THE memory of a long-ago, short-lived trade agreement between England and France was rekindled by an extraordinary embroidered waistcoat that surfaced in the Deburaux & Associés sale in Paris on February 11, when it sold to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for €5000 (£3470) plus 20.33% buyer’s premium.
The untailored waistcoat, presented in a rectangular glass
case with giltwood frame, was woven in gros de Tours and
embroidered in Lyon silk with a fanciful design featuring banners,
ships, and alternating cockerels and leopards above the
Sale expert Aymeric de Villelume noted that the waistcoat
commemorated a Traité de Commerce - the inscription appears on
the banners near the bottom - but was unable to provide
further details of the treaty in question, and dated the waistcoat
to around 1780.
In fact, it must have been made a few years later: the treaty in
question was the Eden Treaty of 1786, concluded between French
Foreign Minister the Comte de Vergennes (1719-87), a disciple of
the Philosophes, and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who
was influenced by Adam Smith's economic liberalism and who feared a
decline in trade with the newly independent America.
The bottom of the waistcoat is embroidered with ships, bales of
cotton and barrels of Vin de Bordeaux - a reference to the
terms of the Treaty, which slashed duty on British textiles and
pottery on the one hand; and on French wine, brandy, oil and
vinegar on the other, to put an end to a century of Anglo-French
The Treaty was widely perceived as being to England's advantage
(French silks, for instance, did not benefit from the new low
tariffs) and was never popular in France. It was one of the
grievances listed by the States General in 1789, and later blamed
by Napoleon for bankrupting France and helping cause the
Revolution. Some historians dispute that assessment, but the
entente's cordiality soon dissolved. When war broke out between
France and England in 1793, all British goods in France were
seized, and anyone found storing them was clapped in irons.
Villelume believes that several similar waistcoats were made,
doubtless as souvenirs for those involved in drafting the
This one had been in the same French family since 1810, and was in
fine condition, though the colours weren't perfect. "Nothing a good
clean shouldn't sort out," said Villelume.
The waistcoat aroused scant private interest but was targeted by
several other museums - a representative of a German museum
was bidding in the room; the Paris Museum of Fashion & Textiles
stayed in the hunt to €4000; while the Legion of Honor museum in
San Francisco contacted Villelume just after the sale in the
mistaken belief it could still acquire the piece.
California's loss is London's gain. The National Maritime Museum
are delighted with this latest contribution to cross-Channel trade.
A museum spokesperson said the waistcoat would be going into
conservation, then storage, prior to appearing as a key exhibit in
a forthcoming new gallery.
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