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Touch Of The Masters

Anyone who has seen the film Girl with a Pearl Earing has a treat in store. The Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum has hung an unmissable exhibition of paintings which would be the envy of the world’s greatest museums. A. Burchard has been to see them. crack

Cheltenham has had many benefactors but some have put the town on the map more than others. Baron Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrières is one of the more exotic ones. The masterpieces on show at the Museum were donated to Cheltenham by Baron de Ferrières. He inherited the baronial title from his father in 1864. The initial family title created by Napoleon himself was Baron du Bois of the French Empire and Baron of the Netherlands. One of the Baron’s sons married a daughter of the French Ferrières family. The King of the Netherlands permitted the family to add the name Ferrières to their title. The Ferrières were French Protestants, also called Huguenots. Baron Charles de Ferrières, whose mother was English, was born in the Netherlands in 1823 but was brought to England as a small boy. He spent 50 years of his life in Cheltenham and became Mayor, as well as MP from 1880 to 1885. He lived in Bays Hill House where George III stayed during his visits to Cheltenham. The Baron could often be seen riding in his carriage, always employing a boy from the Gordon’s Boys Brigade to ride in the box seat. But de Ferrières’ love of England and of Cheltenham in particular lay in his Huguenot family history.

As was the case with many French Protestants the Ferrières family had been driven North from the Languedoc region of Southern France. There was a substantial chateau Ferrières surrounded by hamlets in a five mile radius and today there is still a village bearing that name between Castres and Brassac. The Huguenots believed in education for all and wanted to practice their religion free from the corruption of the Catholic church and its Popes. They questioned the money and wealth-grabbing church and the immorality of the clergy, all of whom were against teaching the population how to read and write. They feared that an educated population would become ungovernable. At the behest of the church the King confiscated the land of the Huguenots. The religious Reformation had turned a third of the population against the Catholic Church. Unable to break their will or to force them to return to the Catholic faith, the church and the state took the final step to kill them. On the 24th of August 1572 Catherine de Medici, mother of the French King is said to have ordered the mass killing of the Huguenots in Paris who had been lured to the city for the wedding of one of her daughters. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre is known as one of the darkest days in European history. In 1572 on this day 70,000 Huguenots were killed in one day and by the end of that week over 100,000 people had been killed in France. The rivers of France were so filled with corpses that for many months no fish were eaten and wolves roamed the countryside feasting on the corpses.

On his father’s sudden death in 1846 Baron Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrières inherited over 100 very fine paintings. Most people would have kept this treasure for themselves. Having no children de Ferrières decided to share his exceptional collection with the people of Cheltenham. He donated £1,000 (£100,000 in today’s terms) towards the building of a gallery. In 1907 this museum-gallery was opened next to the former School of Art and Science. Many of the paintings date back to the 17th century when Dutch painting was at its height. One of these Dutch painters, Gerritt Dou, was Rembrandt’s pupil when aged just 15 and he was just as good as the great master. It shows in his very early miniature self-portrait. His later work can be found in the Uffizi Museum in Florence, in Amsterdam in the Rijksmuseum, in the Louvre in Paris and in the Residenzmuseum in Salzburg, to name but a few.

Another treasure in the Cheltenham collection is a painting by Gabriel Metsu who died in Amsterdam at the age of just 38. His painting in this exhibition from around 1640 depicts a modest serving maid drinking wine with an old man. It tells the story of everyday life and concentrates on the humanity of the model. A painting from 1645 in which Metsu used the same ornamental objects can be found in the prestigious Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

In the current exhibition there are a number of spectacular still-lives of game, fruit and the ever present tulips. Still-lives were often bought by the Dutch middle classes who perhaps could not afford to commission huge family portraits. Still-lives with fruit and flowers were also often used to demonstrated a painters skill. These were not the times for self-expression through painting that we have come to know in the 20th century. Painters were apprenticed for many years and were craftsman first and artists second.

Baron de Ferrières donated two 19th century paintings to one of the greatest museum in the world, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He also disposed of a number of later, but kept the best for Cheltenham. In 1876 he gave two 17th century paintings to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the museum lent the paintings back to Cheltenham when the De Ferrières Gallery was opened by the Princess Royal in 1907, just one year before the Baron’s death.
The paintings were not the only generous gift Baron de Ferrières bestowed on the town he loved. He made gifts to Cheltenham’s churches, as well as to the whole county. He financed the stained-glass windows in the Cheltenham Parish Church, at Cheltenham College chapel and at Gloucester Cathedral.

Baron Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrières, who died in 1908, lies buried alongside his father at St. Peters, Leckhampton. In the church one can see five stained-glass windows in their memory.

A fully illustrated book on Baron de Ferrieres is on sale at the Museum shop for just £4.99