Europe in the 14th century had not yet undergone the territorial consolidations that would result in the modern notion of the nation state. Individual courts vied with each to assert their pre-eminence, with the wealthiest rulers attempting to attract the most important artists to convey their cultural sophistication. It was in this atmosphere that the young Charles V of France came to the throne, and shortly after his accession he commissioned one of the most important sculptors in Europe to carve tombs for himself, his father and his paternal grandparents. Documents show that André Beauneveu executed these tombs between 1364 and 1366 and they were set up in the royal necropolis of the Basilica of St. Denis on the outskirts of Paris. Considered to be one of the most art historically important monuments of the period, Charles V’s own tomb remained at St. Denis for over 400 years until it was dismantled by the revolutionary government in 1793. While the effigy itself was saved for a newly established museum of French monuments, the lions that originally sat at the feet of the effigy were separated from it, and in 1802 an English aristocrat, Thomas Neave, acquired them while on the Grand Tour. Their survival in the collection of Neave’s direct descendants was unknown to scholars of the artist until their recent re-emergence.
Charles V and the courts of Northern Europe
When Charles IV of France died in 1328, the direct line of the Capetian dynasty came to an end. There were three possible contenders for the throne including Philip of Valois and Edward III of England, both of whom were grandsons of King Philip III. The Hundred Years War between France and England can in some ways be considered a war of succession between the Valois and Plantagenet dynasties.
When Charles V (1338-1380) came to the throne in 1364 his family had therefore ruled for less than 40 years and his place on the throne was far from secure. It was important that he use every means at his disposal to assert his dominance whether this was militarily, commercially or through the cultural sophistication of his court. At the time, individual courts in Europe competed with each other to attract the most brilliant artists, writers and scientists. Charles’s own brother, the Duke of Berry, would be famed for the magnificence of the works of art he commissioned such as the Très Riches Heures (Musée Condé, Chantilly) and the Holy Thorn Reliquary (British Museum, London) Shortly after he came to the throne, Charles therefore commissioned the celebrated sculptor, André Beauneveu (circa 1335 – 1402) to carve tombs for himself, his father and his paternal grandparents. By creating monuments for the first three generations of the new Valois dynasty and by placing them among the tombs of his Capetian forebears in the Basilica of St Denis, Charles was therefore asserting his credentials as the legitimate ruler of France.
André Beauneveu and the commission of 1364
Born in Valenciennes, part of the independent county of Hainaut, Beauneveu was known as a sculptor and an illuminator. In a letter written in December 1360 by Yolande of Flanders (mother-in-law of Charles V’s sister) she asks that ‘Maistre Andrieu’ (Master Andrew) undertake no further work at the chapel of her chateau near Nieppe (Groeningen, op. cit., p. 190, doc. 1). This is generally believed to refer to Beauneveu and is the earliest known reference to him. He would later work in Kortrijk (Courtrai) on the tomb of Count Louis of Male, for various churches (Mechelen, Cambrai, Ypres), and would finish his career at the court of Charles V’s brother, the Duke of Berry, near Bourges. He may also have travelled to England to work for the court in London. The chronicler Jean Froissart would say of Beauneveu in 1390 that he had ‘no equal in any land’ (ibid, p. 202, doc. 31).
However, the first securely documented reference to Beauneveu is the commission for the tombs of Charles V, John II, Philip VI and his wife Jeanne of Burgundy in 1364. Four documents written between 25 October and 12 December 1364 outline an initial payment of 500 gold francs to Beauneveu, followed by monthly payments of 200 francs which would last until June of 1366. This money was for the sculptor to use in ‘the form and manner that seems good to him’ in the management of the workshop which was to produce the tombs (ibid, pp. 191-193, docs. 5-8).
There is no clarification among the documents as to which elements of the tombs were to be executed by which workers, but it has long been agreed that the effigy of Charles V himself is superior to the extant effigies of his father and grandfather (Paris, Les Fastes du Gothique, op. cit., p. 116, no. 64; the effigy of Jeanne of Burgundy is lost). The delicacy of the carving and the high degree of polish enhance the sense of realism created by this striking portrait of the king. It has been noted that it probably represents the first portrait of a king sculpted ad vivum (ibid. p. 116, no. 64) and is probably the only one of the effigies executed solely by Beauneveu.
Beauneveu is not known to have worked for the French king after 1366 and Charles V’s tomb did not reach its final form until years later when the effigy of his queen, Jeanne de Bourbon, was placed next to him and the two were surrounded by a framework of gothic tracery. Its appearance is known to us today from a drawing executed by the antiquary Roger de Gaignières (1642-1715), today held in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Sitting at the feet of the effigy one can clearly see the present lions with the distinctive way that the tail of each winds up and around the hind leg (see illustration). These lions were the traditional symbol of the power and courage of monarchy. Queens were accompanied by dogs, who represented the virtue of fidelity.
The later history of the tomb
Charles V’s tomb remained at St. Denis until the turmoil of the French Revolution. In 1793, the revolutionary government turned their attention to the Basilica, which housed centuries of the most important tombs of the French royal family. Determined to wipe away these monuments to the ancien régime, the tombs were dismantled and the bones of their inhabitants were unceremoniously dumped into mass graves.
However, the effigy of Charles V was saved, no doubt due to its obvious importance and artistic superiority. The archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir (1769-1839) recognised the significance of the sculptural heritage at St Denis and elsewhere, and attempted to save what he could from destruction at the hands of the government and populace. He helped form the new Musée de Monuments Français in a convent that had been appropriated on the south bank of the Seine, and worked tirelessly to take the most important works of art there for safe keeping (an exhibition devoted to Lenoir and his museum entitled Un Musée Révolutionnaire was held at the Louvre in 2016, op. cit.).
At what point the present lions became separated from the effigy itself is unclear. In a drawing which includes the effigy in the museum’s Salle du XIVème Siècle, the artist seems to depict the head of the closest lion still visible at the feet of the king. This must pre-date another drawing, possibly by Lenoir himself, of circa 1800-1802 where the effigies of Charles V and Jeanne of Burgundy have now been placed under a dais coming from the tomb of Marguerite of Flanders. In the latter drawing, the dogs are clearly visible at the feet of the queen, but the lions of Charles V have disappeared (see Paris, Un Musée Révolutionnaire, op. cit., fig. 27 and cat. no. 29, illustrated on p. 150).
Why the lions should be sold is another question, but Lenoir’s correspondence shows that by 1802 he was under considerable pressure from the government to make economies. Several letters sent to his ministerial superiors refer to the exchanges or sale of materials made in order to support the work of the museum. For example, in a report sent by Lenoir 1 January 1802, he presents the accounts relating to the work done at the Chateau d’Anet and assures the government that ‘in accordance with your wishes, I have directed everything with the most severe economy’ (see Inventaire Général, op. cit., CCXLI, pp. 271-273). The lions, already carved separately from the effigy of Charles V and with their evident appeal, might have provided Lenoir with a much-needed injection of funds from a wealthy purchaser.
Thomas Neave – antiquarian collector
Thomas Neave (1761-1848) was the son of Sir Richard Neave (1731-1814), a wealthy merchant and former governor of the Bank of England who had been granted a baronetcy in 1795. The latter’s social aspirations were made clear when he bought the estate of Dagnam Park, in Essex, and re-built the existing Restoration period house between 1772 and 1776. Although he did not inherit the estate and title until his father’s death in 1814, Thomas Neave was clearly an established figure with the tastes and lifestyle of a gentleman. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and, according to family tradition, he had done a Grand Tour of Europe with his friend, Lord Dufferin, when the Peace of Amiens (25 March 1802) brought a temporary halt to the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars, and it was once again possible for Englishmen to travel to the continent (Wayment, loc. cit.).
Neave was known as a serious collector, and it would seem that he used his Grand Tour as an opportunity to acquire works of art that were coming onto the market as a result of the political instability of the period. His primary interest was stained glass, and the suppression of the churches and monasteries in France and the Lowlands gave him enormous possibilities. By 1811, his collection was noteworthy enough to be mentioned in a survey of The Environs of London. When describing Neave’s Hampstead villa, Branch-hill Lodge, the author points out that Neave possessed ‘a very large and most valuable collection of ancient painted glass, a great deal of which was procured from various convents on the Continent, immediately after the French revolution (Lysons, loc. cit.).’ Over the years this collection has largely been dispersed, but examples from it have entered important public collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.
The precise circumstances of how Neave came to acquire the marble lions by Beauneveu in 1802 are unknown but there is no reason to doubt the basic premise as detailed on the engraved silver plaque applied to the base (see detail illustration below). It may be that it was his interest in acquiring stained glass that led him to Paris and possibly to Lenoir. Among the many things that Lenoir was charged with saving was stained glass, and the new museum displayed the best examples prominently. One can imagine that someone like Thomas Neave, wealthy and well-informed, might have approached Lenoir as a source for new acquisitions. With his antiquarian interests, the lions would hold enormous appeal.
The story today
The lions have remained hidden in the collection of Sir Thomas Neave’s descendants until the present day. Although known to the family and a few academics, their existence was unknown to the scholars of Beauneveu when an exhibition devoted to his work was mounted in 2007/2008. Their re-emergence is therefore of huge significance. Executed by one of the most important sculptors in northern Europe for Charles V of France, they formed an integral part of the tomb the king created to help exemplify the brilliance of his court. Beautifully carved, and in an amazing state of preservation, these lions symbolise the courage and power of monarchy. They are also a testament to the enduring beauty of the art of mediaeval France.