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  • Words by Mr Colin McDowell

Count Alfred D'Orsay (1801-1852) was not only one of the early 19th century's most popular men, he was its first modern man - in attitude, behaviour and sexuality. French, but coming from a very mixed European aristocratic background, the result could easily have been an aesthetic mishmash, but in fact all contemporary accounts of his appearance and style highlight the opposite. At over 6' tall - in a period when even aristocratic men were short - Count D'Orsay cut an impressive figure, and his face was frequently described as that of a Greek god. Not surprisingly, he was obsessed by his own appearance. After all, his looks and impressive figure were his calling card, the things that made him stand out memorably as a gift to the newly enlarged and emboldened popular press. The media needed male heroes for its voracious readers quite as much as it required beautiful women of class - and even more so if both of the sexes were slightly louche and therefore gossip-worthy.

While Mr Beau Brummell thought that to be ostentatious was vulgar, Count D'Orsay, the archetype of the new Victorian flashiness, loved attention no matter from what social level it came. And he got plenty of it. Men admired him not only for his physique but also for his sporting and athletic prowess; women crowded around him not only because of his unfailing politesse and charm but also because he was a dab hand at sketching and frequently treated them to an impromptu portrait while gossiping wittily over the teacups. His easy manner enabled him to mix with all classes and his linguistic skills meant that he could speak with people from most of Europe. He liked the company of soldiers and working men quite as much as that of gentlemen, and he even appeared to take females seriously - an honour bestowed rarely enough even on well-born and educated women in the early years of Queen Victoria's reign.

But it was Count D'Orsay's looks that enabled him to conquer the social worlds of Paris and London, twin peaks of elegance and sophistication in the early 19th century. He perfectly exemplified Mr Charles Baudelaire's definition of dandyism as "the last splendour of heroism". The painter Mr Benjamin Haydon left us a very clear description of Count D'Orsay's taste. "Such a dress," he wrote, "white great coat, blue satin cravat, hair oiled and curling, hat of the primest curve and purest water, gloves scented with eau de Cologne, or eau de jasmine, primrose in tint, skin in tightness."

"Alfred, Count D'Orsay", mid-19th-century lithograph
by Irish portrait artist Mr Daniel Maclise.
Photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Lord Byron was so struck by Count D'Orsay that there are suggestions that the two might have had a brief affair when they met in Europe; Mr Benjamin Disraeli was impressed by the boldness, yet perfect taste of his dress sense; Messrs William Thackeray and Charles Dickens fell down before him. Even the curmudgeonly philosopher Mr Thomas Carlyle was not immune to Count D'Orsay's looks. He described him as "a tall fellow of six feet three, built like a tower, with floods of dark auburn hair, with a beauty, with an adornment, unsurpassable on this planet." If this might seem a tad over the top, his wife, Ms Jane Carlyle, kept her head while all around were losing theirs and wrote to her mother describing Count D'Orsay's appearance as being as "resplendent as a diamond beetle". She admired his wit and the charm of his conversation but, very perceptively, pointed out that he was "of no sex".

And this is the nub of Count D'Orsay's story. It would seem that his friendship with the very rich Earl and Countess of Blessington, which made him an outstanding social figure who was to be taken seriously by London society, even though he was not English, was engineered by Lord Blessington - a man known for his attraction to good-looking young men. Both he and Lady Blessington scandalised and delighted London society by parading the young French aristocrat either together or singly, not just in Britain but on a protracted grand tour of the continent. He was almost like a son - on the surface - but rumour says that Count D'Orsay's family had been very well rewarded financially for the privilege of having him in a Blessington ménage à trois. In fact, the tale becomes even more tortuous when Count D'Orsay is promised the Blessington's 13-year-old daughter, who he actually married eventually, although unsurprisingly it was not a success. But the friendship between the earl, countess and the golden boy developed very quickly and in a very short while Count D'Orsay was ensconced in Gore House, their London home - and with rooms on the same floor as the countess. It would seem that the two were, as generally whispered in the highest social circles, lovers. And, although only hinted at in "men only" club conversations after the waiters had been dismissed, it appears almost certain that Count D'Orsay fulfilled the same role with her husband.

His looks and impressive figure were his calling card, the things that made him stand out as a gift to the enlarged and emboldened popular press

Count D'Orsay frequently returned to Paris, usually having inspired long articles in Le Charivari, a satirical weekly comparable to the modern-day Private Eye or The Village Voice. Typical of the half tongue-in-cheek, half begrudging admiration he was given are these comments about his effect on smart London life: "D'Orsay is the hero of the jockey clubs, of the steeplechases, of the boar-hunts, and of the pigeon shoots. All the young lords and fashionable gentlemen act only according to his all-powerful will; London does nothing without consulting him, London patterns itself on him, gets up like him, goes to bed like him, blows its nose like him." Satire it may have been, but it was near enough to reality to be repeated and believed.

Inevitably, a man who has that extravagant effect cannot do so forever and, as he aged, Count D'Orsay's lustre dimmed. He returned to Paris in 1849 and attempted to use his military, political and social contacts to build a new, perhaps more serious, life. The ageing and lonely Countess of Blessington (the Earl of Blessington died in 1829) followed him but died a few weeks after she arrived in France. Count D'Orsay's attempts to be given a role in the French military failed but he was given - in recognition of his artistic temperament and the fact that he was by no means a bad artist, although lacking in character insight - a role in the Beaux-Arts.

It can only be imagined that Count D'Orsay's life without the Blessingtons lacked colour, and he probably died a broken man. He was aged 50. The cause of death is variously given as a spinal infection or kidney failure. He was buried in Chambourcy, Yvelines in France, next to the remains of the Countess of Blessington in the pyramid tomb he had designed for her.