Ralph, the First Duke of Montagu (1638-1709) had been the British Ambassador to Louis XIV. He was a favourite of the French court at the Louvre and became used to the idea of music and dance being part of daily life. He must have witnessed many lavish musical spectacles. He was a protestant sympathiser and after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 when the protestants, or Huguenots as they were mysteriously called, were obliged to flee from France, he took full advantage of the flood of refugees and employed many of them at the magnificent Montagu House in London as well as Boughton House in Northamptonshire. Every kind of specialist craftsman was put to work in the houses and along with them came musicians, singers, dancers and dancing masters. Louis XIV had so loved the dance that in 1670 he commissioned his dancing master Pierre Beauchamp to create a new calligraphic system to record the dances of the day. I came across two of these manuals in the Montagu music collection printed by Fuellet, and was intrigued by this beautiful visual language that I had never seen before.
John, the first Duke's son was also fond of music and in turn he made sure that his daughter Mary had every kind of teacher. She learnt the flute, the harpsichord, the lute, and of course had dancing lessons, and it was her daughter, Elizabeth Montagu, immersed in all this music from an early age, who was responsible for creating the great music collection at Boughton.
Elizabeth Montagu, heiress and beauty, married the Duke of Buccleuch in 1767 and in this way the Buccleuch name came to Boughton. She was a very talented musician and played the harpsichord and later an early Broadwood piano. After her marriage she attended every new opera production in London and always tried to obtain piano versions to play at home. Sometimes these are the only versions left of these compositions as the orchestral versions were kept at the theatres and were frequently destroyed by fire or dispersed. As soon as possible after the French Revolution Elizabeth Montagu set off on several long journeys through Europe, going to concerts and operas along the way and buying piano scores of what she heard. She also collected antiquarian music manuscripts of all kinds for her extensive collection. In 1810 she is recorded in her box at the King's Theatre at the London premieres of Mozart and Rossini operas and right to the end of her life she was still interested in all the newest trends in music. After her death at the age of 84, her collection of music was stored away and since the family mainly lived in Scotland, was left undisturbed. She would doubtless have been relieved to know that two hundred years later music from her collection was still being admired and played in the great hall at Boughton with her portrait by Gainsborough hanging elegantly at centre stage.
When the present Duke Richard and his wife Elizabeth succeeded in 2007 they were determined to investigate this mysterious collection and bring it alive. The musicologist Paull Boucher was appointed artistic director and he soon discovered many little known works by English and French composers and arranged them to be played at concerts and recitals at the house. In the meantime Paull and Duke Richard decided to commission an artist to give visual expression to the music and so draw attention to the collection. Paull and I were old colleagues and had worked together before so I was the obvious choice for artist in residence. At first I started looking through the exquisite books and manuscripts and tried to create still lives of them combined with the fine old Huguenot furniture. Somehow nothing seemed to inspire me so I felt I needed to look deeper. Since hands and feet are an essential part of music making, I started to study them in the family portraits which are everywhere in the house. I found that by taking away the face from the paintings which is usually the most compelling element I was able to concentrate on the details which became much more vivid. It seemed to be a convention that aristocrats had to be represented with very narrow elegant hands and long tapering fingers..... no use for manual work of any kind. It is odd because often the faces in these portraits were very individual and telling that the hands and legs were formalised and just treated as a question of style and fashion. I decided to appropriate these hands and legs and also other details such as ruffs and jewellery. Next I set about photographing the tiny dance symbols in extreme close up and reversed them so that they were white on black, as are most of the backgrounds of the paintings. I then combined all these appropriations, using the dance notation very freely and even playfully, allowing other meanings to come to the surface and hoping to bring alive the atmosphere of the time by abstracting these essential elements. My idea was to try to show the symbiotic nature of the French and English influences in the House. I tried to combine the French love of dance and fashion, as seen in such details as the red high heeled shoes for the men... an innovation of Louis XIV ... with the existing English tradition.
Once the pictures had been made, I started to feel that it would be exciting to unravel the meaning of the signs and show people how they translate back into dance. Paull decided to approach Jennifer Thorpe dance historian of New College Oxford and ask her and her Paris colleagues to recreate some of the dances shown in my exhibition pictures, and also other dances which were favoured at that time. Between us we hope to bring alive and elucidate this little known area of dance.