The Huguenots at 'Britain's Versailles'

August 11 2015

Image of The Huguenots at 'Britain's Versailles'

Picture: Buccleuch Estates

Boughton House in Northamptonshire is one of the greatest and most bejewelled stately homes in Britain. It belongs to the Duke of Buccleuch, and has been in his family since it was built by his ancestor Ralph Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu. Apart from a few days in April, the house is only open in August.

I would strongly encourage you to go if you can. This year, the Duke (with curator Paul Boucher) has put on an exhibition all about the Huguenot origins of the house; it's one of the best stately home shows I've ever seen. The Duke's approach is a world away from the current National Trust fad of 'too much stuff', and shows how a fine house can and should be made accessible to visitors. Happily, you'll find no beanbags at Boughton. The house is a reminder of why these places are best looked after by people who live in them and care about them. And, in my experience, few stately home owners are as enthusiastic about their collections - and how to best share them with the public - than the current Duke of Buccleuch.

The story of the Huguenot influence on British taste is one I hadn't really appreciated before. (Huguenots by the way were a much persecuted group of Protestants in France). After Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, large numbers of Huguenots escaped persecution by coming to Britain, then a staunchly anti-Catholic country (so much so that soon afterwards, in 1688, we got rid of our Catholic king, James II).

The man who proved most welcoming to these Huguenot exiles in Britain was Ralph, 1st Duke of Montagu, sometime British ambassador to French. An enthusiastic Francophile, he created at Montagu House in London (now the site of the British Museum) and at Boughton in Northamptonshire not only a large houses in the latest French style, but also mini French Huguenot courts, where French was spoken and scores of French craftsmen produced paintings and furniture that still survive to this day. It was largely thanks to Montagu's support that so much French artistic taste began to enter the English aesthetic in the late 17th Century. (It's also thanks to the Huguenots, by the way, that we have oxtail soup in Britain; at the time, Huguenots in London were so poor they could only afford to make soup from butchers' discarded tails. Somehow, the taste caught on).

The extraordinary thing at Boughton is how intact the house and collections have remained. You can walk around more or less as you would have done at the turn of the 18th Century. There are, for example, over 50 flower paintings by the Huguenot painter Jean-Bapstiste Monnoyer, and the complete accounts survive to tell us who made what, and how much they charged. Other treasures on display include the first piece of music printed in Britain, and the first A-Z of London - both printed by Huguenots. The show is also a reminder of how, culturally as well as economically, immigration can be far more beneficial than many think.

So, hurrah for the 1st Duke of Montagu. You can find more info on how to visit Boughton here. And here below is the press release that accompanies the exhibition. If you go, do drop into the church at Warkton nearby, which has a series of exquisite marbles by Roubiliac (who of course was a Huguenot).

A significant collection of Huguenot artwork and craftsmanship will go on display in Northamptonshire on the 300th anniversary of the death of the group’s persecutor, Louis XIV of France. 

Boughton House, known as the English Versailles, will host a summer exhibition of works by Huguenot migrants to Britain, three centuries on from the death of the French monarch who denied their religious and political rights by revoking the Edict of Nantes, leading to their exodus from the nation. 

Highlights of the exhibition include the first piece of music ever printed in this country (a set of French Chansons by Lassus), a selection of Isaac Oliver’s celebrated jewel-sized portraits and the first A-Z of London, by Jean Rocque.  

Paul Boucher, the exhibition’s curator, said: “This significant new exhibition celebrates how the historic influx of skilled Huguenot migrants to Britain transformed the cultural life of our nation. Beginning in the House’s dramatic unfinished wing, the story will then continue through to the exhibition in the Steward’s Hall.” 

Boughton, the Northamptonshire home of the Duke of Buccleuch, is also home to a stunning array of Huguenot paintings, furniture, maps, armoury, porcelain, music and silver, which form part of the celebrated Buccleuch Art Collection, and many of which were commissioned by Ralph, the 1st Duke of Montagu in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Tours of the House will run every day during the exhibition and will highlight Boughton’s many examples of Huguenot craftsmanship on permanent display.

Paul added: “Other than its sheer scale and diversity, what’s remarkable about this collection is that many of the items are still housed within the surroundings for which they were purchased, making for a truly immersive experience.”

The Buccleuch Art Collection, much of which resides at Boughton House and within the Duke of Buccleuch’s Scottish residences, Bowhill House and Drumlanrig Castle, encompasses more than 50,000 objects, including a vast library and archive. 

The special Huguenot Summer exhibition will run from August 1st - 31st at Boughton House during the Estate’s summer opening season. House and/or gardens ticket holders will gain free entry into the exhibition, which will also be open to arranged group visits throughout July and September, by appointment. 

In nearby Warkton, visitors will be able to see the newly restored Montagu monuments at St Edmund's Church. These include the sculptures in Carrara marble by the Huguenot Louis François Roubiliac, one of the greatest sculptors ever to work in England. Among his other notable memorials are those to Shakespeare, Garrick, Isaac Newton and Handel in Westminster Abbey. The church will be open Monday - Saturday from 10am - 2pm throughout August.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.