[LIVRE DE RAISON. ~ Commonplace book, in French]. c. 1820-30.
Manuscript on paper, small folio (260 x 190 mm), 243 leaves, paginated pp. 45-170, 175-476, 479-535 (wanting first 44 pages and 8 others, i.e. 26 leaves). Dense but legible text, mostly in 2 columns within hand-coloured decorative borders, at least 39 pen and gouache illustrations. Some smudging, thumbing and mainly minor tears and repairs commensurate with use. Contemporary parchment covered boards. Soiled, upper joint neatly repaired.
A CAPACIOUS AND OUTLANDISH FRENCH LIVRE DE RAISON (COMMONPLACE BOOK), DENSELY WRITTEN IN IDIOSYNCRATIC FRENCH WITH A SERIES OF NAÏVE AND HIGHLY-COLOURED ILLUSTRATIONS OF HISTORICAL AND ANTHROPOLOGICAL FIGURES. Anonymous in its surviving form (it has lost 44 preliminary pages through accident or deliberate removal) it still represents a rich and surprising store of contemporary popular culture. It combines practical wisdom (medical and household recipes, a calendar and a formulary of letters) and history (accounts and memorials of the events of the Revolution and Revolutionary Wars), to which are added an abundance of oracles, popular songs, verses, maxims, puzzles, jokes and a wonderful dictionary for the interpretation of dreams. A brief sampling of the many texts suggests that this will become a rewarding resource for the reconstruction of a particular vein of popular culture. Detection of political bias or intention is no easy matter: though the writer clearly regrets the bloodthirsty acts of the Revolution, celebrates the successes of Napoleon in the subsequent wars, and reproduces a republican hymn to George III of England, a dialogue between Napoleon and King George and poem on Waterloo.
Quite who compiled this remarkable manuscript and where is a matter for research. The relatively neat and regular script is countered by chaotic grammar and spelling — words and phrases are frequently phonetic, perhaps bringing the reader close to contemporary speech patterns. The maker’s literacy is certainly pragmatic, suggesting he was perhaps an official or clerk, capable of making effective records but remaining refreshingly untouched by high literary culture. The bold and naïve illustration is in keeping with this. Colour, ornamentation and visual impact are to the fore, while proportion and perspective are in short supply and if we need to seek parallels or comparisons for the style, then they are best found in contemporary popular woodcuts and broadsides produced by printers such as Pellerin of the Imagerie d’Épinal. It is quite possible that a regional location will be revealed through study, but for now, all that can be said is that the manuscript s very unlikely to be Parisian or metropolitan.
Subjects for the images include numerous memorial portraits of victims of the Revolution (including the princesse de Lamballe, those drowned in the Nantes massacre of 1793/4, the duc de Berry and Louis XVII) plus a series of character sketches of selected inhabitants of the world. Among the latter are found English peasants and burgers, natives of African Guinea, Egypt, Castille, Rome, Gascony, Brittany and Paris; stilt-walking shepherds of the Landes, a Dover housewife, a pair of hairy savages and a depiction of house in America (‘habitation de la merique’). Other images are emblematic and include two misogynistic portraits of ill-tempered women, tempered by some rather touching heart-shaped emblems of love, wisdom and marriage.