A Vision of Beauty: Chapter 2

A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Marion Dell.

© CC BY-NC-SA unless otherwise stated; image copyrights are listed in the credits and they are not licensed for re-use.

French connections

In 1837 Julia’s parents, John and Maria (Mia) Jackson, began their married life in Ghazipur,1 the East India Company outstation then some three days’ journey by one of the new steam ships up river from Calcutta, to which he had been posted.

1. Locations associated with Julia’s British and French ancestors are plotted here on J. B. Tassin’s map (published 1835). Land controlled by the British is in pink. Pondicherry in 1835, although in the pink region, was under French rule and remained a French settlement until 1954.

Ghazipur was an important town, the administrative headquarters of the area. In many ways it was an idyllic, romantic place, on the shores of the Ganges with many Mughal buildings, and surrounded by gardens full of the roses used in its famous perfume factories. Also extensively grown there were fields of opium poppies. The EIC controlled the manufacture, sale, and distribution of opium, and for some of the time he was there John Jackson, as well as being a doctor, was Opium Examiner at their huge Factory.2

2. A view of Ghazipur 1804 from an aquatint drawn and engraved by James Moffat.

By a remarkable piece of serendipity, Ghazipur was also the place where Mia’s French grandfather was then living, and probably the first time that they had met. Ambroise-Pierre Antoine, more usually known in family stories as the Chevalier de L’Étang, was the most exuberant and flamboyant of all of Julia’s ancestors. Julia was born just too late to know this great grandfather, but he had a profound influence on her. Her genetic inheritance from him was the high cheek bones, aquiline nose, Cupid’s bow mouth, and deep-hooded eyes which formed her celebrated beauty. She also inherited a wealth of fascinating stories and legends about him which she passed down through the family.

3. Left: Ambroise-Pierre Antoine de L’Étang c.1814. 4. Right: Julia Jackson 1864/5.

Stories of Julia’s great-grandfather – the Chevalier de L’Étang3

Julia’s great-grandfather was a larger-than-life character, whose story reads like an often improbable fiction. He was constantly reinventing himself, changing his name and identity, and fabricating versions of his back story. His descendants continued the process of myth making. He was born Ambroise-Pierre Antoine, in Versailles, France, on 20 July 1757. His father was the Chevalier Ambroise Antoine, cavalry officer, ‘equerry, gentleman servant of the Dauphine, porte-arquebuse [gun bearer] to the King and chief overseer of hunting to His Majesty’.4 His mother was Jeanne Barbier, lady of the bedchamber to the Dauphine’s children. They were married in Versailles on 2 July 1753. 

5. Versailles showing the semi-circular stables in the background c.1755. Etching and engraving by Jean-Baptiste Rigaud.
6. Garde du Corps – the King’s bodyguards –
during the reign of Louis XVI

Family stories assert that the Chevalier was a page at the court of Marie Antoinette. The Antoine family had long been in the employ of the French monarchs, and, given his parents’ positions at court, it is just possible that the Chevalier was one of the young teenagers who were appointed annually as pages to Marie Antoinette when she was Dauphine. However, this was an honorary position awarded to those of noble family and although the Chevalier’s grandfather François Antoine had been ennobled in 1723,5 his father had not. Nor does his name appear in any of the lists of pages. So though he was living with his parents at Versailles, it is unlikely that he had any formal position at court as a child.6 He did follow his father into the Cavalry. In 1774, the year that King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were crowned, the 17-year-old Chevalier was appointed to the King’s Bodyguards as a Cavalry Lieutenant.7 The Bodyguards were an élite corps engaged in ceremonial rather than military duties, like today’s Household Cavalry. He would have looked a very dashing, romantic figure.

Paris was then a city of opulence and spectacle. The Chevalier would have ridden in procession with King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in the Tuileries Gardens or the Bois de Boulogne.8 He would have attended them at the new Opera House and would have been at the rapturous celebrations for the eagerly awaited birth of the Dauphin in 1781. Balls and festivities went on throughout the following spring. One witness, Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, wrote that,

7. Eliza de Feuillide

The Court of France is at all times brilliant, but on this occasion the magnificence was beyond conception. […] Eight thousand lights disposed in the most beautiful forms shewed to advantage the richest & most elegant dresses, the most beautiful women, & the noblest Assembly perhaps anywhere to be beheld; nothing but gold silver & diamonds & jewels of all kinds were to be seen on every side.9

Paris was also a place of technological advances. The Chevalier would no doubt have witnessed the first demonstration of the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air balloon for the King and Queen at Versailles, in September 1783. 

8-9. The Montgolfier brothers’ balloon at Versailles, 1783, and the title page of a 1783 book describing the event and the science behind making the flight a success. The image of the event appeared (uncoloured) opposite the title page of the book.

So it is very surprising that in 1784, ten years after his appointment, the Chevalier suddenly resigned from this glamorous, prestigious position at the centre of the splendours and modernity of Paris, joined the Pondicherry Regiment, and headed for Pondicherry, a French enclave on the Coromandel Coast of India. Julia Stephen’s great-grandfather, the Chevalier, arrived in India early in 1785, the same year her grandfather, the Free Mariner George Jackson, was leaving India for China on the Princess Royal

Leaving Paris – stories of the Chevalier and Marie Antoinette

It is unclear whether the Chevalier was forced, or felt it expedient, to make such a life-changing move. His status was slowly progressing. Letters patent granting him the title of Marquis had been drawn up but were never signed by the King, suggesting that the Chevalier was no longer in favour.10 Keeping up appearances in the King’s Bodyguards was an expensive business. His family would have had to buy his commission but might not have been able or willing to continue supplementing his inadequate pay for years after. The court was rife with intrigues, gossip and rivalry; over 5000 under-employed courtiers and servants jealously guarded their positions and assiduously plotted to gain preferment and a more lucrative post. 

10. Marie Antoinette in Court Dress by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1778.

Versailles was a showcase of conspicuous consumption. Marie Antoinette set the court fashion for huge powdered wigs, voluminous silks and heavy ornate jewels. She bought vast quantities of the finest and most expensive clothes, furnishings, porcelain and paintings in Europe. Time at Versailles was filled with banquets, masked balls, amateur dramatics and gambling. Many at court got hopelessly into debt or into quarrels, and the Guards officers were notoriously boisterous and unruly.11 Their behaviour was so bad that the Queen eventually sent many of them away for having adopted ‘an indecently familiar tone towards her, which the decline of all etiquette seems to permit. She wishes to allow into her company only reasonable and decent men, if there are any.’12

It may have been that the Chevalier was banished for some indiscretion or bad behaviour; or he may have chosen to distance himself from France because of debt or dishonour. However, the story which took firm hold in the imaginations of Julia and her sisters, and was passed on through the generations, was, as his descendant Virginia Woolf romantically recounted, that ‘Marie Antoinette loved my ancestor, hence he was exiled.’13

Julia’s nephew, Herbert Fisher was just one of the story-telling descendants who continued fabricating and perpetuating the mystique and romance of the Chevalier. According to him, the ‘family story was as follows’:

At the court of Marie Antoinette was a very handsome, tall, and dashing page, Antoine de l’Étang, a fine horseman, a lavish spender, and distinguished throughout his life for a certain stately elaboration of manner which was no doubt a specific product of Versailles. Whether the queen became too fond of the young gentleman, or whether the young gentleman was too attentive to the Queen we do not know. It is sufficient that rumour connected their names and that it was convenient to ship the young Chevalier to Pondicherry.14

Inventing a new backstory

Where did all these increasingly erroneous, but very tenacious, stories stem from? Leslie Stephen’s brief account was apparently accepted by many: 

[The] Chevalier de l’Etang, who is said to have been a friend of Marie Antoinette, emigrated at the Revolution and somehow drifted to India.15

However the Chevalier had not emigrated, nor ‘drifted’, to India but had embarked from France with his regiment in 1784, five years before the Revolution. 

In Pondicherry, he became an officer in a sepoy regiment,16 very different from his previous role and image. Newly arrived in India, he needed to reinvent himself and draw attention away from any skeletons in his cupboard. I think it probable that, at this time, the Chevalier himself deliberately fabricated stories of his closeness to the French Court. There were many advantages in creating a romantic back story to puff up his status and image in his new country and new life. He could easily have told plausible-sounding stories of his liaisons with Marie Antoinette, who had become the focus of increasingly scurrilous and outrageous allegations about her sexual behaviour and her affairs with young courtiers. These stories then took on a creative life of their own. In 1925 they were published in an article, ‘The Chevalier de l’Étang: A Romantic Figure of Old France’, in The Connoisseur magazine, based on an interview with his great-great-grandson James Prinsep Beadle.17  The image of the Chevalier as ‘An extravagant man of superb manner, tall and handsome and a splendid horseman’ derive from this article as do many later retellings. 

11. The Connoisseur’ article published in 1925 was illustrated by this striking miniature of the Chevalier by J. Gillis.

Despite the ‘facts’ in numerous versions, there is no evidence that the Chevalier ‘displayed extraordinary devotion’ to the ‘unfortunate Queen’, as is coyly asserted in the article, nor indeed, in her overcrowded court, any evidence that she ever actually knew him personally. The rest of the Marie Antoinette story as embellished and passed down through the family cannot be true. He had not, as Virginia Woolf claimed, been ‘one of Marie Antoinette’s pages, who had been with the Queen in prison till her death, and was only saved by his own youth from the guillotine’. By the time Marie Antoinette was taken from the Temple Prison to her death in 1793, the Chevalier was no longer a youth, but a 36-year-old-married man with four children, who had been living in India for eight years.18

Life in Pondicherry

12. Vue des magasins de la Compagnie des Indes à Pondichéry. de l’amirauté et de la maison du gouverneur.
(The French East India Company stores, admiralty and governor’s house at Pondicherry.) Artist unknown.
13. In 1674 the French East India Company set up a trading centre at Pondicherry. The Dutch captured Pondicherry in1693 and developed the town in a grid pattern before handing it back to the French in 1699. During Anglo-French wars 1742-1763 Pondicherry changed hands frequently. The British took control of Pondicherry again in 1793 returning it to France in 1814. It remained a French settlement in India until 1954. The plan dates from c1768.

In Pondicherry the Chevalier had settled energetically into the turbulent life of French India and his command in the sepoy regiment.19 His annual military appraisals, beginning in March 1786, record his intelligence, good behaviour, progress in ‘Moorish’, and leadership qualities; he was of ‘exemplary merit and distinction’.20 When he arrived, Pondicherry had only just been returned to the French by the English at the end of hostilities, and administrative changes were being ordered from the government in Paris, which were not to the liking of the local population. Six new Governors were appointed in five years. The Chevalier took advantage of this turmoil to make a way for himself in both civilian and military affairs, becoming a man of some importance and influence, appointed Secretary and then President of the Colonial Assembly. One of his colleagues was Vinditien Guillain Marie Blin de Grincourt, then the Naval Inspector and a leader in the civilian administration. 

14. Pondicherry (French Pondichéry, now Puducherry) is renowned for its French architecture. The Cathédrale de l’Immaculée- Conception de Pondichéry (The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception), was completed in 1791 following the razing to the ground of the previous church on that site by the British in 1761.

Julia’s great-grandmother – the fascinating Thérèse Josèphe Blin de Grincourt

It also seems to be from his early years in India that, as part of his reinvention, the Chevalier added ‘de L’Étang’ (from L’Étang)21 to his name, suggesting a nobility which he did not have. This seems to have been a family trait. His grandfather added ‘de Saint-Pons’ to his name and his uncle ‘de Beauterne’.22 When he married Vinditien’s 19-year-old daughter, Thérèse Josèphe Blin de Grincourt, in the church of Notre Dame des Anges on 1 March 1788, his name is given as Messire Ambroise Pierre Antoine, dit de L’Étang [called de L’Étang], natif de la paroisse Saint-Louis de Versailles [native of the parish of Saint-Louis of Versailles].23 Vinditien Blin de Grincourt had been born in Arras, France, but his daughter, Thérèse, had, like her mother, been born and brought up in Pondicherry, so could not have been ‘one of the Queen’s ladies’ with whom he was exiled to India, as in Virginia Woolf’s story.24

15-17. The Chevalier, Thérèse in old age (drawn by GF Watts) and her great grandfather Abraham Guerre (1695-1736), showing their remarkably similar features.

Thérèse did however have a colourful background, with French, Swiss and Bengali ancestry. Thérèse too bequeathed Julia genes which created her famous beauty – the same deep-hooded eyes, aquiline nose and Cupid’s bow mouth as the Chevalier. Such semblances lead me to speculate that Thérèse and the Chevalier might in fact be distantly related, and if so he would have found a ready welcome when he arrived in Pondicherry.25 The facial characteristics are even more strikingly similar in an image of Thérèse’s great-grandfather, the Swiss-born Abraham Guerre, who married Marie Brunet, the mixed-race daughter of a Frenchman, Claude Brunet, and a Bengali Hindu woman, Marie Monique.26 There are suggestions that the famously lustrous hair and dark eyes of Thérèse’s daughters and their descendants have ‘a quality of Oriental beauty’, bequeathed by Marie Monique.27

The Chevalier and Thérèse settled into family life. Pondicherry was a charming place with many parks and vineyards.28 Thérèse’s father was influential in the community. Her mother was dead but she had many siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins to support her. Their first child Vinditien was baptised on 26 May 1789, but seems to have died in infancy as there are no further records. Their second, Julie Adéline Antoinette, was born in 1791. It is significant that the Chevalier called his daughter after the Queen, though possibly not surprising as a way of expressing his monarchist sympathies as news of the 1789 Revolution and its aftermath was causing consternation when it reached French India. Their son Ambroise was born in 1792 and their daughter Adéline Maria in 1793.

Another twist of fate – life in British India

The Chevalier’s great-great-grandson, Herbert Fisher, rightly described him as ‘that elastic adaptable kind of Frenchman who finds his feet anywhere.’29 Leaving France seems to have been a very low point in his fortunes, but by leaving when he did he avoided the fate of many of the King’s Bodyguards who were killed by the mob attacking the Palace of Versailles at the beginning of the Revolution. Now, however, having made a success of life in Pondicherry fate dealt him another blow. War again broke out between England and France. In 1793, the same year that King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette were sent to the guillotine, English forces took Pondicherry and the Chevalier was captured. 

The Chevalier’s elasticity and resourcefulness are apparent. He re-invented himself yet again and, as in Herbert Fisher’s story, ‘survived, an adventurer, turning defeat into opportunity, so that when the French cause was broken in India he made friends with the conquerors.’30 His supposed closeness to Marie Antoinette would have appealed to many of the pro-Royalist English Officers. 

It is also from this time that a story of his gallantry and heroism emerges, passed down by his great-great-grandson, Sir William Dalrymple-Champneys Bt:

It was early in these operations that a Colonel Maxwell, when reconnoitring with one sepoy in attendance, was surprised by the Chevalier, who with superior force might easily have captured him, but fearing what might happen to the Colonel if taken prisoner to Pondicherry and exposed to the democratic mob, he called out to him in English to gallop away as fast as he could, and then by an artifice prevented his men from making a successful pursuit. Maxwell, on regaining his formation, reported his experience to Colonel Floyd, who, by questioning their prisoners, discovered the identity of the French officer to whom Maxwell owed his escape.31

In return, when the Chevalier was captured by the English, it is said, Maxwell helped him to avoid imprisonment and instead be paroled to the nearby English enclave of Madras. Whether or not the Chevalier had saved Maxwell, it would be the norm for officers to be treated as gentlemen who could be relied upon not to break their oath and escape if allowed out of prison on parole. But he was planning to make his future with the British, who at this time in India were much more successful and powerful than the French. An account of such heroism and gallantry makes a better story to tell your new friends and your family than one of changing sides to join the enemy. Such a defection was not unusual at the time. The concept of nationality was much more fluid then, and after France’s defeat a number of French officers ‘were roaming about the Subcontinent looking for employment’.32 Even Napoleon apparently told his brother in 1795 that ‘he was thinking of joining the Company’s [the British East India Company’s] army so that he could “Return in a few years a rich nabob, bringing some handsome dowries for my three sisters”.’ 33

18. Coloured etching by an anonymous artist of a trellis arcade supporting a vine in the Governor’s Garden at Pondicherry c.1790.

However, it seems probable that the Chevalier remained, at least for most of the time, not in Madras but in Pondicherry, where for the population life went on much as usual, though under English occupation. He and Thérèse had another daughter, Virginie, in 1795.

The Practise of Farriery by Antoine de Letang

Also in 1795, and as part of his reinvention and change of allegiance, the Chevalier promoted himself as an authority on horses and published The Practise of Farriery under the name of Antoine de Letang, Captain of Cavalry. He seems to have continued to use this form of his name leading to the understandable misconception that Antoine was his first name, not his surname. On a later record his initial is given as A and his Family Name as DeLetang.34 The Practise of Farriery is a wide-ranging very practical manual on looking after horses, geared to conditions in India. He begins his Introduction: 

19. The Practise of Farriery – title page.

Having paid no inconsiderable share of attention to the diseases of Horses in Europe; having devoted much time during a ten years residence in India towards the prosecution of my enquiries on so interesting a subject, and having combined a studious examination of many publications on farriery with an infinity of practical observations, I have ventured to meet the wishes of my friends, and to hope that by publishing the result, it may prove of general utility.35

India at this time was just the place for an experienced horseman such as the Chevalier. Good horses were always highly prized and in short supply. They were needed for the cavalry and for the transport of people and of goods, as well as for popular sports such as gymkhanas, polo and horse racing. His undoubted equestrian and veterinary skills, along with his energy, initiative and charisma, ensured his success in building a new life with the British. The Chevalier moved to the headquarters of the British East India Company, Calcutta, in 1796, and never again went to France or to French areas of India. In Calcutta he bought and sold horses and opened a riding school on the corner of Chowringhee Road, very close to the house where Julia would later be born. 

20. Mr A De Letang’s Repository in Calcutta. Artist unknown.

What is remarkable is that although the book was published in Pondicherry these ‘friends’ were not French. He wrote in English, possibly with some help with translation, for an English market. His ingenuity and bravado are apparent. He had persuaded 216 ‘Subscribers of the Coast of Coromandel’ to finance his publication. Their predominantly English names are listed in alphabetical order at the end of the volume, with full details of any regiments and ranks. As a final flourish he dedicated it to Major General Floyde, Lieutenant Colonel of his Majesty’s Nineteenth Regiment of Dragoons, the man who was in command of the English forces which had just conquered the French in Pondicherry.36

A French education

21. Henriette Campan (Madame Campan)
by Joseph Boze

Life for Julia’s great-grandmother, Thérèse de L’Étang, in an English community, where she could not even speak the language confidently, must have been difficult. She retained her French roots and identity. She followed the custom of sending children ‘home’ to avoid the health dangers of India, and though she had apparently never been there; ‘home’ for her was Paris. In 1799 she left seven-year-old Ambroise with his father and took her daughters Julie, then eight, Adéline, six and Virginie, four, for a French education. They lived in a house belonging to the Chevalier at 20, Rue de Provence. It is probable that the girls attended the prestigious boarding school run by Madame Campan, which that year was ‘literally besieged by would-be pupils, coming from all quarters of the globe, even from Martinique and Calcuta.’37

While the girls remained in Paris, Thérèse returned to India where the Chevalier was now working in Palta near the administrative capital Barrakpore. It was here that their last child Eugène was born in May 1803. 

By 1805 they were back in Calcutta. The Chevalier’s business ventures were thriving and he now owned an auction house and stables for horses near the crowded Bazaar on Dhurrumtollah Street, often advertising in the Calcutta Gazette

Some of Thérèse’s family also joined them. The Chevalier and his brother-in-law, Alexander Blin, had a lucky escape, as reported in the Asiatic Review for November 1807.38 Their phaeton was overturned by bullocks and they were nearly drowned in a ‘tank’, one of the large reservoirs in Calcutta.

22. Inset: Advert in the Calcutta Gazette for the Chevalier’s horse trading and hire business; 23. Saadat Ali Khan. Artist unknown.

The Chevalier’s and Thérèse’s lives were increasingly peripatetic and increasingly diverging. While she and their daughters were drawn to the cultured, elegant life of Paris; their sons followed the Chevalier into an adventurous life with the British East India Company, its army and horses. He became veterinary surgeon for the horses of the Governor General’s Bodyguard, and later Director of a number of the EIC Studs throughout Bengal. His skill also brought him to the attention of Saadat Ali Khan, when he was living in exile in Calcutta, before succeeding to the throne as the Nawab of Oudh in 1798. In 1809, while Thérèse returned to Paris, the Chevalier began a very colourful part of his career, as the Nawab’s veterinary surgeon and Superintendent of the Stud at his capital, Lucknow. He left Ambroise to look after the business in Calcutta.

Life in Lucknow – fable and fantasy

The Nawab’s extraordinarily cosmopolitan court at Lucknow was then a place of extravagant luxury, hedonism, fantasy and spectacle, surpassing anything the Chevalier would have seen at Versailles. But he must have felt somewhat at home. It was claimed that the

sun playing on the gilt domes and spires, the exceeding richness of the vegetation and forests and gardens remind one somewhat of the view of the Bois de Boulogne from the hill over St. Cloud.39

24. A Procession of Ghazi ud-Din Haider through Lucknow c. 1820 – 1825, artist unknown.

The Chevalier was just one of many Frenchmen who made Lucknow their home. By the time he arrived, the most flamboyant of them had either left or died, but stories of their exploits reveal that the Chevalier was not alone in his adventurous travels, changes of identity, and flexibility. Their life styles show the fabulous world he was now moving into. 

Claude Martin,40 originally from a poor background in Lyon, had an eventful early career in the French East India Company. He was in Pondicherry when it was besieged by the British in 1760 and, like the Chevalier some 33 years later, had changed sides and joined the British East India Company, working his way up to be Major General. By the later 1770s he was, like the Chevalier subsequently, working for both the EIC and the Nawab, in Martin’s case as Superintendent of the Arsenal in Lucknow. There he amassed an enormous fortune, was famed for the firework displays he organised, and created an amazing home for himself, the Château de Lyon, nostalgically named for his birthplace. His architecture, like his lifestyle, was a fusion of the Oriental and European. He was a man of the Enlightenment, a scholar and linguist who collected a library of over 4,000 volumes and corresponded with members of the Lunar Society in England. He imported steam engines from Boulton and Watt in Birmingham, pottery from Wedgewood and telescopes for his grand observatory from William Herschel.41 Yet he also had a harem with at least eight bibis. Mixed marriages or liaisons were common and openly acknowledged in Lucknow.

25. Château de Lyon built by Claude Martin [1735-1800], built so that water could drift into the lower floors to cool the building. After Martin’s death the Nawab Saadat Ali Khan bought the villa and developed it into the palace known as Farhat Baksh.

Another fabulously rich patron of the arts was Martin’s Swiss friend Colonel Antoine-Louis de Polier, an engineer and spy, working for the EIC and also for the Nawab of Faizabad. He had two Indian wives, whom he left when he returned to France, taking only one of his sons.42

26. Colonel Polier (1741-1795) and his friends (Claude Martin and John Wombwell and the artist) by Johann Zoffany. Claude Martin is pointing at a painting of the Château de Lyon.

Major William Palmer, the official EIC resident at the Nawab’s Court, married as his second wife, Fyze Baksh, and had six children with her.43 Another friend, General Benoît de Boigne an adventurer from Savoy, married Fyze’s sister Nur. He, like the Chevalier, had changed his name to appear more aristocratic, from Leborgne to de Boigne.44

Many Europeans in Lucknow adopted the Muslim form of dress, lounged on cushions and smoked hookas. Conversely, the Nawab, and many of his court, often adopted European dress and pursuits. He spoke and wrote in English, had French chefs, an Irish piper to pipe in the meals, and a band dressed in English regimental uniforms. Money was poured into ornate buildings, gardens and parks, in both classical Greek and ornate Mughal styles. There were Danish, Dutch and English garden designers. English and Swiss engineers built hydraulic systems to power fountains and waterfalls, and steam-driven pleasure boats in the shape of fish. The Nawab was passionately fond of horses and was painted in English riding costume on a white horse. He hunted with fox hounds, though the quarry were jackals and not foxes, and built huge modern stables for his horses and elephants, and menageries for exotic animals. 

27. The Dilkusha Palace built by Nawab Sadat Ali Khan c1805, Dilkusha served as a country house/hunting lodge within a vast deer park on the outskirts of nawabi Lucknow. The building was designed by the Nawab’s aide-de-camp Major Gore Ouseley and based on the plan of Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland, England.

The Chevalier, with a large work force under him, was in charge of appointing stable hands, buying, selling and breaking in horses, training carriage horses, and buying medicines. He supervised the construction of a European style race track and was in charge of training and equipping the African slave boys who were the jockeys. However, though the Nawab was fabulously wealthy he was often reluctant to pay salaries in full, or on time. The Chevalier, like many other employees, ended up funding necessary purchases. Then the Nawab, notoriously fickle and volatile, took a dislike to some of his methods for treating the horses, which he thought were outdated. After a bitter exchange of letters between the two men, the Chevalier was dismissed just over a year after his arrival, and returned to Calcutta.45

Creating a stir in Calcutta – French chic

Also returning in 1810 were Thérèse and their now grown-up daughters, Julie and Adéline. The youngest, Virginie, remained in Paris to complete her education. Strikingly beautiful, chic, and dressed in the latest French fashions, Julie and Adéline were very well prepared to create a stir in Calcutta society and to make glittering marriages. Madame Campan’s, and other similar schools and tutors, provided their pupils with ‘a refined education which befitted them to become good wives and mothers’. As well as mathematics, history and geography, Julie and Adéline would have had lessons in dancing, music, singing and painting by the best teachers available. Social skills, especially the art of conversation, were highly regarded. Marks were also awarded for memory, elocution, order, punctuality and cleanliness; and altruism and charity work were encouraged.46 All were desirable accomplishments which the girls had learnt well and which were passed down to their daughters and grand-daughters, including Julia.

28. Sir Elijah Impey and family, Calcutta, 1783, by Johann Zoffany.

It was a mark of the success of the Chevalier’s change of loyalty, and of his acceptance by English society in Calcutta, that his daughters made spectacularly ‘good’ marriages to English men of very influential families, high ranking in the EIC. While still keeping their French roots the girls gradually became integrated into English society. Their names were anglicised, so that Julie, Adéline and Virginie became Julia, Adeline and Virginia, family names which are still popular. On 18 February 1811 Adeline married James Pattle, a high flying civil servant, in Bhaugulpore. The story of these grandparents of Julia Stephen’s is for the next chapter. Two-and-a-half years later, on 31 October 1813, Julia de L’Étang married Edward Impey, a magistrate and judge, in the church at Fort William, Calcutta. Julia Stephen’s great-aunt and namesake was marrying into one of the richest, most influential families in India. Edward’s father, Sir Elijah Impey, had been the Lord Chief Justice of Calcutta and a close friend of the Governor General, Warren Hastings. None of Edward’s or Julia’s parents were at their wedding. Edward’s father was dead by this time and his mother in England. Thérèse had returned to France on the Sovereign in January that year. The Chevalier had possibly already returned to Lucknow, as James Pattle stood in for him as one of the witnesses. 

The Impey family at home in Calcutta

29. Lady Mary Impey supervising her household by Shaikh Zain ud-Din. 30. Bottom: The Impey children in their Nursery by Shaikh Zain ud-Din.

Sir Elijah Impey and his wife, Mary, were part of an enlightened, cultural circle including Claude Martin, with whom Elijah Impey stayed in Lucknow in 1781-82.47 The Impeys had retired to England in 1783 but had lived in great splendour when they were in Calcutta. They were generous hosts, pillars of the establishment, and patrons of the arts. Mary Impey turned much of the parkland surrounding their grand house into a menagerie, aviary and gardens for, what to her were, exotic animals, birds, and plants, which she then commissioned local artists to paint. The Impeys’ albums are now considered ‘among the most dazzlingly successful of all such commissions’ and ‘among the very greatest glories of Indian painting’.48

31. Left: Grey Heron by Ram Das. 32. Right; Brahminy Starling with Two Antheraea Moths, Caterpillar, and
Cocoon on an Indian Jujube Tree by Shaikh Zain ud-Din.

The Cross of the Order of St Louis

After the death of Saadat Ali Khan the Chevalier was reinstated to his post in Lucknow, apparently with great success. The Governor-General of India, Marquess Hastings, on a visit there in 1814, recorded that, the Chevalier was a ‘man of exemplary character and most polished manners’.49 He was no doubt one of the guests, along with the Nawab, when, in honour of the peace with France, Marquess Hastings gave a grand dinner, ball and firework display.50

33. The Chevalier in the miniature by Gillis and (inset) the Cross of the Order of St Louis.

Also in October 1814, he was finally awarded the Cross of the Order of St Louis, for which he had originally applied 22 years earlier. This distinguished medal is prominently displayed in the Gillis miniature, and featured in an article in The Connoisseur.51 He could now accurately call himself Chevalier. Thérèse returned to India in 1819, this time bringing her daughter Virginia. Also with them were James and Adeline Pattle and their children, returning from a holiday in Paris. Captain of their ship, the William Miles, was the highly successful merchant, EIC employee, ship’s commander, and widower, Samuel Beadle, to whom Virginia was married on 1 January 1822, in Calcutta.52

Again Thérèse missed her daughter’s wedding, having already returned to France in 1820, this time leaving India and the Chevalier for good. She took her son Eugène for his only visit to Paris, but he returned early the following year to make his life with his father, serving with the EIC army and working with horses. Sadly while he was away his brother Ambroise died, aged only 28, near Kutch, on the west coast of India far from Calcutta. Eugène also died young, and also unmarried, in November 1829, aged 26, at Buxar. 

Family reunions – John and Mia Jackson and the Chevalier in Ghazipur

In 1833 the Chevalier was given his final posting, to be Director of the Stud at Ghazipur. This was probably a sinecure, due to his friendship with Lord William Bentinck, for the Chevalier was by this time 76. He was visited by his youngest daughter, Virginia Beadle, newly bereaved. Virginia had been staying in Paris with her mother, Thérèse, for the birth of her third child, Adeline Julia Beadle, in November 1833. Her happiness was dashed when she received news that her husband Samuel, and her step-son, also Samuel, had drowned when his ship, the Mercury, was wrecked in October on the journey from Calcutta to Australia. Virginia sailed back to India the following year, but again tragedy struck when baby Adeline died on the voyage. The grieving young widow went to Ghazipur to stay with her father, before living for about three years in Calcutta. Virginia returned to England for the rest of her life, but her two sons both made their lives in India in the East India Company army. 

Happier times were to begin for the Chevalier. In 1837 his newly married grand-daughter Mia and her husband Dr John Jackson arrived to live in Ghazipur. In November their first child Adeline Maria was born there and baptised at St John’s Church the following April. The Chevalier was not named as a sponsor, possibly because of his age, but must have been part of the family celebrations. Adeline’s health was worryingly precarious for a while but, thankfully, she survived. In September 1838 Mia and John Jackson’s second child, George Corrie Jackson, was born, and also baptised at St John’s church the following month. He was named for his grandfather George Jackson, Free Mariner, and for George and Daniel Corrie, in recognition of all their support for John Jackson.

So the Chevalier would have had his grand-daughter and her husband, and two great-grandchildren, about him in the last few years of his life. He was also visited in July 1840 by Colin Mackenzie, the widower of his granddaughter Adeline, who was en-route for his posting in Afghanistan. The Chevalier impressed him, on what was their first meeting, as ‘an excellent specimen of a French gentleman of the old school, who received him with affectionate empressement (attentiveness)’.53

John and Mia Jackson were posted back to Calcutta just before the Chevalier’s death on 11 December 1840, aged 83, ‘beloved, respected and lamented by all who knew him’.54 He is recorded on a memorial in the church in Ghazipur as Chevalier Antoine de L’Étang, Knight of St Louis. The name of his son, Lieutenant Eugène de L’Étang 1st European Regiment, has been added. They are buried together in Buxar. 

The Chevalier, according to family story, was buried with a miniature of Marie Antoinette, which she had given him, laid over his heart.55 It makes a very romantic story but is almost certainly entirely mythical.

Julia’s great-grandparents – French connections

So Julia never knew this colourful great-grandfather, but she did know her equally colourful and resilient great-grandmother, Thérèse, who lived in Paris until 5 January 1866. Aged 97, she had outlived her husband and all but one of her children. From these great-grandparents Julia inherited her spectacular beauty, her cosmopolitan outlook, her social skills and her French accent. She named her second son Gerald de L’Etang Duckworth. She passed down to her children stories of their French ancestors, a beautifully carved wooden desk supposedly given to the Chevalier by Marie Antoinette, and jewellery from Thérèse. Virginia Woolf wrote of her 

34. Julia’s grandmother, the very chic Adéline de L’Étang.

diamond and ruby ring [which] was supposed to be priceless, and originally belonged to our great-greatgrandmother, the Frenchwoman whose portrait Nessa [Vanessa Bell] wears in her locket. […] She was a rich old Lady, and most of our things apparently descend from her, and are old French.56

Virginia Woolf even wove stories of these French forebears into her novels, perpetuating the myths. Mrs Dalloway’s friend Sally remembers that ‘she had it still, a ruby ring which Marie Antoinette had given her great-grandfather’.57 Julia was even more influenced by her grandmother, the very beautiful, chic, Adéline de L’Étang, who married James Pattle. They were the source of many more amazing stories passed down to Julia and retold by her; and they founded what came to be called Pattledom, which shaped Julia’s childhood and influenced her whole life. 

From: A Vision of Beauty: A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Marion Dell. © CC BY-NC-SA unless otherwise stated; image copyrights are listed in the credits and they are not licensed for re-use.


I am very grateful to John Beaumont for helping me at the beginning of my research, by answering many questions on the Chevalier de L’Étang and his family and sending me copies of his exhaustive research, ‘Thackeray in Pattledom’, still unpublished and lodged at Dimbola, the Julia Margaret House Museum at Freshwater, Isle of Wight. I am indebted to staff at the British Library for helping me locate the Chevalier’s book, The Practise of Farriery and for permission to reproduce the title page. 

Picture credits

  1. Excerpt from J. B. Tassin’s map of India published in a Calcutta School Atlas in 1835. https://www.raremaps.com/gallery/detail/70574/first-atlas-published-in-india-school-atlas-tassin (accessed 25/03/21).
  2. A view of Ghazipur 1804. © The British Library Board. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019pzz000003108u00000000.html (accessed 25/03/21).
  3. Ambroise-Pierre Antoine de L’Étang c.1814. Family possession.
  4. Julia Jackson 1864/5 by Julia Margaret Cameron. Art Institute of Chicago 1970.838 https://www.artic.edu/artworks/34837/julia-jackson (accessed 25/03/21).
  5. Vue des Ecuries de Versailles Prise de la Seconde Grille by Jean-Baptiste Rigaud. National Gallery of Art, USA.  Rosenwald Collection 1946.11.162. Open Access Image. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.33172.html (accessed 26/03/21).
  6. Garde du Corps (1786). https://geheugen.delpher.nl/en/geheugen/view?coll=ngvn&identifier=LEMU01%3A00112083-118 (accessed 25/03/21).
  7. Eliza de Feuillide. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliza_de_Feuillide (accessed 25/03/21).
  8. The Montgolfier brothers’ balloon at Versailles, 1783. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/Montgolfière.jpg (accessed 26/03/21).
  9. Description des expériences de la machine aérostatitique, 1783-1784. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Faujas,_Montgolfier_-_Description_des_expériences_de_la_machine_aérostatitique,_1783-1784.png (accessed 26/03/21).
  10. Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, 1778. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marie_Antoinette_Adult.jpg (accessed 26/03/21).
  11. The Chevalier. The Connoisseur, Vol. LXXII
  12. Vue des magasins de la Compagnie des Indes à Pondichéry. de l’amirauté et de la maison du gouverneur. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Magasins_de_la_Compagnie_des_Indes_à_Pondichéry.jpg (accessed 26/03/21).
  13. Map of Pondicherry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Pondicherry_(1778) (accessed 26/03/21).
  14. The Cathédrale de l’Immaculée-Conception de Pondichéry. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Puducherry_Immaculate_Conception_Cathedral_2.jpg  (accessed 26/03/21).
  15. Ambroise-Pierre Antoine de L’Étang c.1814. Family possession.
  16. Thérèse in old age. © Watts Gallery Trust.
  17. Abraham Guerre. Private collection.
  18. Coloured etching by an anonymous artist of a trellis arcade supporting a vine …  c.1790. © The British Library http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019pzz000002260u00000000.html (accessed 28/03/21).
  19. The Practise of Farriery. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
  20. Mr A. De Letang’s Repository in Calcutta. © The Trustees of the British Museum licensed for use (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/1613615650 (accessed 25/03/2021).
  21. Henriette Campan (1786). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henriette_Campan (accessed 26/03/21).
  22. Advert in Calcutta Gazette. British Library.
  23. Saadat Ali Khan II. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saadat_Ali_Khan_II (accessed 26/03/21).
  24. A Procession of Ghazi uk-Din Haider through Lucknow ca. 1820-1825. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O59373/a-procession-of-ghazi-ud-painting-unknown/ (accessed 26/03/21).
  25. Château de Lyon. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routesdata/1700_1799/claudemartin/claudemartin.html (accessed 26/03/21).
  26. Colonel Polier and Friends. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PolierMartinWombwellZoffany.jpg (accessed 26/03/21).
  27. The Dilkusha Palace. British Library Public Domain. https://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/2018/11/refashioning-the-dilkusha-palace-lucknow.html (accessed 26/03/21).
  28. The Impey family. © Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid https://www.museothyssen.org/en/collection/artists/zoffany-johann/group-portrait-sir-elijah-and-lady-impey (accessed 26/03/21).
  29. Lady Mary Impey supervising her household. Private collection. This image featured in the Wallace Collection exhibition ‘Forgotten Masters’ 3 December 2019 – 13 September 2020 and also in the exhibition catalogue edited by the exhibition guest curator William Dalrymple. https://wallacecollectionshop.org/collections/forgotten-masters-indian-painting-for-the-east-india-company/products/forgotten-masters-exhibition-catalogue (accessed 29/03/21).
  30. The Impey children in their Nursery by Shaikh Zain ud-Din. Private collection. This image featured in the Wallace Collection exhibition ‘Forgotten Masters’ 3 December 2019 – 13 September 2020 and also in the exhibition catalogue edited by the exhibition guest curator William Dalrymple. https://wallacecollectionshop.org/collections/forgotten-masters-indian-painting-for-the-east-india-company/products/forgotten-masters-exhibition-catalogue (accessed 29/03/21).
  31. Grey Heron. Minneapolis Insititute of Art, Public Domain. https://collections.artsmia.org/art/118931/grey-heron-ram-das (accessed 29/03/21).
  32. Brahminy Starling with Two Antheraea Moths, Caterpillar, and Cocoon on an Indian Jujube Tree. Minneapolis Insititute of Art, Public Domain. https://collections.artsmia.org/art/118875/brahminy-starling-with-two-antheraea-moths-sheikh-zain-al-din (accessed 26/03/21).
  33. The Chevalier. The Connoisseur 1925. Inset, The Cross of the Order of St Louis – front and back. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ordre_de_Saint-Louis_GTColl.jpg (accessed 28/03/21).
  34. Adéline de L’Étang. Family possession.


Frequently used abbreviations

(White Mughals) and (Forgotten Masters) – I have made much use of the superb work of William Dalrymple, a descendant Julia’s aunt Sophia Dalrymple, especially White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India (London: Flamingo, 2003) and Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2019).

(E1-4) Andrew Mc Neillie (ed.), The Essays of Virginia Woolf (London, Hogarth Press, 1986-94).

Fibis: Families in British India Society www.fibis/org

(L1-6) Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (eds.), The Letters of Virginia Woolf Volumes 1-6 (London: Hogarth Press, 1975-80)

VWB: the Bulletin of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. www.virginiawoolfsociety.org.uk.

  1. There are many different spellings for this place. I have chosen ‘Ghazipur’ as the most commonly used now.
  2. See Mary Bennett, Who was Dr Jackson? (London: BACSA, 2002)14 n13. Amitav Ghosh gives a vivid representation of Ghazipur and opium production there in the 1830s, from an Indian perspective, in his superb novel, Sea of Poppies (2008). 
  3. There are many different recorded versions of his name, many the result of misunderstanding or clerical error. To avoid confusion I have chosen to call him the Chevalier throughout, though he was not entitled to that title until 1814.
  4. Information from their marriage record. Robert Lessens, ‘Virginia Woolf’s French Ancestors: Legends and Facts’, VWB32, 50.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid. 51.
  7. Robert Lessens, ‘Virginia Woolf’s French Ancestor: New Facts’, VWB33, 33.
  8. For much more on Versailles, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette see en.chateauversailles.fr
  9. Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide (London: The British Library, 2002) 54.
  10. These letters are still in family possession. Sir Weldon Dalrymple-Champneys The Chevalier De L’Etang and His Descendants, unpublished manuscript, British Library x709/14522.
  11. Robert Lessens, VWB32, 54.
  12. Translation from a letter of 5 December 1786, in a volume of Royal Correspondence published by Alphonse de Lescure, quoted Robert Lessens, ibid.
  13. Virginia Woolf, letter to Ethel Smyth, 12 January 1941(L6).
  14. Herbert Fisher, An Unfinished Biography (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1940) 10.
  15. Alan Bell (ed.),Sir Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) 26.
  16. Sepoy regiment – a regiment of Indian soldiers with European officers.
  17. The Connoisseur, Vol. LXXII, July 1925 151. The article is based on an interview with James Prinsep Beadle, who was also the owner of the Gillis miniature of the Chevalier at that time.
  18. There has been dispute about the crucial date of his arrival in India which family stories have put later than 1785. However it was recorded as 1785 in an EIC record, the ‘Register of European Inhabitants in Bengal, excluding those in the East India Company or the crown. 1805’ (Fibis). In The Practise of Farriery published in 1795, the Chevalier said he had been in India for ten years. See Robert Lessens, VWB33, 33-35.
  19. For a detailed account of this period see S.P. Sen, The French in India (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1971) 426-451.
  20. Robert Lessens, VWB33, 34.
  21. L’Étang’ is a village near Versailles where the king frequently hunted.
  22. Robert Lessens, VWB32, 50.
  23. Ibid. 55.
  24. Virginia Woolf, ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ (E4) 376.
  25. So far I have found no genealogical link to support this thesis, but the facial characteristics seem too strong for just co-incidence. They were possibly second cousins.
  26. For full details and discussion of this genealogy see ‘Virginia Woolf’s Bengalese ancestor’ by Jean-Claude Féray, VWB3, 37.
  27. See Brian Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron: A Victorian Family Portrait (London: Peter Owen, 1973) 16.
  28. See Chapter XVI, ‘Pondicherry (1785-1793)’, in S.P. Sen The French in India (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1971) 426-451.
  29. Herbert Fisher, An Unfinished Biography (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1940) 9.
  30. Ibid.
  31. The story is told by Sir William Dalrymple-Champneys, in The Chevalier De L’Etang and His Descendants, unpublished, British Library x709/14522. It is based on an account by Miss Kathleen Blechynden, East and West (London: W. Thacker & Co, 1907). See also John Beaumont, ‘The Chevalier De L’Etang and his Descendants the Pattles’, VWB 7, 55-56.
  32. David Gilmore, The British in India (London: Penguin, Random House, 2019) 50.
  33. Ibid. 52.
  34. Entry from Register of European Inhabitants in Bengal, excluding those in the East India Company or the crown, 1805 (Fibis).
  35. The Practise of Farriery by Antoine de Letang, British Library unpublished manuscript, 7293bb.25.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Violette Montagu, The Celebrated Madame Campan (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1914) 216. It would be very unusual for European families in Calcutta, who were predominantly British, to send their daughters to a French school, so there is a strong probability that these pupils were Julie and Adéline.
  38. British Library Rare Books and Music. 280.i, 15-27.
  39. William Russell, British correspondent of the Times, quoted in William Dalrymple (Forgotten Masters) 9.
  40. For more on Claude Martin see Rosie Llewellyn-Jones A Very Ingenious Man: Claude Martin in Early Colonial India (Delhi: OUP, 1992).
  41. For more on the court at Lucknow see Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, Engaging Scoundrels: True Tales of Old Lucknow (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000) and ‘Painting in Lucknow’ in William Dalrymple, (Forgotten Masters) 26-37 and (White Mughals) 263-79.
  42. Polier retired back to France, taking with him his mixed-race son. He married a French woman and had two more children, but was killed soon after in the aftermath of the Revolution.
  43. See William Dalrymple, (White Mughals) 266-70.
  44. In England Nur attempted to appear European and changed her name to Hélène. Sadly Benoit abandoned her and married a French woman. Hélène spent the end of her life in Horsham, where she was known as ‘the dark lady’. The poet Shelley, who lived nearby, was fascinated by her and the stories told of her. 
  45. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, Engaging Scoundrels (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000) 12-13, 60.
  46. See Violette Montagu, The Celebrated Madame Campan, n38.
  47. William Dalrymple, (Forgotten Masters)14-15.
  48. Ibid. 15. These paintings form the basis for a brilliant exhibition, curated by William Dalrymple, at the Wallace Collection, London, from December 2019 to April 2020. (Forgotten Masters).
  49. Brian Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron: A Victorian Family Portrait (London: Peter Owen, 1973) 20. 
  50. This celebration was held at Constantia, the estate just outside Lucknow which had belonged Claude Martin. A painting of the event by Sita Ram is now in the British Library. See (Forgotten Masters)179.
  51. The Connoisseur, Vol. LXXII 166.
  52. For more on James and Adeline Pattle, Virginia and Samuel Beadle, and the voyages of the William Miles, see Biography Chapter 3.
  53. Helen Mackenzie, Storms and Sunshine of a Soldiers Life Lt General Colin Mackenzie, C.B. 1825-1881. Vol 1. (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1884) n15104.
  54. A notice of death in the Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, 1 February 1841, British Library. 
  55. Sir William Dalrymple-Champney, The Chevalier De L’Etang and His Descendants, British Library x709/14522, 4; and Virginia Woolf, ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ (E4) 376. 
  56. Letter from Virginia Woolf to Violet Dickinson 11 November 1904 (L1). 
  57. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (London: Penguin, 1991) 206.