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Tortoiseshell bonbonnière with miniature of a young woman at a piano

Tortoiseshell bonbonnière with miniature of a young woman at a piano


From the collection of Lady Mond

French, c. 1805-1815

Watercolour, tortoiseshell, gilt-metal

Dia. 8.0 cm

Higher res images available on request

This pretty bonbonnière, a small box intended to contain sweets or dried fruit, may have been a gift from the young lady depicted on the lid to a friend or fiancée. In the twentieth century it was in the collection of Marie-Louise (Maï) Le Manac’h, Lady Mond, whose rags-to-riches trajectory is among the most thrilling biographies of Belle Epoque France.  Charming in its own right, this little box is redolent of the hands it has passed through and the relationships it represented.


Portrait miniatures have a long history as symbolic gifts, signalling friendship or romantic love, marking key life events such as births, marriages and deaths, and commemorating diplomatic alliances.  The process of giving, receiving and displaying miniatures created a relationship between the sitter and the recipient and made it publicly visible.  Their small size gives them an intimacy not found in larger portraits.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, miniatures were often worn close to the body as jewellery, but from the eighteenth century they were increasingly set into small, luxury items such as small boxes that could be kept in about the person but brought out to be used and admired.


The identity of the fashionably-dressed young lady in this miniature is not known, but the artist (also unknown) has highlighted her musical accomplishments.  She leans on a piano, holding a sheet of music, her hand raised as though she is about to sing, or perhaps has paused between verses. The songbird perched on the back of her chair leaves us in no doubt as to the sweet quality of her voice.  Unlike modern pianos, the natural keys are black (ebony) and the sharps white (ivory), as were all eighteenth-century keyboards. It was only later in the nineteenth century that this was reversed to the modern arrangement.


At the turn of the nineteenth century, the piano was an important source of entertainment, but it was also a status symbol, since only gentry and aristocratic families could afford such an expensive instrument.  A young lady’s musical accompaniments were markers of her gentility and so increased her eligibility on the marriage market. Piano playing and singing were courtship activities that a prospective couple could undertake together, albeit under supervision. We can only speculate on the origin of this bonbonnière, but it is not unlikely that it was commissioned as a gift from the young lady to her fiancé, marking the first step in their life together.


Marie-Louise Le Manac’h, Lady Mond


Many decades later, this bonbonnière found its way into the hands of Maï Manac’h, Lady Mond.  Born in February 1869 to the miller of Belle-Ile-en-Terre, Brittany, Maï moved to Paris at the age of seventeen in search of fortune and excitement, though she could hardly have anticipated just how fully she would realise that dream.  She found work as a flower seller on the streets of Montmartre, where she befriended the art students and became absorbed into Bohemian life.  Maï’s first taste of scandal came in 1893 when, after losing a bet, she stripped naked in a Paris restaurant.  The authorities were not quite so Bohemian in their outlook, and she was sentenced to two months in prison.


For a short while Maï found stability, when in 1897 she met and married Simon Guggenheim, a fruit and vegetable seller, and moved with him to London.  But less than four years later, Simon died of tuberculosis and she was thrown onto her own resources once more.  In the Savoy hotel, Maï met Antoine d’Orleans, duc de Galliera, a member of both the Spanish and French royal families.  She became his mistress and was catapulted into high society. The couple lived a cosmopolitan life, moving frequently between France, Spain and England, where she learned to speak English fluently.


After their relationship ended, in 1910 Maï met Sir Robert Mond, ‘the Nickel King’, a wealthy English chemist, industrialist and Egyptologist whose family were renowned patrons of the arts (his father, Ludwig Mond, bequeathed forty-two old master paintings to the National Gallery, London). She became his mistress, until eventually in 1922 they married.  The Monds purchased a large house in Maï’s native Belle-Ile, renaming it Castel Mond, and filling it with paintings by Rembrandt, Watteau and Constable.  Besides building a collection of artworks (of which our bonbonnière was one), Maï supported her home community by sponsoring new municipal buildings and promoting the Breton culture.  Robert died in 1938 and, during the Occupation of France in the Second World War, Maï was imprisoned for some months for possessing weapons, and her home occupied.  She died on 21 November 1949 and is buried in a pink granite mausoleum in Belle-Ile-en-Terre.


Like its first owner, Lady Mond may have given this bonbonnière as a gift to a friend or acquaintance, since inside the box is preserved a small cutting from a local newspaper announcing her funeral.  Alternatively, the new owner may have acquired it as part of a sale of Lady Mond’s effects after her death. Either way, the bonbonnière has become a memento of this remarkable woman, accruing another layer of memory in its history. 


Further reading: Pierre Delestre, La vie fabuleuse de Lady Mond: Maï la bretonne (Coop Breizh, 2004)


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