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Desenfans, Noel Joseph (DNB00)

DESENFANS, NOEL JOSEPH (1745–1807), picture dealer, was born at Douai in 1745, educated at Paris, and came to England as a teacher of languages. But a taste for art and the fortunate purchase of a picture by Claude, and its advantageous sale to George III, turned his attention to picture dealing. Towards 1789 the troubles of the French noblesse threw many works of art into the market, and Stanislaus, the last king of Poland, commissioned Desenfans to buy paintings for a national collection in that country. Ere these could be paid for, however, Poland was dismembered. Desenfans tried in vain to obtain a recognition of the debt from the Russian government, and in 1802 organised an exhibition of the pictures with a view to their sale, and published what he called a ‘Descriptive Catalogue,’ in 2 vols. This is his chief work, and a fair specimen of the art criticism of the time. There is in it an unlucky observation on envy among artists, which seems to have excited a bitter storm, and brought on the author a fierce pamphlet from the pen of an assailant whom he describes, in a published ‘Letter to Benjamin West,’ as ‘an anonymous assassin styling himself a painter.’

Desenfans was a man of taste and education, and clearly a judicious collector. He published in 1799 ‘A Plan, preceded by a Short Review of the Fine Arts,’ &c., which was in effect a plea for the creation of a national gallery. When he died, on 8 July 1807, he left all his unsold pictures to Sir Peter Francis Bourgeois [q. v.], and Bourgeois considered that the wishes of his dead friend would best be consulted by bequeathing the pictures in turn to Dulwich College, with funds for the erection and maintenance of a public gallery. Mrs. Desenfans (Margaret Morris, sister of Sir John Morris of Claremont, Glamorganshire) further added to the bequest. The three benefactors are entombed in a mausoleum attached to the gallery.

[See account of Dulwich College Picture Gallery in Blanch's Ye Parish of Camerwell, 1875; Cat. of Pictures in Dulwich College Gallery, 1880; Warner's Cat. of the Manuscripts and Muniments of Alleyne's College, 1881. The last two works contain several interesting documents relating to Desenfans. A brief anonymous memoir of him was published in 1812, but it is very meagre. It contains, however, a reprint of two or three of his pamphlets.]

F. T. M.