Binding of brown calf with gold tooling, four painted medallions arranged symmetrically around central motif, with background of gold pointillé tooling. French, circa 1575. Victoria and Albert Museum museum number 3267-1856
When in 1856, the South Kensington Museum, as the V&A was then known, purchased an elaborate gold tooled French 16th century binding, the significance of the album of botanical watercolours it contained was not understood.
It was only in 1922 that these beautiful studies of plants and fruit were identified as the work of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, as his signature ‘de morogues’ appears in the above illustration.
Although born in Morgues, a hamlet in the Loire Valley, the artist became a citizen of Dieppe and probably trained in Rouen where manuscripts were decorated with floral borders until the mid-16th century. The fifty-nine illustrations in the V&A’s album (on 34 sheets) were painted when Le Moyne was in his forties, in about 1575.
Seven years later he was living in London in the parish of St Anne, Blackfriars. As a Huguenot, the artist had come to England to escape persecution of the Protestants in France in the decade following the St Bartholomew's Day massacre, 1572. He dedicated his small printed book La Clef des Champs* (the Key to the Fields) to Lady Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, probably Sir Philip Sidney’s sister. This was much used as a pattern book for embroidery by noble women and professional artisans so only three copies survive. The published woodcuts show flowers and fruit with stalks as embroidered on Elizabethan ladies’ jackets.
The V&A’s jacket belonging to Margaret Layton, dating from the 1610s, was embroidered with fashionable flowers and leaves thirty years after the British Museum’s copy of Le Moyne’s La Clef des Champs was published. Compare the embroidered iris with the printed example.
Similar flowers are tattoed on the naked body of this young Pictish woman standing in a verdant landscape. This watercolour has been attributed to Le Moyne, although this has been questioned.
Between 1564 and 1566, the artist accompanied the Huguenot René de Laudonnière’s expedition to Florida which sailed from Le Havre and returned to Calais. The attempt to establish a colony of French Protestants there included building a French fort near present-day Jacksonville. The artist was instructed to ‘chart the sea-coast, observe the situation of the towns, the depth and course of the rivers, the harbours, and the houses.’ During a surprise attack the Spanish massacred most of the colonists, and Le Moyne was one of the few survivors to return to France. The English geographer Hackluyt later translated Laudonnière’s account, which he dedicated to Sir Walter Raleigh, and referred to the illustrations by ‘the skilfull painter James Morgues, yet living in the Black-fryers in London’.
The Huguenot engraver Theodore de Bry’s Latin translation was published in Frankfurt with a map and 42 engravings after the artist’s designs, probably drawn from memory; it is unlikely that Le Moyne was able to bring back his artwork from Florida. Only one of the original watercolours for de Bry’s publication has been identified. This depicts Athore, the tall son of the Timucua chief, showing Laudonnière and his soldiers the French royal arms on a marker column put up by the previous explorer Jean Ribault. It is in the Morgan Library, New York City.
In 2008, the American best-selling author Miles Harvey published a study of Le Moyne’s adventures. The concluding chapter, ‘Searching for Roots’, makes fascinating reading. Harvey suggests that Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues may be the son of Henry Le Moyne (d.1587) embroiderer to Mary Stuart during her brief reign as Queen of France. Henry Le Moyne came from Chateaudun, which was from 1534 part of the territory of Mary of Guise through her first marriage to the duke of Longueville. After her second marriage to James V, Henry Le Moyne followed Mary of Guise to Scotland. When their only child Mary was betrothed to the French dauphin, Henry Le Moyne travelled back with the young bride to the French court and was paid for embroidery between 1559 and 1563.
After the death of her French husband, Mary Stuart returned to Scotland in 1560. Henry Le Moyne followed her and became in 1562, her valet de chambre; he was still her embroiderer twenty years later. He died in 1587 six months after his royal mistress was executed. Mary Stuart’s needlework is well known; the V&A’s surviving examples are on loan to Oxburgh, Norfolk (National Trust).
Renaissance Watercolours from the V&A’s collections await the return of visitors after the third lockdown of the 2020-2021 global pandemic. Meanwhile aspects of this display can be enjoyed at home from the V&A’s website. Le Moyne used life-like watercolours to record the natural world and the quick-drying paint meant he could easily bind the sheets into a book. Virtual visitors can compare Le Moyne’s finished watercolour of a pomegranate with painting in progress as contemporary artist Lucy Smith captures this symbolic fruit. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/a-watercolour-painting-of-a-pomegranate-by-lucy-t-smith
Le Moyne’s lemon with a Seville orange used for making marmalade, a delicacy introduced from France during the artist’s lifetime, and considered an appropriate New Year’s gift, may inspire present day cooks. As the pages of the album are turned https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/renaissance-watercolours#articles the naturalistic rendering of these beautiful watercolours can be enjoyed at leisure. For gardeners, the representation of cherries, medlars, chestnuts, quinces, wild strawberries, plums, pears are reminders of last year’s harvest and anticipate the joys to come during these long winter months.
* Editor's note. In French, the term prendre la clef des champs signifies to make one's escape. Was Le Moyne subtly referencing his flight from France as a Huguenot refugee within a double entendre?
Further Reading: Miles Harvey, Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America (New York, 2008);
Mark Evans, Renaissance Watercolours from Dṻrer to Van Dyck (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2020) available from the V&A shop on line, £30
Paul Hulton, The Work of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues: A Huguenot Artist in France Florida and England 2 vols. (British Museum in association with the Huguenot Society of London, 1977), in the Huguenot Society Library.