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Dramatic finances: Jacques Necker etched as a charlatan

I have a bit of a twisted fascination for Revolutionary characters that suffer a dramatic downfall after a large amount of popularity. One of these is three times minister of finances Jacques Necker who, frankly, did not have the easiest ride. His infamous Compte rendu au roi (1781) was a document in which Necker manipulated the accounts to present a more positive image of finances. Through this, he gained a tremendous amount of popularity, sometimes depicted as a saviour of France (there was an outcry when he was dismissed on 11 July 1789, just before the storming of the Bastille). By 1790, however, it was clear that he was not up to the task and his popularity evaporated.

I want to draw attention to two prints from 1790 which depict Necker as a charlatan. They’re part of a much wider trend of prints that are fascinated with the concept of unmasking (but that’s a whole other story).


The first print is called ‘Et ne devrait-on pas à̀ des signes certains reconnaitre le cœur des perfides humains’ (1790). The title comes from lyrics taken from Act 4 scene 2 of Rachine’s Phèdre, which immediately adds a dramatic layer to the image.

(roughly, it translates as ‘and shouldn’t we recognize from certain signs the deceitful hearts of humans’)

This etching was an illustration in the book Necker jugé par le tribunal de la lanterne (1790), people must have been a bit confused about it as an explanation was also printed (translation mine):

We read the following: “The King accuses Necker of quackery. In his anger, he flipped the table on which were the instruments, such as cups, nutmegs, wand, etc. The gaze of the king is mingled with indignation and surprise, and he looks ready to burst out in anger against Necker. Necker is depicted with the charlatan apron. He wears a hand to his forehead to mark his humiliation, and the other to his heart, and seems to say to the king “ah! Sire, if you knew my heart!” Through one of his eyes, a mocking laugh escapes, which shows that this adventurer trusts the king’s weakness. A deity embraces with one hand a gallows, and on the other, she directs the rays of the lantern to the chest of Necker, where we see snakes emanate, symbols of the passions that animate this minister. The figure of the deity seems to laugh to mark the joy she feels at having unveiled the heart of this false and corrupt man. Both verses that are at the bottom of the print, are ideally suited to the subject. The French should not regret to have not known sooner the uselessness and vices of this minister, that they had adored so blindly.”[1]

The lantern was used very frequently in 1790 prints, in part because this word has a double meaning, referring on the one hand to the illuminations of a magic lantern, and on the other to lynching. Both senses are used here.


Let’s look at another print, ‘Compte Rendu au roy’, which was published in May 1790 in the Révolutions de France et de Brabant of Camille Desmoulins. The image is without a legend, but earlier in the newspaper, the following appears (my translation again): ‘Necker asked again on Monday for 20 million […] he is always asking for money […] we ask him for accounts, accounts, and he never hands in his accounts […] I demand that […]  Necker the charlatan should be arrested.’[2]

This print is less obvious than the previous one in its satire, until you look at the framed text in the background (‘New way to regenerate France: borrow 1774 / borrow 1775 / borrow 1776 […] product of these operations: deficit’). In the foreground Necker makes a game out of the accounts – but it looks like the king is not convinced.

For now, at least, artists are still willing to give Louis XVI the benefit of the doubt.

Charlatans, as the ultimate manipulators, are no strangers to brutal reversals of fortunes, and Necker’s own iconographical evolution deserves its own study, alongside the more popular Marat, Mirabeau, or Louis XVI.

[1] BNF, De Vinck, 1396.

[2] 7 mai 1790, p. 539.



In news that is bound to please any academics using images, the British Library has just uploaded one million public domain images to flickr. As their blog states:

“We have released over a million images onto Flickr Commons for anyone to use, remix and repurpose. These images were taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitised by Microsoft who then generously gifted the scanned images to us, allowing us to release them back into the Public Domain. The images themselves cover a startling mix of subjects: There are maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and so much more that even we are not aware of.”


Beyond the fact that we can now use these images however we please, this is also an opportunity for them to crowdsource knowledge, with the launch of an application next year allowing users to comment on the images. This reminds me a little of the New York Public Library’s interactive reading of Candide, with users invited to comment on passages, creating essentially a collaborative digitised critical edition.


In both of these examples a job is done away with, that of the cataloguer and the editor, jobs that normally take place in the shadows and are rarely commented upon outside of reviews in specialist publications. As someone who has taken on both of these roles in the last few years, I can only see this as a positive and necessary move. Bravo!

Judging a book by its binding

My latest blog for the Voltaire Foundation mostly talks about Waddesdon Manor…

Voltaire Foundation

Anyone who has visited Waddesdon Manor will have been struck by the Morning Room, in which rows of impressively large books are carefully encased in cabinets. For most visitors, these books remain nothing more than particularly expensive decorations since there is little opportunity to handle or open them.

Thankfully, recent projects have been lifting the covers (as it were) on the contents, revealing satirical and rabble-rousing content that contrasts with the seemingly royalist surroundings. Waddesdon Manor was built in the late nineteenth century in a neo-Renaissance style by Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleurs for the baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Ferdinand was a historian fascinated by early modern France and Waddesdon Manor features many royal relics including Marie-Antoinette’s desk, and the large state portrait of Louis XVI by Callet. With rooms filled with Sèvres porcelain, and tapestries from the royal Gobelins and Beauvais workshops, Waddesdon exudes opulence rather than radical politics.

This fascinating disparity…

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The Online Republic of Letters

My first blog post for the Voltaire Foundation.

Voltaire Foundation


Welcome to the Voltaire Foundation’s first blog. We are the publishers of the first critical edition of Voltaire’s Complete Works, as well as monographs in the SVEC series touching on all aspects of eighteenth-century culture, history and literature. As a publisher and research department of the university of Oxford, we are fascinated by networks. After all, if Voltaire were alive today he would no doubt be a prolific social networker, blogging incendiary material, fuelling large Facebook thread debates and over-using #infâme on twitter.

In this spirit, this first post is a gateway to the online eighteenth-century community with links to interesting blog posts, databases and projects, to further encourage a network of exchange.

Network Databases

  • Epitomising the spirit of this blog post is the Mapping the Republic of Letters project. Based at the University of Stanford, this interdisciplinary and international project has been shepherding huge amounts of data acquired…

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Digital 18th Century

The digitization of eighteenth-century resources is an ongoing project, here are some of my favourite iPad apps, designed to enhance teaching, facilitate research, or simply entertain:

ARTFL's Encyclopédie app

ARTFL’s Encyclopédie app

  • An enriched edition of Candide: naturally, I am biased since this was created by the BnF and Orange in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation. Useful to both researchers and students, this beautiful edition offers multiple entry points into Voltaire’s text.
  • Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie: ARTFL have recently launched an app as a companion to their incredibly useful website. This is in no way inferior to their online version, allowing the reader to search by volume or theme, and including scans of the original edition.
  • Gallica: not just restricted to the 18th century of course, this app makes available some of the incredible resources of the BnF. Also of note, the BnF’s 14th to 18th century marine maps app.
  • MAU M&L Natural History: High-resolution images of rare books from the Musashino Art University Museum and Library, with a focus on Anatomy, Natural History and Voyage from 17th to 19th century.
  • The French Revolution seems particularly popular, veering from useful apps (such as French Revolutionary calendar), to interactive historical drama (Time traveller tour with Charlotte Corday), to a full-on educational game in which you play the role of the French army as it wages war against the coalition (Levée en masse).

Happy downloading!

Preserving the Past: Waddesdon Manor

A video has been created charting the relationship between Warwick University and Waddesdon Manor. I appear in it towards the end, talking about my cataloguing work for them during the course of my PhD. Click the link below to view it!

Knowledge Centre

Candide: an enhanced digital edition of Voltaire’s classic

Orange and the BnF, along with the Voltaire Foundation, have launched a new free new digital edition of Voltaire’s Candide. You can read a write-up by Anna Amber at Reading Treasure.

This iPad app involves three complementary sections:

The Book:

To provide an optimal reading experience, the app can simultaneously display the text and the BnF’s manuscript. Denis Podalydès’s voice allows the reader to hear a lively and personable interpretation of Candide by a major actor. With one touch, the reader can make use of the enhanced reading mode which facilitates access to the work: definitions, variants of the critical edition as established by the Voltaire Foundation, character sheets, place, concepts, illustrations of the text by 18th century engravers but also by Paul Klee, etc.

The World:

A map allows the reader to chart Candide’s journey while providing opportunities to further investigate the text thanks to interviews, a bibliography, and an iconographical library.

Michel Le Bris, Alain Finkielkraut, Martine Reid and Georges Vigarello all shed new light on such themes as women in the 18th century, El Dorado, cultivating one’s garden, and images of the Other.

The Garden:

A collaborative space facilitating discussions on Candide, the garden gives each reader the opportunity to publish a notebook made up of their own comments and their favourite analyses. Each notebook takes the shape of a tree of learning in the garden. A living space in constant evolution, this garden grows according to the reinterpretations produced by the online reader-contributors. This section will be a vital learning tool for schools: teachers will be able to create their own presentations in the garden and invite their students to contribute to them.

Orange and e-books

This project is part of Orange’s ongoing project to support as many players in the book distribution chain as possible during their process of digitization. Accordingly, Orange is developing a series of innovative services such as the platform Read and Go (facilitating the digital reading of magazines, books and graphic novels), and experimenting with narrative projects (Fanfan2…). Orange also launched in 2009 the Orange Prize for Fiction, a literary prize judged by Internet users and chaired by Erik Orsenna. Furthermore, Orange initiated the project MO3T, an open model of e-book distribution, and created a consortium with all key players in a book’s creation: telecom operators, editors, booksellers, IT and technology service providers…

What is at stake for the BnF

The BnF digitally uploads an increasingly large portion of its vast collection. Gallica, its digital library, provides users with nearly 2 million documents, including 381 000 books and more than 500 000 images.

Access to this collection is now facilitated by a particularly ergonomic iPad app.

Through its educational policies and activities, such as its online exhibitions (expositions.bnf.fr) and teaching resources (classes.bnf.fr), the BnF aims to make the cultural heritage it preserves accessible to the largest audience possible.

This project is also aligned with the BnF’s aims, along with the Ministry of Education, to offer digital resources to all secondary school students to help them engage with language, history, history of art, and literature.

The Voltaire Foundation’s point of view

Candide is a timeless and universal text. The Voltaire Foundation is proud to be associated with the creation of this Candide app, designed to make Voltaire’s masterpiece accessible to the widest audience possible.

What is exciting about this new digital edition is that it is free, beautiful, accessible, and in no way inferior to the most erudite of editions. Its starting point is the definitive critical edition of Candide by René Pomeau published by the Voltaire Foundation. The two levels of annotations, ‘discovery’ and ‘research’, solve the limitations of a paper edition by making it a useful tool for both academics and students. Thanks to these two levels, as well as the map of the world charting Candide’s travels, the reader can choose their own way into the text. Just like Candide, the reader is free to wander through this voltairean world and make their own discoveries at their own pace.

Here is a guest blog I wrote for I.B. Tauris.