoleon in which she pleaded for concessions on behalf of Prussia following the 1806 battle of Jena–Auerstedt (over 40,000 dead, wounded or captured). Louise incidentally was later used in Nazi propaganda as an example of the ideal German woman. The portrait in Kings has a veil draped around her neck. Louise was by accounts a proto Lady Di, with the common touch and a penchant for kickstarting fashion trends such as a neckerchief to avoid illness. Why the German warship sunk in the film The African Queen was called the ‘Queen Louise’ (Königen Luise) is a tantalising mystery.
While some of the aristos will require some serious research to come to life, there are a few where little background briefing is required. The Sun King (Louis X1V) for example is an A-list celebrity. Talk about a stylemeister. Louis’ reign saw about one-third of Parisian wage-earners gain employment in the clothing and textile trades. So, keep your eyes on the cannons, jabots and pantaloons but Don’t Talk About The Toilets.
Catherine the Great of Russia, and a pair of chairs once owned by the empress
Fashion spotting is a wonderful value-add for exhibition viewing. Check out Marie Adelaide of Savoy’s magnificent gold-trimmed hunting attire as she gestures casually towards the Versailles expanses. “Do drop in and see me,” she seems to be saying. Then maybe not. A painting of Queen Marie Antoinette walking with two of her children in the park of Trianon might catch the eye in terms of fashion trends, as she is wearing an outfit, and straw hat, inspired by English rural dresses. Perhaps viewing this image will be tinged with the realisation that Madame Déficit, as the French came to call her (the homeless in Paris in the later 1780s numbered around 500,000), would lose her head eight years after this painting was made.
And, oh, those Russian women. Catherine the Great presides over this gathering – a true She Who Must Be Obeyed. The Russian story in this exhibition and, indeed, in David Roche’s collection, is big. Do your homework before coming. Simon Montefiore’s The Romanovs 1613–1918 will cure any romantic ideas that it was all tiare russes and Fabergé eggs. And just to demonstrate there’s far more than winsome princesses and pouter-chested generals try the portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647–1680) for size. Now there was a courtier, wit and poet who really knew how to rake hell.
Kings, Queens & Courtiers is currently open until July and can be viewed as part of the guided tour of The David Roche Foundation House Museum.
Admission is by pre-booked guided tour only through rochefoundation.com.au
Header image: Installation view, Kings Queens & Courtiers, including a pistol owned by Napoleon, the House of Hanover ‘Gossip’ clock, and a Faberge parasol handle previously in the possession of the Queen of Romania.
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