The present watercolour is a finished study by W H Fisk for his oil painting, Old Noblesse in the Conciergerie during the first French Revolution. The painting proved to be one of the most popular exhibits of the year when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1863, as No 620. The accompanying catalogue included Fisk’s description of the subject:
'Confined in separate cells at night, they met in the common hall of the prison during the day. Here they carried on the gay life of the Court and the château with all their national vivacity. They held their little receptions, at which they appeared elegantly and richly attired. Musical parties, coquetting and gambling were their occupation all the day, which they pursued with an eagerness in proportion to the trouble they sought to drown, even while the officer of the Revolutionary Tribunal day after day brought the list of those to be executed the following morning.'
By the 1850s, artists and writers on both sides of the English Channel were reflecting on the French Revolution. Thomas Carlyle had made a seminal contribution to this tendency as early as 1837, with the publication of his magisterial three-volume history. However, Frith acknowledged Louis Blanc, Alphonse de Lamartine and William Smyth as the sources of his representation of the episode in the Conciergerie, and so revealed an extensive study of historians of the period. In addition, he produced at least two other paintings on the subject of the French Revolution. One was also shown at the Royal Academy in 1863, as No 353: Robespierre received letters from the friends of his victims, threatening him with assassination (Musée de la Révolution Française, Vizille, Isère). The other appeared at the Royal Academy three years later, in 1866 as No 396: Waiting for the ‘Moniteur’ newspaper, detailing the arrest of Robespierre (Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston). The complex mood with which Fisk imbued these paintings – encompassing humour and pathos – may be compared to that employed by his contemporary, Edward Matthew Ward, who exhibited French Revolutionary subjects at the Royal Academy
between the 1850s and the 1870s.
Fisk’s Old Noblesse in the Conciergerie during the first French Revolution was bought, either from the Royal Academy in 1863 or soon after, by the company promoter and Conservative politician, Baron Albert Grant, who was later exposed as ‘a fraudulent adventurer’. It then entered the collection of the publisher, James S Virtue of Oatlands Park. Immediately before its sale as No 105 of his collection at Christie’s on 1 March 1879, Virtue arranged for the painting to be engraved by C W Sharpe, and published in his magazine, The Art Journal. It was then bought by the dealer, Mullen, and sold on to Theodore Lloyd of Haling Cottage, South Croydon. Lloyd sold it as part of his collection at Christie’s, on 4 February 1911, as No 33. Its present whereabouts are unknown.