- Museum number
- Object: Le Chevalier d'Eon
Portrait half length in an oval, wearing embroidered coat and cocked hat, arm pointing forward; lettered state. 1764
- Production date
Height: 331 millimetres
Width: 228 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- This is the earliest of numerous portraits of the Chevalier d'Eon in the British Museum's collection. The print was made in London by the expatriate French printmaker and miniaturist Vispré in 1764, by which point d'Eon had been in London for about a year. The year of publication is not lettered on the print, but has been added in the hand of its former owner, Horace Walpole. The month of its publication is not currently known, but it is likely to have been produced in response to d'Eon's sudden notoriety in or after March 1764, thanks to his unprecedented publication of secret diplomatic documents in his "Lettres, memoires et negociations".
Published in London, but written in French, this swiftly became one of the most talked-about books of the time and meant that d'Eon - whose name had formerly only been known in court and diplomatic circles - became something of a celebrity. D'Eon was roundly criticised for publishing secret documents, but it ensured that the subject of this print became the talk not only of London but of Europe: copies were not available in Paris but were first imported from London and then printed in a second edition in The Hague.
The exact circumstances of d'Eon's decision to publish are unknown, but the "Lettres" seem to have been the final salvo in an increasingly bitter battle of wills with the French ambassador to Britain, the Comte de Guerchy. De Guerchy was a newcomer to the diplomatic scene and had been appointed in early 1763 after the retirement of his predecessor in London, and d'Eon's patron, the duc de Nivernais. As de Guerchy could not take up his duties immediately, d'Eon - who had served from September 1762 as de Nivernais's secretary - was appointed Plenipotentiary Minister. D'Eon had more diplomatic experience than de Guerchy and they wrangled bitterly after the latter's arrival. D'Eon also faced criticism from the French foreign ministry for lavish living expenses.
The feud with de Guerchy resulted in d'Eon being threatened with demotion and then being recalled to France. D'Eon did not go, insisting that the king alone could give such an order. Matters were made more complicated by d'Eon's role as a spy for Louis XV's 'Secret' network of agents. Presently d'Eon claimed to be in fear of being the victim of a de Guerchy murder plot (for possible corroboration, see 1930,0414.212). D'Eon sent a series of letters to the Foreign Ministry, demanding full payment of what was owed from their time as a diplomat and protection from plots directed at their removal. If such proofs of the government's good faith were not received by Easter (22 April 1764), d'Eon would go over to the British side and become a spy in their employ, making available secret papers including plans for a French invasion even though the two countries were nominally at peace.
To prove his readiness, d'Eon published the "Lettres", which contained none of the invasion plans but plenty of secret diplomatic letters to embarrass the French foreign ministry. As a result of this publication, d'Eon became a household name in both London and Paris, and it was probably at this stage that a market developed for printed portrait of d'Eon.
The prototype from which the print was made is not known. Another impression of the same print is also in the British Museum under 1902,1011.6081. The collection records no further portrait prints of d'Eon until the summer of 1771, when the question of d'Eon's sex had become a matter of national interest (see 1886,1221.6).
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2019 21 Sep-17 Nov Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, Dorchester, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories
2019 15 Mar-26 May, Bolton Museum, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories
2018-2019 14 Dec-3 Mar, National Justice Museum, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories
2018 25 Sep– 2 Dec, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number