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For the aristocracy, extraordinary ABCs

January 06, 2008|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

NAPOLEON was out, formerly exiled King Louis XVIII was in. At a grand chateau in the French countryside in 1814, a 2-year-old aristocrat was learning about his post-Revolution world with the aid of an illustrated alphabet primer, a special gift from a fond, artistically inclined uncle.

Recently published as (deep breath) "A French Alphabet Book of 1814 for Alfred Bourdier de Beauregard Created by His Uncle Arnaud at the Chateau de Beaumont de Beauregard," it's filled with delicately crafted watercolor drawings sprinkled with puns and moral lessons. And it offers a rare glimpse of early 19th century French history.

Bound by London-based art and antiques dealer Charles Plante, who acquired the collection from a Parisian antiquarian manuscripts dealer -- "he bought it directly from one of the family members of the chateau," Plante said -- the book features nearly 300 depictions of buildings, furnishings, tools, musical instruments, clothing and religious objects as well as illustrations centered on concepts of life and death.

Plante ends the book with a French-to-English dictionary, based on the vocabulary of the time.

"I think it did more than train the young nephew about life in the chateau," Plante said. "It's telling him about the larger pictures and perhaps things to come in his life, and that's one of the reasons why it survived. It was very much a treasured object within the family."

After research to place the drawings in context, Plante notes in the book's introduction that their limited militaristic flavor seems to speak to the alienation of the French aristocracy from the Revolution.

Wordplay and visual humor can be found in the placement of a theater next to a metal bathtub, or baignoire, a word that also meant "theater pit." A chamber pot features prominently under a bed. An infant, an aged man, a skeleton with a scythe, an hourglass and other objects seem to be a collective warning of the fleeting nature of time. A whip and a razor in a grouping of toys lend a rather ominous note.

"The juxtaposition of all these objects doesn't make sense to me, and it hasn't made sense to other historians," Plante said, "but the picture may become clearer as more research is done. Or in fact it may be rather simplistic and they're all things that the nephew would have come in contact with in the chateau or come to learn about in life.

"The more I look at it the more I learn from it. I think that's what has given a lot of people pleasure. And its naive charm adds a whole other dimension to one's interpretation of what is art."


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