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Spectres of Quackery: The Fragile Career of Philippe de Loutherbourg

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During the 40-odd years that the Alsatian-born, French-trained artist Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg lived in Britain, he became a triple celebrity. A decade after his migration to Britain in 1771 his achievements as a picturesque landscape artist were celebrated in election to the Royal Academy. During the same period he also worked for David Garrick at Drury Lane theatre as the highest-paid scenographer in Britain. Critics hailed him as a genius for revolutionizing Britain's dull staging traditions along the spectacular and naturalistic lines of France's Giovanni Servandoni. Finally, as the creator in 1781–82 of a pioneering commercial moving picture show, the Eidophusikon, he was acclaimed by leading arbiters of artistic taste such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. Well-heeled West End crowds flocked to performances, and the Eidophusikon was widely imitated in Europe, the United States, and the British colonies.

Yet de Loutherbourg's professional and social standing remained surprisingly fragile. At periodic intervals he was accused publicly of charlatanry, or its British equivalent, quackery. This damaging smear surfaced on each of the three occasions that de Loutherbourg shifted career direction. And though he managed to redeem himself on each occasion, it was only by making serious artistic and professional compromises. In this sense, the spectre of quackery haunted and shaped Philippe de Loutherbourg's British career, making him a fascinating test-case of quackery's shifting valencies at the dawn of the modern industrial age.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/1478003806cs065oa

Affiliations: Humanities Research Centre, Old Canberra House, Australian National University, Building 73, Lennox Crossing, Acton, ACT 0200, Australia

Publication date: September 1, 2006

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