Sir Geoffrey de Bellaigue
Pierre de Bellaigue à Londres en 1941 avec ses deux fils Eric et Geoffrey
De Bellaigue became a leading authority on the decorative arts, particularly on French 18th-century furniture and porcelain. His many publications, over a period of 50 years, were crowned in 2009 by the appearance of his three-volume catalogue, French Porcelain in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen.
Running to more than a million objects, the Royal Collection has been amassed by monarchs over the past 500 years. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, most of the King’s possessions were sold by order of Oliver Cromwell, and the Royal Collection has been largely formed since the Restoration in 1660.
Geoffrey de Bellaigue was born on March 12 1931, the younger of twin sons of a French aristocrat, Vicomte Pierre de Bellaigue, linkan anglophile mining engineer, and his wife Marie-Antoinette Willemin. In May 1940 Mme de Bellaigue was on holiday with her sons in Belgium when she had to flee the German invasion; she and the two boys were among the last wartime emigrants to leave Calais.
After some unhappy months teaching in Wales, Marie-Antoinette de Bellaigue (known to her friends as “Toinon”) was employed by the 2nd Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, King George VI’s private secretary, to teach his daughters French. Thus she came to be recommended to Buckingham Palace, in 1941, to teach French and French Literature to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
“In our general conversations,” she later recalled, “I endeavoured to give the Princesses an awareness of other countries, their way of thought and their customs — sometimes a source of amusement. Queen Elizabeth II has always had from the beginning a positive good judgment. She was her simple self, très naturelle. And there was always a strong sense of duty mixed with joie de vivre in the pattern of her character.” Under Mme de Bellaigue’s tutelage, both Princesses became competent French speakers.
Mme de Bellaigue continued to tutor the Princesses until 1948, and remained on close terms with them for the rest of her life. Both she and her husband, who fought for the Free French during the war, became British subjects before the marriage ended in divorce.
The young Geoffrey thus had an association with the Royal family from childhood. He was educated at Wellington, Trinity College, Cambridge, and at the École du Louvre in Paris, where he attended the lectures of Pierre Verlet, an authority on French furniture and the decorative arts.
During National Service with the Grenadier Guards, he was on an exercise in Libya during which the artillery was firing live ammunition . Some rounds fell short of their target, and there was concern for the safety of de Bellaigue, who was commanding the lead platoon. John Johnston, later a colleague in the Royal Household, overheard his orderly exclaim: “That Mr Double Egg! He’s got his chips now!”
From 1954 to 1959 de Bellaigue did a stint with J Henry Schroeder & Co, but more to his liking was working from 1960 to 1963 for the National Trust at Waddesdon Manor, Ferdinand de Rothschild’s “French chateau” in Buckinghamshire, where he was Keeper of the Collection in 1962-63.
He then transferred to the Royal Household, serving as Deputy Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art from 1963 until 1972, when he succeeded Francis Watson as Surveyor . The Surveyor of The Queen’s Works of Art has particular responsibility for the care of sculpture, metalwork, porcelain, furniture and so on in the Royal Collection (the paintings are in the care of the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures). In 1988 he became the second Director of the Royal Collection, responsible for its overall care, taking over from Sir Oliver Millar.
His many specialist interests included French 18th-century marquetry, the Anglo-French trade in luxury goods at the time of the French Revolution and the furnishing of the Royal palaces. He contributed many articles to art historical journals and wrote exhibition catalogues, particularly for the regular exhibitions at the Queen’s Gallery; especially notable was his catalogue for the magnificent Carlton House exhibition of 1991, which displayed George IV’s collection of furniture, pictures and other artefacts.
After working at Waddesdon, de Bellaigue produced a book on the furniture, clocks and gilt bronzes in the James A Rothschild Collection held at the house and (with Svend Eriksen) a guide to Waddesdon. He was (with John Harris and Oliver Millar) joint author of the then definitive book Buckingham Palace (1986).
His most important publications, however, concerned the Queen’s collection of Sèvres porcelain . De Bellaigue had become interested in Sèvres when working at Waddesdon and carried out extensive research in Paris. He produced the catalogue for the 1979 exhibition of the Queen’s porcelain at the Queen’s Gallery, devoting the whole of the first volume of the catalogue raisonnné to the celebrated service made for Louis XVI of France. Thirty years after the 1979 exhibition, de Bellaigue realised his ambition of publishing his three-volume catalogue as a set. In this he extended the scope beyond Sèvres to the other French factories, but included only those pieces manufactured before 1830, the date of the death of George IV, the greatest of the Royal collectors, to whom de Bellaigue paid ample tribute.
Diligent scholarship and patience were de Bellaigue’s watchwords. A gentle, shy and self-effacing man, he was also something of a wit. Invited to a dinner party by a host known to be over-punctilious about thank-you letters, he brought with him a pre-written missive of his own with the names of his delightful fellow guests and a description of the delicious food left blank; these gaps he filled in after dinner before handing the note to his hostess on his departure.
On retiring in 1996, he was appointed Surveyor Emeritus of the Queen’s Works of Art. He served on the executive committee of the National Arts Collection Fund from 1977 to 2005 and was a Trustee of the Wallace Collection (1998-2006) .
De Bellaigue was appointed LVO in 1968 and GCVO in 1996. The French government appointed him Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1987 and an Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 1999.
He married, in 1971, Sheila Russell, daughter of the Rt Rev John Russell, a former Bishop of Northern Uganda and later Assistant Bishop of Rochester. She was then working in the Royal Archives , and later became Registrar, much valued by researchers. For many years they lived in the Winchester Tower in Windsor Castle . Lady de Bellaigue survives her husband with their two daughters.
Sir Geoffrey de Bellaigue, born March 12 1931, died January 4 2013