Swebach was a self-taught artist, sculptor, engraver, painter and mineralogist. Little is known of his background. He came from Toul in France, and became an engraver to the Duke of Orleans. He was variously known as Swebach, Desfontaines (the French equivalent of the German name Swebach), Swebach-Desfontaines, Fontaines, or Desfontaine.
By 1780, he moved to Paris, working as engraver to the Count of Artois. Two years later, he was employed as an artist by the widow of Jean Fabien Gautier d'Agoty (1747-1781) to carry on the work of her late husband. Gautier d'Agoty's studio had already enjoyed considerable royal and noble patronage, and was reknowned for its colour printing work.
In 1776, Gautier d'Agoty, had embarked in 1776 on publishing a volume of the mineral kingdom. This now famous book in the history of mineralogy, was titled Histoire Naturelle Règne Minéral and was one of the first to be illustrated with printed colours. It consisted of a collection of colour printed plates with an explanatory text written by Jean Baptiste Louis Romé de l'Isle (1736-1790), the eminent crystallographer. The book was available by subscription, and was to be published in eight or ten instalments or 'decades'. Prior to his death, Gautier d'Agoty had completed just three of these 'decades'. Swebach then completed another four decades for Mme Gautier d'Agoty. The last, the seventh, is so rare that only two copies are known.
It appears that Swebach was not totally comfortable with colour printing as he did not use it for his own project, a prospectus for the work entitled Histoire Naturelle: ou, Exposition des Morceaux, les Mieux Choisis Pour Servir à L'étude de la Minéralogie et de la Cristallographie (1789). It was envisaged as a collection of ten colour plates, each depicting 16 mineral specimens set into a boxwork cabinet. The project never came to fruition, as Swebach noted at the close of his introduction, 'the revolution prevented the publication of this work.'
Swebach's only other known works are six folio sized volumes of mineral specimens drawings entitled Recuille Complet de Mineralogie (1790). They appear to be Swebach's personal scrapbook of specimens, most of them hand painted, with a few engraved, hand coloured prints from the Gautier d'Agoty publication. Five of the six volumes survive in the Library at the Natural History Museum.
So did Swebach perish in the French Revolution? This question may never be answered, as nothing is known of him after the Revolution.
This drawing is taken from Swebach's 1789 prospectus, Histoire Naturelle: ou, Exposition des Morceaux, les Mieux Choisis Pour Servir à L'étude de la Minéralogie et de la Cristallographie . To enhance some of the drawings in the prospectus, Swebach has used shavings from the minerals.
Only one copy of the prospectus survives today and is held in the Library at the Natural History Museum. The drawings are similar to Gautier d'Agoty, and some are direct replicas. Some of the prospectus plates are original drawings and other engravings, which were all hand coloured rather than colour printed. However, it is not easy to determine one from the other as an elaborate border was painted around each.
Find out more about mineralogy from the Museum's website.
Swebach, F. L. D. (1789?) Histoire naturelle : ou, Exposition des Morceaux, les Mieux Choisis Pour Servir à L'étude de la Minéralogie et de la Cristallographie. 18 original art originals, manuscript prospectus and original drawings for 10 prints, with alternative versions of all except plates 8 & 10.
Swebach Desfontaines, L. D. and Rome de l'Isle, J. B. L. de (1792) Manuel cristallographe, ou, Abregâe de la Cristallographie de M. Rome de l'Isle. Bossange: Paris. 74pp.
Wilson, W. E. (1995) Fabien Gautier d'Agoty and his Histoire
Naturelle Règne Minéral (1781). The Mineralogical
Record, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 65-76.