Letter from France No. 5

Miss Porden

My Dear Eliza,

We have already left Paris, and I have not described half its wonders. New objects crowd upon me, and yet I must speak of my visit to M. Denon. Meaning to stay but a fortnight in Paris we had not provided ourselves with introductions to any one, ours to M. Denon was therefor somewhat circuituous. A lady we have met here had a letter to him which she did not like to deliver herself, and therefore prayed my guardian to undertake the charge of it, and she would pay her visit after. We were nothing loth to embrace the opportunity, and as my guardian is not a fluent Frenchman, a young friend accompanied him as interpreter, and I followed as his assistant. A roundabout way of becoming acquainted and, I believe M. Denon thought so, but we asked him many questions about Egypt, showed we were fully conversant with his works, and talked ourselves so much into his good graces, that he showed us thro’ his magnificent apartments ever to his bedchamber which was decorated in the Egyptian style, and contained models of some of the Egyptian temples — the same from which some that form a centre to the Egyptian service of China of Sêvres have been executed. M. Denon’s apartments area a complete museum, but I was surprised to find them filled rather with Chinese and Hindu specimens than with the works of Egyptian art. He now opened a cabinet in which were fragments of the stone with which the temples were roofed. It is a coarse grit and I should have thought not likely to be durable, but was told it was an unfavorable specimen. We also saw a piece of the Statue of Memnon, something between a granite and grit, and some beautiful pebbles from the desert. In a little glass case was part of a mummy, the only thing found in the tombs of the kings at Thebes. It is the foot of a young woman, perfectly preserved, but quite black. A piece of linen, long and narrow, and bearing a line of Egyptian characters, was in the same case.

We had a long conversation with M. Denon on the manner in which the Egyptians roofed their buildings, and it appeared that he had not found in any of their temples a clear space of more than 24 or at the most 30 feet, and these were always covered by large stones laid across from one support to another. The Egyptians seem to have had no idea of the construction of a roof. My guardian asked (tho’ Monsieur son Interprête) how it happened that there was so much difference between M. M. Denon and Pococke in many of their measurements, particularly those of the Isle of Philoe. M. Denon replied that M. Pococke was a very learned man — he had studied Egypt too much in his library — he wanted the eye of an artist, and his own was prejudiced. He had formed a previous hypothesis and saw everything thro’ coloured spectacles. My guardian spoke of the agreement between [blank] and Pococke, which seemed almost too great to be accidental. Denon answered that [blank] was a very learned man also, but tow well read in Pococke — he shared his merits, but he had his defects to excess. Denon regretted that having travelled with an army he was much hurried, and could never be certain of an instant, yet perhaps it was an advantage to him. It taught him never to delay anything for an instant. Had he been more at leisure he might have said, “I will do this tomorrow,” and it would never had been done. But he made every use of the present moment, for he knew that if the French lost a battle his researches were at an end, and he considered every day as the last. The walls of M. Denon’s apartments are decorated with a series of well selected paintings (which it is said he plundered) from the first renewal of the art, when they painted, as the Russians do now, on a golden ground, down to the present day. Among the latter is a head by Denon himself which we had fortunately admired before we knew the artist. There are three or four portraits, and a bust of himself. Also many specimens of early enamelling.

In every room we found one, if not two or three representations of Buonaparte. Among them the marble but by Canova, which I told Denon was highly spoken of in England. He said Yes! Canova had a high reputation there, but it was un peu manieré. He preferred one in bronze which he showed us, by Chandé. There are some beautiful casts in wax of Napoleon as a youth, as consul and as emperor. He appears again in little bronze figurines, some of them very well executed. His medals were in a cabinet that we saw, and I fancy we might have recognized all his family, had we known their features. We however admired the beautiful face and delicate hand of Pauline. Interspersed with all these were Louis Dixhuit, as usual en plâtre, Monsieur the Duc de Barri, &c. Prints of Sir Joseph Banks and Mr Fox from Phillip’s portraits, and a good bust of Canova.

Denon complained that when Sir Thomas Lawrence visited him, he did not know who he was till afterwards and that the English artists never brought their portfolios with them. He had not been able to see any of Mr Phillips works when he was in Paris.

We were last introduced into a room where he was busily employed in engraving on stone — an employment in which he appears to take much pleasure. Many visitors now came in, and we were forced to take a reluctant leave.

Among other curiosities in the rooms were cups curiously carved in jade and rock crystals standing on pedestals of malachite, of lapis lazuli, of the orbicular granite of Corsica, and of other rare minerals. There is a superb table of lapis lazuli, and a painting, really not a bad one, of our saviour bearing the Cross, on a piece of the same costly mineral which serves for the beautiful azure of the sky and the draperies of some of the figures.

We next went to the Cemetery of Pere la Chaise, where we spent some very agreeable hours. The tombs are scattered in a picturesque manner, and their effect aided by the unevenness of the ground. Almost every tomb has a little enclosure planted with flowers, which one presumes are the care of the survivors. They are of all forms and sizes, some are mausoleums for one or even for many families, and many single tombs, of every shape from the simple cross to the Roman or Egyptian Soros and the Pyramid. Some of these tombs are decorated with garlands of flowers and chairs left in the little enclosures, particularly those of recent date. The arborae vitae are too thickly planted, and as yet very young, but when they grow up and are thinned, they will add much to the beauty of the place. From one part of the ground is a fine view of Paris, and on the other side of the picturesque castle of Vincennes. The wall on one side of the cemetery is pierced with holes, made by the French to fire thro’ at the battle of Paris, one of the few memorials of it that remain. The wave has overflowed the rest, and they live no longer, even in the memories of the Parisians. For this Paris must thank at once the clemency of her conquerors and the levity of her inhabitants.

Many of the epitaphs had something of French sentiment or Italian concetti. I was amused with a pyramid erected to a lady and ornamented with small bronze allegorical bas reliefs. The first a scythe among the flowers — “spare at least my children!” The next an owl — “I loved wisdom.” The third a device I could not make out — “Regrets followed me even to Heaven.” Near this was the tomb of Parmentier who seems to have been no less distinguish’d for his agricultural knowledge than for his science as a physician and chemist. It appears that he introduced the culture of the potato and of maize. On one side is this inscription

Ici repose Antoine Augustin Parmentier.
Pharmacien, Member de L’Institut de France
Du conseil general
Des Hospices civiles de Paris
L’un des inspecteurs generaux
Du service de santé des armies
Officier de la Legion d’Honneur
Né à Montdidier en 1737. Mort à Paris en 1813

Elevé par les Pharmaciens civiles et militaires de
France — ses éleves, ses amis, ses collegues.

On the intermediate sides were bas reliefs neatly executed in the stone. The first bore a retort, between a vine and some potatoes; the second the scythe between the European and Indian wheat. At each corner of the monument was a basket filled with potatoes, ears of wheat and maize, in sufficient quantity to have furnished a meal for several people. These tombs did not give me a high opinion of the taste of French monumental sculpture.

Not far hence was the tomb of Ney bearing only his titles and the day of his death. That of Fabedogere was near but has yet no monument. We saw those of the wife of Kellerman and the daughter of the Duke de Feltre. Some of the mausolea of particular families are well designed in the Roman or Egyptian style. The gates of some were open, and almost all had a window in the door. There was one pretended to be Gothic, but what it was would not be easy to say. While we were here a funeral took place. The corpse merely fastened up in six deal boards was conveyed in an open bier to the cemetery, thrown somewhat rudely into the hole dug for it and immediately covered over. I copy two or three epitaphs for you. The first is a riddle, and some of the others show the quaintness I have spoken of.

Adele Soissons 10 Decre 1815
Je comptais quatre mères à mes treize printemps
La première, seconde, et troisième me pleurent!
Tout finit, dieu le veut, puis qu’il faut quelle meurent.
Avec la quatrienne au ciel je les attends
J’y retrouve une soeur, et je prie avec elle
Pour nos pauvres parens et pour leurs bons amis
Nous ouvrirons pour tous les voies de Paradis
Et toutes les faveurs de la vie èternelle.

The next on a girl seven years old.

Ont le pire destin
Et rose elle a vêcu, ce que vivent les roses
L’espace d’un matin


Aug Chalonnier
Cher aux arts.
Cher à l’Amour et l’Amitié
Lui ont élevé ce monument


Sur ce tombeau, Passans, jettez les yeux
Il renferme une tendre mère
De ses vertus le prix et dans le ciel les cieux
Et le souvenir dans la terre.


Next morning we went to meet some friends at the Institut, or Academie Royale des Sciences, as it is now loyal to call it. The Hall in which prizes are distributed is a handsome chamber with seats. We here met with M. Vaudoyer, the architect who showed us all the improvements he had made, the drawings sent home by the architectural students sent by the Institute to Rome, and the statues of various great men of France: D’Alembert, Descartes, Cassini, Montesquieu, La Fontaine, Poussin &c. in a number of little halls. M. Vaudoyer, who is an Italian, next led us up to his cabinet, fitted up with Italian taste, where he gratified us by a sight of the engravings of the drawings which had obtained the prizes in architecture for many successive years, commencing with his own. We then went to the place in which are exhibited models of almost all the Grecian and Roman and Egyptian temples. Those of Palmyra, Persepolis, &c., exquisitely executed in plaister of Paris. A collection which might well have occupied a morning singly, and which ought to have a counterpart in England. Lastly we mounted, mounted, mounted to the Library, which is not as large as that of the King, and I believe confines itself to scientific works. I was pleased with the sight of La Place and Cuvier who were walking up and down for some time in conversation. La Place is tall and thin, somewhat in years with light hair, and a contemplative and abstracted manner. Cuvier is dark, short and thick, and appears very cheerful. We were introduced to him, and found him very polite, though we had not much conversation together. As he passed into the séance, which was held in an adjoining chamber, he asked us if we would like to enter, but not knowing whether I was invited or not, my guardian could not leave me. Presently however the other Secretary passed, and addressed us, saying he would ask the President’s permission for us to enter. We rather wished to retire, but did not think it civil to decline the offer. Shortly after he returned and invited us in. We took our seats at the bottom of the room, where we hoped to have sat unobserved and to have made our escape when the séance began, but the President sent again to invite us into the middle of the circle, and placed us in a most conspicuous situation just opposite himself and Cuvier. I ought to have observed that La Place had now left the Hall, and that the vice-President Delambre held the séance in his stead. Now that it is over I feel much pleased to have been present, to have heard the reading and conversation of some of the most distinguished savants of France, and to have seen their manner of proceeding, but at the time I felt very uncomfortable. I was the only lady there, and I could easily perceive that my presence was unusual. Indeed Sir Charles Blagden, who was present, told me afterwards that he believed it was the first time a lady had been admitted.

The President of the day, Delambre, announced that the society had suffered great losses in the department of astronomy and geography. Three astronomical members were dead, of whom the third was Mendoza, and one geographical. It would be necessary to supply their places. A gentleman on the President’s left hand mentioned another member. He was not dead, he said, but he believed the Society considered as dead, those persons who did not give during a certain time any signs of life. This was assented to with a laugh. The President took notice of some works that were presented to the Institute and ordered the thanks of the Society. M. Cuvier then read a paper of his own on the cephalopodae. I was particularly pleased with the opportunity of hearing him, as he is accounted one of the best readers and most eloquent men in France. He described at great length the peculiar structure of the saepia or cuttle fish, and the many singularities which distinguish it from the animals above and below it. He said that much had been talked about the mischief done by cuttlefish, especially to swimmers. It was true they had sometimes injured persons by fixing their long tentaculae round their limbs, and impeding their movements, but on the whole they were harmless animals, and he hoped the days of fable were passed, and that no one now believed the tales of animals of this kind large enough to be mistaken for islands.

M. Cuvier entered into long details of their physiological structure, and described the ink. He does not agree with Dr Monro in considering it the bile of the animal, but regards it as a distinct secretion. He said that it is nearly as dark as that of China, and as the China ink is rather dear, may perhaps be employed with advantage as a substitute. He described at great length what I may call the triform structure of the animal. Its three hearts, and three masses of brain, the two which belong to the eyes being almost as large as the central brain. He descanted on the admirable structure of the eyes (but little inferior to those of the mammalia), on the singular form of the saepia, on its large oars which seemed scarcely to bear an affinity with anything else, its tentaculae, its great eyes, and its parrot beak, with respect to which he mentioned a peculiarity of which I was not before aware: that the beak is turned upwards, that is towards the back.

A memoir by M. Bonpland, on the rare plants cultivated at Malmaison, was announced, but was too long to be read . Next M. Brongniart read a geological account from M. Marcel de Serres, of the strata near Montpellier and of the marine and freshwater animals found in the chalk formation, after which M. Le President proposed the election of some new members, and announced that the Society was going to form itself into a secret committee, upon which we and all the other strangers withdrew.

And now Adieu to Paris, that wonderful compound of magnificence and meanness, where one appears bound by a spell of gaiety and haunted by a thousand bewitching phantoms, that yet shrink into nothing when attentively considered, like the enchantments of a fairy tale. Yet ere I close this very imperfect account of not one half of that we have seen, I must send you a transcript of a curious old legend which I got — no matter how.

The Legend of St Fiâcre

Found in an old Folio in the library of one of the monasteries abattu dans la Revolution

Go call a coach, a Hackney coach
 I’ll sit on Jehu’s rostrum mounted
While all who feel its use, approach
 To hear the Jarvey’s rise recounted.
Parisian beaux! Parisian belles!
 Not for your country make the claim.
My breast with patriot ardour swells
 I vindicate a Briton’s fame.
In days of old (for days of old
 Claim all we have of good or great)
There lived a Scottish saint, I’m told
 The same that now I celebrate.
Fiâcre long had vow’d to make
 A pilgrimage to Notre Dame
So barefoot, or for penance sake
 Or poverty, to Paris came.
The streets were built, no matter how
 So crooked they were quite a riddle,
Without a footpath, and as now
 A dirty gutter in the middle
While houses large and dark and high
 And certain nuisances unpretty,
Might strike the Saint’s observant eye
 As borrow’d from his native city1
But coats of mud, however deep
 Turn not to down the rugged stones
Fiâcre’s pains forbade his sleep
 Till some kind angel heard his moans
For saints have still an angel near
 To act as traiteur or as tailor
To pay his bills for board or wear
 And save him from th’ expectant jailor.
Sudden Fiâcre sees approach
 A vehicle of form uncouth
Crazy and clumsy was the coach
 And lean the ragged nags in sooth
With crosses and obeisance plenty
 He mounts his seat and cracks his thong
Of Britain’s whips not one in twenty
 So well could clear the gaping throng
Now duly every eve and morn
 He seeks with joy the sacred dome
Yet, for his charity heaven born
Begun, but did not end at home.
Whene’er the saintly coachman found
 Some pilgrim’s feet in piteous fashion
He mindful of his recent wound
 Gave him a lift, in pure compassion
But St Fiâcre soon perceived
 He nor his nags could feed on air
So whomsoe’er his coach relieved
 He boldly asked him for his fare.
For Caledonia’s sons ’tis said
 Tho’ saints, are sage and thrifty still,
And when they stoop a friend to aid
 Scorn not their purse or script to fill Parisian Jarveys, as in duty
 His custom and his name retain
They ease the aching feet of beauty
 They save her purfled robes from stain
Lean are their steeds that never sleep
 Their coaches clumsy to this day.
And still the Scotchman’s rule to keep
 They help not those who will not pay.

On Friday last we mounted our little funny cabriolet, laughing heartily at the enormous jackboots of our postillion. One horse was in the shafts and drew the carriage, the other half a league before carried the driver, and I believe might have parted company without the knowledge or injury of his follower. The road was the flattest and most uninteresting I have travelled, straight, thro’ two rows of indifferent birch, unvaried in itself, and with little of beauty on either side. The country struck us, as when we approached Paris, by the appearance of scanty population and want of business — neither was there that cultivation which in England makes the most of every inch of ground. We saw a good many sheep with their shepherds and the moveable huts, on wheels, in which they reside during the summer. One sheepfold, five cows, and abundance of magpies. The corn was all cut but much of it in the field and unpromising of hue. The road had nothing till a stage beyond Nanteuil when we got among some chalk hills which have suffered much from weather, and large stones stand picturesquely prominent amid the thin grass that clothes the down or the white chalk which their decay has itself furnished. Some spots have been quarried and leave caves which might be turned to good account by a captain of banditti or hero of romance. From this place the country wended and the descent into two or three villages became interesting from more reasons than one. We had intended to proceed to Soissons, but it grew dark and we [...]

  1. Supposed to be Edinburgh