In the churchyard of St Nicholas in Chiswick the artist, stage designer, inventor, mason, mystic, faith healer and kabbalist Philippe De Loutherbourg lies buried with his second wife Lucy, once reputed to be the most beautiful woman in England. Their striking chest tomb was designed by Sir John Soane and is now grade II listed. The west facing inscription for de Loutherbourg himself has been obliterated by weathering but the east facing inscription to Lucy is still clearly legible.
Philippe de Loutherbourg was born in 1740, the son of the court painter of Darmstadt in Germany. His father had ambitions for him to become an engineer and his mother a Lutheran minister and he was educated, in Strasbourg, with a future in the church in mind. But his parent’s dreams of respectability were to be thwarted by a wayward streak in their son that would never allow him to settle into bourgeois respectability (despite his love of money). Philippe wanted to follow his father into the arts and badgered his family into moving to Paris to allow him to study painting. In France the family lost what little control they had over the young Philippe who became, in his own words, “a freethinker and a hothead.” The 21 year old took up with an older but beautiful widow, Barbe Burlat who drew him into a reckless adventure to fleece a married, retired Captain of the East India Company, Antoine de Meyrac. The ageing but besotted Meyrac agreed to pay Barbe 600 livres to become his mistress. Further gifts, jewellery, expensive wines, luxurious carpets, silk stockings, followed but the promised consummation of the affair failed to materialise. When the furious and frustrated Meyrac refused to part with any more cash Philippe threw him out of Barbe’s house and barred his way back in with a drawn sword. Just a few days later Philippe himself married Barbe. The couple’s outrageous behaviour became notorious and started to threaten the glorious strides Philippe was making in his artistic career.
|Philippe in his 30's.|
Within a year of his arrival in London Philippe was exhibiting his paintings at the Royal Academy. A friend introduced him to David Garrick who, immediately impressed by this imposing foreigner, took him on as the chief stage designer at Drury Lane at a salary of £500 a year. His productions transformed the English stage, setting new standards of illusion, exchanging a single, often crudely daubed, stationary backdrop for moveable painted flat and drop scenes with integrated scenery, perspective and lighting effects. He took a restlessly experimental approach to his work in the theatre culminating first with a pantomime ‘The Wonders of Derbyshire’ in 1779 which realistically represented the scenery of the Peak District on stage and then, in 1781 when he had left Drury Lane for good after quarrelling with Garrick’s successor, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, with his invention of the Eidophusikon.
In February 1781 Philippe held the opening night of the Eidophusikon at his new house in Lisle Street, Leicester Square. This was a novel entertainment in which, according to contemporary newspaper accounts “various imitations of Natural Phenomena, represented by moving pictures,” were recreated upon a small stage:
“ Here, for a fee of five shillings, around 130 fashionable spectators sat in comfort to watch a series of moving scenes projected within a giant peephole aperture, eight feet by six feet. The darkened auditorium combined with skilful use of concealed and concentrated light sources, coloured silk filters, clockwork automata, winding backscreens and illuminated transparencies created a uniquely illusionist environment. Audiences watched five landscapes in action. Dawn crept over the Thames at Greenwich; the noonday sun scorched the port of Tangier; a crimson sunset flushed over the Bay of Naples; a tropical moon rose over the wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean; and a torrential storm wrecked a ship somewhere off the Atlantic coast. Between scenes, painted transparencies served as curtain drops, and Mr and Mrs Michael Arne entertained the audience with violin music and song.” (Iain McCalman “The Virtual Infernal.”)
One visitor to Lisle Street was the 21 year William Beckford. In December 1781 he was planning a spectacular 3 day Christmas party for which, on the strength of the theatrical sets and the Eidophusikon, he commissioned de Loutherbourg to supply the illusions that would transport him and his guests from an English midwinter in an 18th century Palladian mansion in Wiltshire to a magical oriental fantasy world. Beckford wrote to his 34 year old mistress Louisa, (who was married to his cousin) urging him to come to “Fonthill, where every preparation is going forwards that our much admired ….. Loutherbourg …. in all the wildness of his fervid imagination can suggest or contrive – to give our favourite apartments the strangeness and novelty of a fairy world. This very morning he sets forth with his attendant genii, and swears…that in less than three weeks…[to] present a mysterious something that the eye has not seen or heart of man conceived (his own hallowed words) purposely for our own special delight and recreation.”
|The young William Beckford|
Beckford’s most favoured guest at these Christmas revels was the thirteen year old Viscount William Courtenay, son of the Earl of Devon, with whom he was besotted. Louisa unashamedly helped her young lover seduce the even younger ‘Kitty’ Courtenay. Beckford later fondly reminisced (calling him ‘she’ in apparently timeless high camp fashion) “does she love to talk of the hour when, seizing her delicate hand, I led her, bounding like a kid to my chamber?” The scandalous affair remained secret for a further 3 years but in 1784 Beckford’s letters to Kitty were intercepted by the boy’s uncle who advertised them in the newspapers and forced Beckford to flee the country for several years of self-imposed exile while the resulting contretemps died down. The most immediate and enduring effect of de Loutherbourg’s three day Christmas fantasia was to inspire Beckford to compose one of English literature's minor masterpieces, his oriental fantasy ‘Vathek; An Arabian Tale.’
|The second Mrs de Loutherbourg, Lucy Paget|
|Guiseppe Balsamo, Count Cagliostro|
|Philippe and Lucy de Loutherbourg by John Hoppner|
In 1788 the de Loutherbourg’s returned to London and Philippe shocked the artisitic establishment by announcing that he was abandoning painting to dedicate himself to mystical pursuits including the study of the kabbalah and working as a faith healer with Lucy from their house in Hammersmith Terrace. The pair claimed that by means of the influxes that, according to Swedenborg, flow from Heaven to Earth they could affect miraculous cures. The poor were admitted to the de Loutherbourg’s clinic by free ticket; Mary Pratt, an admirer of the couple, wrote a pamphlet A List of a Few Cures performed by Mr and Mrs De Loutherbourg, of Hammersmith Terrace, without Medicine in which she claimed that 2000 people had been cured by them in just a few months "having been made proper recipients to receive divine manuductions". Eventually the numbers trying to gain admission to the clinic were so high that riots broke out amongst those waiting to be cured and the de Loutherbourg’s had to abandon their attempts to heal the London mob. He returned to art and confined his mystical pursuits to a more sedate circle of friends and acquaintances.Philippe died on 11 March 1812 and Lucy on 28 September 1828.
Almost all the information in this post has been drawn from the fascinating work of Professor Iain McCalman of the University of Sydney:
"The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro."
"Mystagogues of revolution: Cagliostro, de Loutherbourg and Romantic London."
"The Virtual Infernal: Philippe de Loutherbourg, William Beckford and the Spectacle of the Sublime."