One of the joys of being a library cataloguer is that you never quite know what kind of book is going to land on your desk next. Given the general subject range of the Wallace Collection’s library you usually have a pretty good idea but sometimes very surprising titles come your way!
When I was told that we were to acquire an eighteenth-century book with the title L’eloge des tetons I thought that my French must be seriously at fault, since it sounded rather risqué, if not positively pornographic. I know that in art ordinary rules about showing the naked female form are somewhat suspended but this seemed to be going a little bit too far, especially for a book of this period. However, it turned out that my French was not at fault at all. This book, to be housed in an eminently respectable art library is really and honestly about what might – euphemistically and in contemporary parlance – be called a woman’s ‘endowments’.
After getting over my initial reaction of surprise and hilarity, I was most intrigued by this extraordinary publication and the reason for its inclusion in our collection. The explanation, as I was somewhat relieved to find out, lay in the provenance of the book. It once belonged to Richard Seymour-Conway, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, and is a handsome volume bound to match other books from his library. The boards are marbled and the spine is covered in fine leather with gold tooling, including the Hertford’s crest of the phoenix rising from flames. If not for the title the book might be taken for a slim volume of sermons.
Once the book arrived, I soon saw that the text itself is far from being the slightly pornographic publication aimed at men that I had first imagined. In actual fact, the book, first published in 1720, this edition from 1775, claims to be for the amusement of ladies, and is dedicated to an anonymous countess. There are no illustrations and the text is a mixture of prose and poetry in praise or ridicule of the female form. Some of the passages are quite ribald but I can certainly imagine them causing a lot of amusement. Many of the poems are taken from earlier centuries and show a robust appreciation of the female body and somewhat earthy language similar to those of English Renaissance poets such as Donne or Marvell. The use of allusions and less formal words for describing female beauty (or the lack thereof) make some parts of the text rather challenging for the non-native French speaker but this passage (p. 51-52) by the unnamed author and the following poem by the 16th-century poet Clément Marot illustrate the tone of the book and its quotations from poetry and prose.
Vous voyez par-là, Madame, que la blancheur, la rondeur & la fermeté sont des qualités essentiellement requires à des beaux Tetons. Ces deux dernieres sont moins communes que l’autre dans vos quartiers, & c’est un mal. Marot, qui étoit un connoisseur, les aimoit ronds: vous l’allez voir dans ces vers quie referment des conseils sur le choix d’uns Maîtresse.
Quand vous voudrez faire une Amie,
Prenez-la de belle grandeur,
En son esprit non endormie,
Et son Tetin bonne rondeur.
Dansant, chantant par bons accords,
Et ferme de cœur & de corps,
Si vous la prenez trop jeunette,
Vous en aurez peu d’entretien;
Pour durer prenez la brunette,
En bon point, d’assure maintien,
Du plaisant gibier Amoureux;
Qui prend telle proïe, est heureux.
Now that the book has been catalogued it will join other books of a similar age and provenance in the Londonderry Cabinet. So, the next time you walk past it, see if you can find the one ‘naughty’ book amongst all the serious art-related titles!
Helen Jones, Library Cataloguer