Aileen Dawson, British Museum
The art of ivory carving was practised in Europe above all in the town of Dieppe from the seventeenth century, often using elephant ivory from Africa. The shape of this delicately carved relief on a black velvet support conforms to a tusk. The artist responsible, whose signature ‘LE MARCHAND FECIT’ (‘Le Marchand made [it]’) appears on the lower part, was born in Dieppe and was the son of a painter. A Protestant, he left France to escape religious persecution and was in Edinburgh by 1696. Around 1700 he went to London where he carved portraits of many famous men, including Sir Isaac Newton and where a thriving French Protestant community settled around Shoreditch and Spitalfields.
The relief, measuring 14cm in height, depicts King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), often known as the ‘Sun King’, and celebrates his military exploits. He stands on a pedestal inscribed in Latin ‘To the Victory of Louis the Great’ with chained slaves at his feet and a series of flags to either side of him. The figures are framed by a laurel wreath. During his long reign Louis XIV fought many battles, vastly increasing the power and prestige of France and centralising its government. The magnificent château at Versailles was his creation and served the double purpose of demonstrating his wealth and taming the aristocracy, which was obliged to reside there.
David Le Marchand (1674-1726) is one of many artists who have sought refuge in Britain for reasons of religious persecution. It is not quite clear why he went to Edinburgh, and it seems surprising that he made this representation of the king whose religious policy led to his exile. One theory, which cannot be proved, is that the piece may have been done for a Scottish patron living in exile at Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris at the Stuart court of the ‘Old Pretender’, James Francis Edward, or his father, James II, under the protection of the Catholic King Louis XIV. There is no doubt that Le Marchand had several Scottish clients, nor that his most successful years were spent working in London where he met and portrayed the leading figures of the age: Samuel Pepys, Sir Christopher Wren, and various members of the burgeoning Huguenot (French Protestant) community in London.
This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 8 November 2012.