The Châteaulin drawings show two modestly dressed women. The folds of their dresses and the gathering of their aprons are rendered in shaded colour. Both have small feet in black, pointed shoes with buckles. One woman, in blue, faces us while the other, in orange, turns her head away. The man, in a coat of deep purple with gold edging, has his back turned, showing us his long golden hair. He holds his hat to his chest.
The Lima scene follows a similar composition. The colour and texture of the women’s outfits are shown in rich detail, and their small, pointed feet are seen peeking out from beneath floor-length skirts. The women appear very tall, with generous bustles.
The accompanying journal — until recently attributed to Marant-Boissauveur — provides a counterpart to the watercolour albums, with detailed descriptions of life at sea and on land. It was rewritten after the expedition from notes that may no longer exist. Its donor, Sir William Dixson, saw sufficient value in the journal to translate it from French to English in his own hand.
We learn early on that its author is an anonymous low-ranking sailor (with the slight privilege of being the Lieutenant’s secretary). He describes his close friendship with the artist:
Being young and not having a very strong liking to sea life, the Purser (Mr Boissauveur) had only come on this voyage to satisfy his craving to visit distant countries, to study the customs of their inhabitants, and at the various ports of call, to make use of his skill in drawing and painting, at which he was very good. It was very fortunate for me that, when tired of walking unsteadily on the deck, I could go down into the ward room and make sketches together with this worthy friend. There I would forget I was on a ship, we chatted about our relations just as if we were two brothers …
The author’s descriptions of everyday shipboard routine are those of a young, inexperienced sailor, missing home, comfort and family. He is often cold, wet and hungry, and must endure not only the ravages of weather but the sudden deaths of a number of his shipmates. He writes philosophically about the hierarchy on board the ship and the relationships between himself and his colleagues. Of the officer in command, he writes, ‘This man uses his power in a way to make you hate a condition that is hard even for him, but which is made much worse by the numerous vexations a sailor has to put up with.’
He details the backbreaking tasks a sailor must complete — such as regularly holystoning (polishing with a soft sandstone) the deck — and the constant taunts, humiliation and punishments meted out by superiors and shipmates for the smallest infractions.
On the longed-for occasions when the corvette moors at port cities — such as an extended stay in Valparaiso — the author’s lowly status ensures a long wait between arriving at port and being allowed to leave the ship. Once ashore, however, he delights in a reprieve from physical labour and enjoys the fresh fruit and vegetables available on land. He also observes the local costumes and cultures.
The recent discovery of the Félix Marant-Boissauveur album in Brittany and the enquiries from French scholars have brought to light a gem of nineteenth century travel illustration. Coupled with the manuscript journal, we have a fascinating unofficial account of a French Pacific voyage through the eyes of a sailor and a purser.