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Radical Translations

Mass meeting of the London Corresponding Society in St George’s Field, 29 June 1795. The orator standing on the wine barrel is Tom Paine (who was not actually present at the meeting but resided in Paris at the time). Goetsbloets depicted Paine in a labourer's attire, alluding to his former career as a staymaker. The speaker on the left in the background is the shoemaker and active LCS member George Ashley. By making them speak the words 'liberté, 'égalité' and 'fraternité', Goetsbloets pointed at the influence of the French Revolution on the British radical movement. Royal Library of Belgium

The most spectacular of these chronicles is the Tydsgebeurtenissen manuscript by the Antwerp aristocrat Pierre Goetsbloets (today kept at the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels). Goetsbloets obsessively documented the events under French rule for posterity, resulting in 10 monumental volumes covering the period from July 1794 to February 1797 and totalling more than 5,000 pages. Literally meaning ‘events of the times’, Tydsgebeurtenissen contains a wide range of documents, including eyewitness accounts, copies of official documents, newspaper extracts and anti-revolutionary songs.

What really sets the manuscript apart are the drawings Goetsbloets made to illustrate the narrative. No less than 300 magnificent watercolours are interspersed through the text. Goetsbloets was a gifted amateur artist with a keen eye for realistic detail. In a colourful and somewhat naïve style, he drew scores of captivating scenes of day-to-day life in the occupied port city. The scenes convey a lively and often humorous impression of modernity’s turbulent beginnings in the Southern Netherlands.

'Robespierre's epitaph' is a satire taken from the counterrevolutionary pamphlet Almanach des prisons (1794). It remembers Robespierre as a bloodthirsty tyrant and as a scourge for humanity. Goetsbloets heartily agreed to that interpretation. In his depiction of the epitaph he drew on the typical post-Thermidorian imagery of murder, blood, guillotines and 'aristocrats à la lanterne'. Royal Library of Belgium

In many cases the watercolours constitute unique eyewitness accounts of events relating to French rule, including the staging of republican festivals, the removal of Old Regime symbols and the celebration of the Cult of Reason. At other times, Goetsbloets relied on hearsay or newspaper articles when visualising events set in Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, London, Germany and even the Caribbean. He moreover vented his frustration with French rule in a remarkable series of caricatures and allegories that expressly satirised French republican iconography. The images selected for this blog post were obviously not experienced firsthand by Goetsbloets: they relate to international revolutionary events that are part of the 'radical chronology' of the research project.

The vast majority of the watercolours have not previously been reproduced, remaining unknown both to specialists and the wider public. Dr. Brecht Deseure, research fellow on the Radical Translations project, is the first to devote a monograph to Goetsbloets’ remarkable work. Over 130 watercolours are reproduced and discussed in a volume that carefully reconstructs the historical, political and iconographical context of their creation. By exploring this exceptional visual record of life in Antwerp in the 1790s, the book brings to life French republican rule in the annexed territories.

Brecht Deseure, Revolutie in Antwerpen. De aquarellen van Pierre Goetsbloets, 1794-1797 (Brussels: Ludion, 2021). In Dutch.

In its effort to spread the Revolution across Europe – and in an attempt to weaken its enemy Great Britain – the French Directory actively supported the United Irishmen in their opposition against British rule in Ireland. In December 1796, a French military fleet under the command of general Hoche sailed from Brest with the goal of landing in Ireland and inciting a general rebellion. The expedition ended in failure due to exceptionally rough weather, which prevented the ships from reaching the coast. Several French warships were lost or fell in British hands.. Royal Library of Belgium