Earlier this year at the South Australian Maritime Museum we opened an exhibition titled The Art of Science which showcases original drawings and paintings created by Baudin’s artists Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit during the voyage of 1800-1804. The artwork is accompanied by Baudin’s chronometer, the copper plate used to print the first complete map of Australia and the fair copy of Baudin’s sea log. It is the first time that Baudin’s log has been exhibited anywhere in the world!
Baudin’s ships, Géographe and Naturaliste embarked from Le Havre in October 1800 for the southern continent carrying an impressive contingent of scientists and scientific assistants. Lavishly funded by Napoleon Bonaparte, the expedition’s agenda was the discovery and study of natural sciences, underpinned by the emergence of new ideas and philosophies of reason and the rights of man.
I was the lead curator for The Art of Science and as part of the research for this exhibition traveled to France to further explore collections there.
What I discovered during my trip was that Nicolas Baudin, who famously encountered Matthew Flinders off our southern coast in April 1802 and returned to France with one of the most impressive scientific hauls in European history, is a virtual non-entity in the country of his birth.
In fact, at the National Maritime Museum, Paris, Baudin’s chronometer was displayed in a cluster of chronometers or historic marine time-pieces to highlight the evolution of this instrument and influence of its maker, Berthoud. There was no mention in the label at all, of its owner.
Baudin was a well-respected scientific voyager prior to his 1800 expedition. In 1796 he had led a highly celebrated scientific voyage to the Caribbean on the Belle Angelique. The directors of the fledgling National Museum of Natural History in Paris had encouraged Napoleon to place him in charge of another voyage.
Unfortunately Baudin lost control of the expedition planning. When he left Le Havre in October, he was lumbered with an unwieldy contingent of 22 scientists or savants (at least three times more than he desired) and over 200 crew.
When the ships finally arrived in Ile de France (Mauritius) after a tediously long passage, half his scientists and all three of his official artists abandoned ship. They were unused to the rigours and discipline of naval life and many were well aware of the stellar career opportunities in the French outpost. Those that left the expedition were keen to salvage their reputations – they wrote official letters and accounts criticising the captain – tainting Baudin’s reputation and impugning that of the voyage as a whole.
It was a difficult voyage, the two vessels sailed at a different pace and constantly missed their scheduled rendezvous. A cautious navigator, Baudin was unwilling to make too many landfalls and scurvy ravaged the crew. Tensions escalated between the officers of noble birth and ‘Citizen Baudin’, an officer blue of modest origins. There was constant friction between the agendas of surveying and collecting. Baudin clashed with Francois Péron, the meticulous but obsessive naturalist who rose through the ranks after the other scientists jumped ship.
It was Péron who wrote the official voyage account after Baudin died of tuberculosis on the return journey. Baudin had no chance to defend his reputation and Péron effectively wrote his commander out of history, mentioning him by name only once, the day he died, in the hefty volume of his narrative.
Geographe and Naturaliste returned to France listing from the weight of well in excess of 100, 000 specimens, the decks below crowded with the pens of 72 live animals. While the Museum directors were ecstatic Napoleon had moved on, his focus elsewhere. It took two years for Péron to secure funding for the official account. The specimens were divvied up between the Museum and Josephine Bonaparte’s sprawling estate, Malmaison, outside of Paris. Her collection was partly destroyed in 1814 by invading troops and the rest was dispersed and sold in 1829. 200 ethnographic artefacts collected in Tasmania and Port Jackson simply vanished. Specimens in the museum were stored but not systematically catalogued. Artist Petit died soon after he returned to Le Havre, and Lesueur left for USA, miffed at his shabby treatment by the government.
Lesueur held onto the folio of drawings made on the voyage rather than lodging them with the Paris Museum, eventually donating them to the museum in his home town, Le Havre. That this archive of 1500 artworks survives at all is a minor miracle. Le Havre was occupied by German forces during the Second World War and the allies virtually destroyed the city in September 1944. Le Havre’s Museum of Natural History was flattened and most of the collections incinerated. The curator of the Lesueur Collection had the foresight, however, to shift this flammable paper material to a more secure location.
It is this Museum alone in France, that seems to have a grasp on Baudin’s significance to both French and Australian history.
How did the exhibition come about?
We were familiar with some of the works from our 2012 exhibition Terre Napoleon –showcasing the 40 or so drawings published with the official account. At the end of 2014 we were approached by the Director Cedric Cremiere, who asked if the South Australian Maritime Museum would like to exhibit some of the originals. We were in a word, gobsmacked. Usually we have to plead to borrow works of such monumental importance. The Le Havre Museum has smaller exhibition spaces then our own, was planning a major extension, and saw this as an opportunity for sharing its collection with an international audience.
From there the project snowballed. Once the South Australian Maritime Museum had signed on, other national institutions also wanted in. Six national institutions in total collaborated on the development of The Art of Science. This type of collaboration is, I might add, a first in the Australian museum world. We curated the exhibition, the National Museum of Australia managed the international loans, and the Australian National Maritime Museum applied for grants and sponsorship to fund the project. Logistically it was fraught. But while we quibbled over the allocation of material, we also tapped into each other’s enthusiasm and expertise. The French government also funded the research trip for me to inspect the collections in Le Havre and Paris. I learned a lot.
Looking for Lesueur
The Lesueur Collection is located in Fort Tourneville, a mid-19th century fortification perched on a hill overlooking the port city of Le Havre.
With collection curator Gabrielle Baglione, I sequestered myself in the fort for four days, finalising selections for institution, looking at extra images she had located. The bulk of the drawings have been conserved and matt mounted and are stored in plan drawers on the premises. It was a revelation seeing the works in the flesh (so to speak).
Even after spending days trawling through digital images in Australia, the sheer beauty and microscopic detail of the actual works, took my breath away.
We also sifted through the reams of manuscripts penned during the voyage by scientist and artists. Most of the material was penned by naturalist François Péron. Sometimes neat, sometimes written in frantic, barely legible scrawl that consumed every inch of paper, Péron’s manuscripts seemed to reflect his personality: brilliant, obsessive, mercurial. They include lists of live animals penned on board Géographe, compendiums of specimens, essays on the Aboriginal people of Maria Island, the casoars (emus) of Kangaroo island, the impact of sealing on King Island, and a spot of espionage in Sydney Town. While the manuscripts have been digitised, the bulk have not been transcribed or translated. This is a massive project and one which the global experts on Baudin, historians Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby, both based at The University of Adelaide, are slowly working through.
On the last days Gabrielle took me on sightseeing tour of the district looking for Lesueur. A small selection of Lesueur’s paintings (which also cover his time in France and twenty or so years in the USA) are displayed on a rotating basis in the Museum of Natural History, located in Le Havre’s 18th century law court buildings. A permanent Lesueur room is in the offing. We visited the red fossil encrusted cliffs nearby that he often painted on his return from America, and squinted through the wrought iron gates at his last home in the town of Sainte-Adresse. By strange coincidence, Lesueur’s descendants recently moved into a house nearby, not realising that their famous relative had lived so close. They knew Lesueur was a painter voyager but had absolutely no inkling of his significance (believing the family whispers were hollow boasts). These French relatives discovered both Lesueur and Baudin through the Museum. Since then they have also unearthed objects of interest to the collections including Lesueur’s studio desk.
Le Havre is famous for its steel grey skies. It was an unusually summery September day when we went looking for Lesueur. As I gazed out from the Sainte-Adresse cliffs, I could almost conjure up that day, 215 years ago, when Baudin’s ships, their sails billowing, headed out beyond the horizon.
Desperately seeking Baudin
Back in Paris my search switched to Baudin. Once the expedition reached Mauritius on the return voyage, all naval officers were instructed to hand in their journals, sea logs, and charts. The expedition had come to its official end and these documents were sealed in a trunk under lock and key, the official property of the French government. The National Archives in the Marais (or swamp district) of Paris was established in the 1790s, and from 1808, was located in the Hôtel de Soubise. Much of the collection is stored in bunkers underneath the building accessed by a vast labyrinth of twisting tunnels and stair wells. Its collection linked to Baudin’s voyage is extraordinarily rich although most of it has never come up from storage. I spent a day with archivist Brigitte Schmauch chasing Baudin’s paper trail, leafing through his handwritten sea log that South Australian Christine Cornell first translated into English in 1974 and the perfect copperplate script of the fair or show copy of his sea log, the tome he had recruited young artists Lesueur and Petit to illustrate. Most of their drawings had been cut out from the two volumes. I had seen many of them in Le Havre the week before, identifiable by the navigational coordinates where the specimen was plucked from the sea, but a smattering of images remained – profiles of the low slung western Australian coast, their pastel blues and greens as vivid as they day they had been painted. This fair copy was first brought to light by Le Havre’s curator Jacqueline Bonnemains who transcribed it and published it in French. It has never been translated into English and it has never been displayed in France let alone Australia.
A wonderful discovery was 200 coastal profiles (detailed images of the shoreline painted from the ship as navigational aids). These seem to be the official coastal profiles (painted by Lesueur, Petit or perhaps both) and cover the entire voyage. The rich pink granite and feldspar outcrops of the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania, the undulating dunes of the Coorong, and Ravine des Casoars on Kangaroo Island. They capture wheeling flocks of gulls, gum trees, and blue grey plumes of smoke suggesting that the explorers were being observed. We have borrowed two for the exhibition. The date at the top of one is the 8 April 1802.
It was painted on the morning of the day Baudin encountered Flinders off the southern coast and learned that the English had beaten him to the greater part of the unknown coast. Smoke billows from part of the shoreline. The Ngarrindjeri were watching.
The profiles also hint at how Baudin was gradually hidden from history through the documents. Baudin selected place names that reflected the shape of land, the dramas of the voyage, and honoured his expeditioners. Many of his names have been crossed out on the profiles, and replaced with others. Péron and Freycinet (surveyor and captain of the Casuarina) deleted Baudin’s names and substituted them with others designed to curry favour with the powerful and influential. Named Karta by the Ngarrindjeri, Flinders’ Kangaroo Island was renamed Ile Borda by Baudin and in France became Ile Decrès (after the powerful Minister of the Marine). Baudin’s innocuously named South West Coast becomes Terre Napoleon.
Sheaves of hand-drawn charts and maps in other folios revealed a similar story. Kangaroo Island was first mapped by Flinders but circumnavigated and surveyed in detail by the French when Baudin returned with the shallow drafted Casuarina in 1803. These are the first European maps of the island and there are delightful links between Baudin’s journal and these works detailing the time they were created, their makers, and the litany of dramas involved in the surveying work.
Josephine Bonaparte is pivotal to the Baudin story. Her representatives tussled at the docks with those from the Paris Museum for the expedition’s scientific haul. Napoleon penned abrupt letters to the museum (who officially owned all the expedition’s spoil ) ordering them to grant exactly what Madam Bonaparte desired including living specimens of black swans, dwarf emus and western grey kangaroos from Kangaroo Island, packets of seeds and tubs of seedlings to cultivate in her nursery. Most of Baudin’s botanists and gardeners perished from disease, and ill health forced key botanist Leschenault de la Tour to abandon the voyage before it returned to France. Artist Lesueur received instructions from Péron whose interest lay mainly in animals. The world glimpsed the expedition’s botanical bounty through the lavish garden at Malmaison.
Josephine commissioned botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté to paint the plants grown from specimens brought back by the expedition, published as coloured plates in the rare books The Garden at Malmaison (1805) and A Description of rare plants cultivated at Malmaison and Navarre (1813). She sent Australian seedlings throughout France, many of the gum trees and acacias on the Mediterranean coastline are probably linked to Baudin’s voyage.
Like other collectors of the era Josephine hankered for the prestige attached with owning exotic specimens, but she also had a serious scientific interest and an acute and inquiring mind.
Malmaison is now a short train ride through suburbs of western Paris. The sprawling estate was ruthlessly subdivided during the 19th century. The great greenhouse warmed by 12 coal fired stoves and a smaller cluster of buildings ‘Petit Malmaison’ was sold off from the main estate. This is where Josephine kept her kangaroos and emus and it is now privately owned, but at Malmaison proper there is scarcely a trace of Baudin and Josephine’s scientific collecting. Her famous rose gardens are being revived and the meandering informal English garden where other animals grazed is much in evidence. Inside it is mainly a homage to the great but flawed romance between Josephine and Napoleon, and the decorative arts inspired by the couple. There are tantalising hints in those decorative arts of Baudin’s bounty – wooden inlays of black swans in the furniture and sinuous swan-handled vases (Napoleon famously took pot shots at them from his window). I had a brief conversation with attendant in the small shop at entrance. He confirmed that Malmaison has quite a lot of Australian visitors, and most leave a tad disappointed. As was about to leave, I glimpsed a banksia and acacia cultivated in pots in the nursery. Perhaps the seeds of change?
National Museum of Natural History
Although the kangaroos no longer graze on Malmaison’s lawns, they do roam the Jardin des Plantes in the grounds of Paris’ Museum of Natural History. Despite the ongoing war between France and England, Sir Joseph Banks, a great believer in the ‘Commonwealth of Learning’ gave the museum its first pair of kangaroos in 1802 , joined soon after by live specimens collected from Kangaroo Island by Baudin’s ships. Hundreds of thousands of specimens were deposited at the Museum, increasing its holdings several fold. Its creators believed the world was finite, it could be collected in its entirety, and controlled and tamed by systems of classification. Its directors were thrilled by the riches brought back by Baudin, Georges Cuvier suggesting that ‘Péron and Lesueur have discovered more new animals than all the travelling naturalists of modern days’. The specimens – shells that had been buried in buckets of sand to kill the molluscs, hundreds of bird skins rubbed with arsenical soap, jellyfish and fish floating in flasks of white rum, minerals, insects and butterflies impaled on boards of cork, and a vast herbarium of dried and pressed plants – were accompanied by Péron’s meticulous notes detailing source and habitats. Péron published a smattering of papers on marine invertebrates but died in 1810 before he could publish the bulk his zoological findings. Botanist Leschenault made it back to France much later and never studied the collection in great detail, preferring to continue his botanical globe-trotting.
Over the decades, the collection was separated from notes when displayed and its value gradually eroded.
Without systematic cataloguing, Baudin’s bounty slowly faded from view.
But the collection is still there. Bottled, dried, pickled and stuffed, the specimens have stood the test of time remarkably well in storage. And the Paris Museum did agree to loan several sets of specimens to each institution in the tour. These included a dingo, possums, phascogales, taxidermied fish, and sea stars scooped up from the sands of the southern coast. The notoriously lumbering bureaucracy of these big institutions meant that ultimately the costs exceeded our budget and the times required to gain permissions from the multi-layered levels of curators and collection managers were simply too long.
To illustrate how impenetrable this institution is we can cite the example of Belgian scientist and historian Michel Jangoux. He knew Baudin’s herbarium must still exist in the Museum but he was rebuffed at least three times when he offered to search. On the about the fourth request he was permitted into the archives and discovered Baudin’s rich botanical collection hidden under the noses of the Museum’s curators, catalogued under everything but Baudin’s name. He has since thoroughly documented the collection which includes the first botanical specimens collected by Europeans along our southern coast and 600 new species of plants.
The dwarf emu skeleton (there is still some debate whether it was taken from Kangaroo or King Island) is one of the few specimens that has made it from storage into a showcase. Both emus were extinct by 1827. In 2012 DNA was taken from this 200 year old specimen and scientists discovered that the dwarf emu was not in fact a separate species at all.
Restoring Baudin’s place in history
And finally I returned to the site of our ownerless chronometer, France’s National Maritime Museum. Locating the chronometer was somewhat of a collaborative effort between myself, French author and historian Patrick Llewellyn, and anthropologist Alizee Chasse. This dynamic French duo have become obsessed with Baudin and almost evangelical about bringing this story to a French audience. They have written several books (including a novel and graphic novel) developed a Baudin interactive game, and are currently filming a documentary with noted French long distance sailor Loïck Peyron.
Marjolaine Mourot, the curator, did not seem to know exactly what else they held in relation to Baudin. Glimpsing an engraved copper plate of kangaroo used to print drawings for the accounts of explorer Dumont Durville, I asked Marjolaine whether they had any of the plates linked to Péron’s account. She believed they had but wasn’t sure they been catalogued and photographed. Through this conversation we eventually sourced the copper plate used to publish the first complete map of Australia, that under a raking light reveals a delicate outline of the continent in reverse. It is an incredibly significant artefact. Flinders got there first but was famously kept under house arrest on Mauritius for seven and a half years. The French published their maps in 1811 and cheekily ignored Flinders’ names. Our coast on this map is Terre Napoleon, Napoleon’s Land, and St Vincent and Spencers Gulf are Golf Josephine and Golf Bonaparte.
Australian’s have some awareness of the voyage of Nicolas Baudin. The Art of Science will raise that awareness. Long term it may also shift the mindset of the French institutions where he has largely been ignored.
I doubt if chronometer 31 will be returned to its display case without some mention of its owner, the much neglected Nicolas Baudin.