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Madame de Pompadour, by François Boucher, 1756


The Marquise de Pompadour was a woman of many extraordinary talents, but sex wasn’t one of them. It gave her a pain. Yet as the titular mistress of Louis XV for nearly 20 years, the former Jeanne Poisson very sensibly recognised that spoiled rich men need to be kept busy if they are to be kept, and set about diverting the king with innumerable theatrical, artistic and architectural projects, of which the French rococo is the legacy. Louis’s other needs were serviced by the young ladies of the Parc aux Cerfs, his private brothel in the grounds of Versailles, staffed with recruits hand-picked from the premier filles-de-joie of Paris by the royal valet, Bontemps. Ever practical, Mme de Pompadour encouraged the girls to model for one of her favoured artists, Boucher, on their quieter days; the rosy-bottomed legacy of that may be viewed close to home at the Wallace Collection, as a reminder of how much better the 18th century was at organising its pleasures.

One of the last projects upon which the Marquise collaborated with her royal lover was the Petit Trianon, a stone’s throw from the nasty marble bungalow which Louis XIV erected in the 1680s for his dour, pious morganatic wife, Mme de Maintenon. If one is prepared to run the risk of being run over by a buggy-train of tourists, it’s possible to stand back in the park and see both buildings at once. Each encapsulates the spirit of its age — the exhausted pomposity of the late baroque against the spare, graceful elegance of Gabriel’s little masterpiece. La Pompadour never lived to enjoy the Petit Trianon, and after a brief occupancy by her blowsy replacement, Mme du Barry, the mini-palace was hardly used until it was given to Marie-Antoinette. Petit-Trianon and the nearby model-farm, the hameau, are known today as “La Domaine de Marie-Antoinette” and largely associated in the popular imagination with a silly woman playing at country life. The sophistication of the French 18th century lay in the equilibrium it achieved between gaiety and heartlessness; Marie-Antoinette was not a creature of her time and in this lay her downfall. She was too stupid to be heartless and too sentimental to be gay. Her legacy of silliness, however, lives on at the Soho Farmhouse.

A version of the countryside for those who are afraid of mud, Soho Farmhouse is a mega-hameau in Oxfordshire, on the edge of the absurdly pretty village of Great Tew. Part of the Soho House empire which began as the eponymous members’ club founded by Nick Jones, the Farmhouse continues the bourgeois-bohemian branding which has captivated aspiring metropolitan elitists from Barcelona to Miami. I have visited it three times — twice for professional reasons — and on each occasion have been addressed by the staff as “darling”. Perhaps this is supposed to make me feel a bit naughty and daring, the sort of person who might casually swap a quip with Zoë Ball in the original Soho House premises on Greek Street: the effect was to leave me longing for a pikestaff.

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