Foil; France; c. 1740

Engagement in quarte

Engagement in quarte


What French master could this be?

This plate was rudely cut from Jean Baptiste le Perche (du Coudray), L’exercice des armes, ou le maniement du fleuret. Pour ayder la mémoire de cieux que sont amateurs de cet état, Paris: chez N. Bonnard, supposedly printed in 1676… but Malcolm Fare’s comments below place it at least 70 years later. No wonder it had me made wild comparisons between the engravings used by Monsieur L’Abbat and Guillaume Danet rather than those of Liancour…

Until I remembered the oblong volume in the blue-cheese-colored covers languishing in my top shelf.



One response to “Foil; France; c. 1740

  1. 17th or 18th century?
    Although undated, Le Perche’s book has long been considered to have been first printed in 1676. The great collector and fencing historian Arsene Vigeant seems to have been the first to suggest this date, in his bibliography of 1882, on the evidence of old catalogues. Daressy (Archives des Maitres d’Armes, 1888) identifies a Le Perche du Coudray as a fencing master working in the 1670s. The respected French fencing historian Pierre Lacaze agreed with this assessment.

    However, in 2005 a manuscript in an 18th century calf binding surfaced in France. It had a more detailed text written in several hands on paper with a 1743 watermark and 44 ink drawings similar to the engravings, but showing fencers without hats. The bookdealer who offered it for sale claimed that the manuscript was the original text from which an abridged version was printed by N Bonnart around 1750. Just to confuse matters, a second mid-18th century edition, also undated, is known, but with a different printer – the widow Chereau.

    Anyway, the dealer pointed out, no Bonnart can be found working as a printer in the 17th century, whereas one by that name was known in the 18th century. Also, there was another member of the Le Perche family teaching fencing in the mid-18th century and could be the author. Most importantly, the style of clothing shown in the illustrations is 18th century, an argument supported by an independent costume specialist I consulted, who says the wigs shown are definitely mid-18th century. All this proves, says the dealer, that both versions were printed pretty much at the same time, around 1750. And he has the original manuscript, for which he was asking in 2005 (and still is, as far as I know) a sum of such magnitude that it would buy an original Thibault.

    So why was 1676 ever accepted as the date of first publication? Well, there was the first Le Perche and, contrary to the dealer’s claim, there was also a N Bonnart working as an engraver, so possibly a printer as well, at the time – he produced a fine portrait of a 17th century fencing master that is in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Finally, the style of the fencing in the illustrations seems to me to be closer to De La Touche, 1670, in the length of the lunges with the left hand turned palm down, than anything shown in 18th century manuals. And, although crudely drawn, the foils appear to have crown-shaped guards, which had been discarded by the mid-18th century.

    But then again, my copy printed by Bonnart has one plate showing a watermark with the digits 174… (last number obscured), which suggests that it was printed in the mid-18th century – of couse, this could have been inserted from a later printing by the widow Chereau, since none of the other leaves has any watermark, so…

    Either the book was first printed in the second half of the 17th century, in which case the manuscript is a later embellishment and the fencers are wearing wigs and costumes before their time, or the book was printed in the 18th century with illustrations showing 17th century style foil. One would have to accept the latter as more likely.

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