We didn’t expect the vintage postcard of a church in a small Normandy village to reveal a story of great love, and even greater extravagance, but it did.
If at the age of 22 you made a convenient marriage to a wealthy man of 52 it would be rather startling to become a widow just 10 years later. Perhaps not so surprising if you were Isabella Eugenie Boyer second legal wife of Isaac Singer, founder of the famous sewing machine company.
By the time of his death in 1875 Isaac had married two women, lived with another as common law husband and entertained many others. He was faithful to none of them, bullied all of them and fathered at least 24 children. Age 62 Isaac’s heart simply gave out.
The wealth widow
After some legal tussles with Isaac’s ex-lovers, Victorian propriety won, gifting Isabella the majority of Isaac’s $14 million. A sum valued at over $200 million today. Isabella swiftly left the marital mansion in Devon and took her six children for a new life in Paris.
A beauty in her youth, several million pounds helped maintain Isabella’s charms. She was half French and delighted to be back in lively Paris after tiny Paignton. There she met Victor Reubsaet a renowned musician and fell in love. Or so the story goes except for one tiny suspicious hiccup.
See this photograph of Victor looking very dashing? How marvelous his moustache, how rich his furs and how disdainful his raised eyebrows? It is imprinted with the photographer’s details ‘Graham Glen, Torquay’ a town just three miles from Paignton… had they met before Isabella’s tragic widowhood? Married to a rogue like Isaac who could blame Isabella if her head was turned. Perhaps she saw him sing, perhaps they had a flirtation. Victor was a charismatic musician with a fine slim figure, excellent moustache and the ability to charm in half a dozen European languages. Rather different from the rich, rotund, self absorbed American she had married.
Victor Reubsaet played the violin, piano, cornet and sang beautifully in the style of the time. When Isabella arrived in Paris he was in high demand as a singer at soirees in the very best homes of the nobility, rich industrialists and even royalty.
Son of a shoemaker
Victor had led an eventful musician’s life. The son of an unpretentious shoemaker from Sittard in the Netherlands he parlayed a natural musical gift into a successful career. His first job was as a housepainter but by age 16 Victor was in Utrecht working as a musician with the Utrecht Municipal Orchestra. By 21 he was a husband and music teacher living in Groningen, playing regularly in the local Wind orchestra. Unfortunately Victor disliked Groningen and his wife and 1867 found him back in Sittard and single. In 1874 he enrolled as student at the Brussels Conservatory, focusing on singing. Just a year later he has won the annual prize and his career is established.
Spending a fortune
The rich widow and the singing star found in each other exactly what they had been looking for and on January 8, 1879 Nicolas (he preferred the name to Victor) married Isabella Eugenie Boyer Singer. Nicolas was 35, Isabella 37.
They set about spending Isaac’s fortune.
First, to help establish their place in Paris society Nicolas spent 950,000 francs (while the average French worker lived on 5 francs a day) on a huge property with a grand salon that still stands at 27 Avenue Kléber. Of course the property included stabling for 10 horses and a space for several carriages. Nicolas’s travels across Europe entertaining in the castles of the very rich had given him an excellent education in style and he decorated their home with impressive art.
He had long gossiped about a lapsed aristocratic title in his family. Now fabulous wealth helped him, in 1879, claim the title of a long dead and hard to prove distant uncle ‘Vicomte d’Estenburg‘. His hometown of Sittard was unsure and failed to register his elevation formally. Then in 1881, with some diplomacy and a not insignificant fee to King Umberto I of Italy, Victor the shoemaker’s son became Nicolas, Duc du Camposelice. And Isabella Eugenia, Duchess du Camposelice.
Thanks to besotted Isabella’s millions Nicolas was able to indulge his true and first passion, music. The Duc du Camposelice collection would grow to include two Guarneri del Gesú and seven Stradivarius:
Two Stradivarius violas from years 1696 named ‘Spanish Court’ and 1719 ‘MacDonald’. One Cello from 1719 named ‘Becker, Duke of Marlborough’ and violins from 1744 ‘Lord Coke’, 1741 ‘Duc de Camposelic’ 1710 ‘Duc de Camposelic’ and 1710 ‘Vieuxtemps’.
To give an idea of value, in 2011 a Stradivarius sold for €8m.
The couple held large soirées with many famous Parisians attending as guests of honour. Favourite artists of the day made small talk with aristocrats and politicians as the finest musicians, attracted partly by the remarkable instruments, entertained. All clamoured to share the luxury provided by the Duc and Duchess du Camposelice, where else in Europe could a chamber orchestra be heard playing on instruments of such quality?
Social climb, to the top
Isabella was in heaven. She had climbed the social ladder higher than her childish self could have imagined as the daughter of a Paris confectioner.
She ignored how much her children despised this upstart who had replaced their beloved father, particularly the eldest Winnaretta who left the moment she was old enough to claim her inheritance. Winnaretta chose to forget that her mother’s social world had given her a remarkable musical education as she went on to establish herself as an influential music patron.
Of course like so many of their friends the family summered near Deauville, living a simpler life in the Manoir de Blosseville, a short walk from Pennedepie.
A sudden end
Then it was all over. In 1887 Nicolas became seriously ill and he died in Paris at age 43.
Distraught, Isabella commissioned a perfect mausoleum for him to be placed in the graveyard of l’eglise Saint-Georges at Pennedepie, close by their beloved summer home.
Here the Duc de Camposelice would reside in accommodation appropriate to his rank, overlooking the Seine estuary and the sunsets they both admired so much. Of course his would be the grandest monument in the cemetery.
Isabella, considerably less wealthy than when she first became a Duchess, married again in 1891 for the fourth time (yes there was a short-lived marriage before Isaac with a Mr Sommerville) to the art collector Paul Sohège. We hope she was very happy.
Remembered kindly, in Sittard
Nicolas is remembered kindly in Sittard. He regularly gave money music groups, the town gymnasium and gifted the town 1,780 francs. He made it clear 500 of those francs were to help those most in need during the terrible winter of 1879. There is a rumour he once gave away a Stradivarius simply because the young musician came from his hometown. Another that he returned as Duc to proudly display his wealth and hold a huge celebratory party. They named a street for him. Reubsaetlaan (Reubsaet Avenue) is an established if unexceptional road in the town.
Made of local limestone with columns of pink granite, the monument sits square behind the church and overlooks the Normandy coast. It is around six metres high, topped with a bell tower although there is no sign of a bell. A richly decorated gate and low fence with bronze harps and palm branches reference the Duc’s musical career.
Crowned initials DC stand for for Duc du Camposelice. Above the gate at the top of the arch is a crowned coat of arms with helmet and male figures on each side. The arms include three leftward lions and three spheres. A carved banner has the text ‘Je Veux’ (I want) which some romantics claim is a references to his wish for the ancient and noble Estenburg family name to be formally recognised, it was not.