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Histoire naturelle : ou, Exposition des morceaux, les mieux choisis pour servir à l'étude de la minéralogie et de la cristallographie           

Swebach Desfontaines, François Louis fl. 1769

 

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This exquisite collection of watercolour drawings on paper is the result of Francious Louis Swebach Desfontaines own project.  His aim was to produce a publication of ten colour plates each depicting sixteen mineral  specimens set into boxwork cabinets.

 

The collection of plates held in the Natural History Museum Library, were to be used in Swebach's completed publication.  The collection contains original drawings for 10 prints with alternative versions. These drawings are accompanied by one page of text.  This prospectus for the proposed publication is the only copy which survives today.  The final project never came to fruition as Swebach noted at the close of his introduction, "the revolution prevented the publication of this work".

 

The drawings show Swebach's excellent ability to draw minerals on paper with meticulous accuracy and attention to detail.  Some plates are original drawings whilst others are engravings, however it is difficult to determine one from the other as an elaborate border was painted round each of them.  All are hand coloured.  To enhance the colour of some of the drawings Swebach has used shavings from the actual minerals

 

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Some of the drawings appear to be direct replicas of those used in the famous book by Jean Fabien Gautier D'Agoty: Histoire Naturelle Règne Minéral (1781).  This is of little surprise as Swebach worked in the Gautier D'Agoty studio in Paris.  He was employed to carry on the work of D'Agoty on Histoire Naturelle Règne Minéral after his death.  In 1776 Gautier d'Agoty embarked on publishing a volume of the mineral kingdom; Histoire Naturelle Règne Minéral.  This publication 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.

 

Swebach was an acquaintance of Jean Baptiste Louis Romé de l'Isle, and had assisted him in a project to make terracotta crystal models.  It is thought Romé de l'Isle may have recommended Swebach to Mme Gautier d'Agoty. 

 

What was unique about Swebachs publication compared to D'Agoty's was that Swebach hand coloured all his plates, rather than using colour printing.

 

Swebach was a self taught artist, sculptor, engraver, painter and mineralogist.  Little of his background is known.  He was born in Toul, France in the later half of the eighteenth century.  By 1780 he had moved to Paris, working as an engraver.

 

It is not known what happened to Swebach during the French Revolution.  It is a mystery whether or not Swebach became a victim of the revolutionary executions.  Nothing is known of him after 1792. 

 

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