A European walk through Bordeaux 23
The Broken Dream of David Johnston.
26, Cours du Maréchal-Foch.
Walter Johnston, a “native of Enniskillen in Ireland” (Inis Ceithleann in Irish), a “citizen of Vevey in Switzerland,” and a merchant born into one of the oldest families in Scotland, which had settled in Ireland in the 17th century, bought number 18 Cours des Chartrons (now 29 Cours Xavier Arnozan) in 1815. A patron of the arts, Walter Johnston immediately had it “rebuilt almost entirely” by the architect Arnaud Corcelles (1765-1843). He placed the painter Pierre Lacour junior (1778-1859) in charge of the decoration, the same man with whom Goya would some years later entrust the young Rosario and who, for a time in 1824, would be Leocadia and Rosario’s only source of support. On 8 June, in the same year in which Lacour and Corcelles were finishing their restorative work, Walter Johnston died in this same house.
At the age of twenty-nine, his only son, Celestine – called David by his family, born in Bordeaux on 12 September 1789 and married to a certain “Peggy” Barton, born in Dublin – inherited the “Walter and David Johnston” house, one of the city’s most flourishing trading companies, and a considerable fortune.
Walter and David were both patrons of the arts. They were also close friends of Pierre Rode, who dedicated a concerto first to Walter Johnston, then another to David Johnston. Rode moved to the château of David Johnston, Château de Bourbon in Lot-et-Garonne, in 1829, after losing the use of his hand, and died there on 25 November 1830. It was from David Johnston’s home that the body of the violinist, who had once made all the courts of Europe swoon, left for a final service at Saint-Louis’ church, before being buried in the cemetery of the Chartreuse. His pallbearers were David Johnston, Arnaud Corcelles and the painter Pierre Lacour.
The administration of his fortune and the trading business – although flourishing – were not enough for Johnston. So the Englishmen found a solution for replacing the tin-glazed earthenware, both fragile and expensive, with the strong, thin, white “fine so-called English earthenware.” Johnston believed that because it had created a thriving industry in England, it could do the same in France.
In 1834, he acquired the Moulins des Chartons, at 77 Quai de Bacalan. There, helped by the Agen ceramist Pierre Henri Boudon de Saint-Amans (1794-1883), David Johnston installed his Manufacture Royale to produce fine earthenware and demi-porcelain. He cultivated the English taste, and the Bacalan factory flourished. In 1839, it boasted ten furnaces and employed up to 700 workers.
However, appointed mayor of Bordeaux, at the height of his success in 1838, David Johston rapidly came up against serious difficulties. The pottery suffered heavy losses, and its creator had to take on associates and set up a limited partnership, D. Johnston et Compagnie, on 31 March 1840. The public lost interest in the “English style” in 1842, and he tried to change the manufacturing process. He invested what remained of his resources, and resorted to foreign funds. Having borrowed from his entire family, he felt obliged, out of a sense of duty, to resign from his municipal office in 1842, on the eve of an insolvency that he had seen coming. David Johnston’s English dream was a fiasco.
In his desperate search for new funds, he had to sell his assets one after the other. On 5 December 1843, it was the turn of the house in Pavé des Chartrons to be sold, although this did not prevent the company bearing his name from having to be liquidated in January 1844. After living in a château in Villenave d’Ornon, near Bordeaux, belonging to his brother-in-law Jean-Charles Wittfooth, a Russian consul, he died forgotten, ruined, and still indebted to his entire family on 1 October 1863.
His earthenware factory continued nonetheless in the hands of his partner, Jules Vieillard, and the majority of his former associates under the new name of J. Vieillard et Compagnie (1845-1895). At his death in 1868, manufacturing continued with his two sons until 1895.
David Johnston remains an iconic figure in Bordeaux’s brief history of fine earthenware (1829-1895), in which he represented the unfortunate decade of 1835 to 1845. His portrait at the age of 19, by Prud’hon, sold as a result of assets being distributed among the family, has now joined the Samuel H. Kress Collection and can be found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
David Johnston’s house was … …