Monkey Business

The relationship between England and France has been notoriously fraught since roughly the eleventh-century, with monarchs of both countries laying claim to the throne of their adversary on the opposite side of the English Channel. Concerned that Louis XIV was posturing towards a Universal Monarchy in Europe, England determined to thwart any such threat to her shores.

England and Scotland united in 1701, forming the Kingdom of Great Britain, thus preventing the French from entering England through one of her back doors. Natheless, in a desperate effort to permanently circumvent the perennial French threat, a Machiavellian plot – code named ‘Simian’ – was conceived by England to sever the lineage of known politically active French figures harbouring sentiments of absolute monarchy and anti-British views.

The plan was to abduct children from targeted French families and replace them with primates captured in Britain’s interests in Africa, Central America and the Orient. In 1733, under the direction of Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, a secret task force was established and charged with training monkeys of differing sizes to replace the variously aged French children who had been selected for substitution.

To avoid arousing suspicion, the Duke of Marlborough (a notoriously keen fisherman), erected a ‘fishing lodge’ and ‘pavilion’ on the small island of Burnham-Ayt in the River Thames near Bray in Berkshire (fig. 1), from where the innovative mission was brainstormed.[1]


Fig. 1. A View of the Duke of Marlborough’s Island situate on the River Thames between Maidenhead Bridge and Windsor. From Picturesque Views on the Thames by Samuel Ireland, 1792.

Simian comprised a diverse group of English, Belgian, Dutch and importantly, politically and religiously displaced French men and women who, together, would assimilate monkeys into virtually every facet of French culture before introducing ‘les enfants‘ (as the trained monkeys were known) into French society.

Christophe Huet, an accomplished French painter (whose early bucolic renderings of cattle and sheep were initially denounced by the French as aberrant) was coaxed to England by the Duke of Marlborough and recruited into Simian. Huet and compatriot artist, Andieu de Clermont, worked feverishly creating murals in Marlborough’s pavilion depicting monkeys mimicking humans and wearing fashionable French attire. With their style perfected, Huet and de Clermont returned to France in 1735 where, with the aid of earlier-embedded Simian Brahmin infiltrators and influential Simian decorators, they began painting anthropomorphic monkey scenes on the interiors of aristocrats’ palaces and the homes of the Bourgeoisie (figs. 2, 3 & 4).

Christophe_Huet_Château de Chantilly_c1737_01a

Fig. 2. Huet’s anthropomorphic masterpiece at Château de Chantilly, north of Paris.

Christophe_Huet_Château de Chantilly_c1737_02a

Fig. 3. Les enfants run amok round the entire room.

Christophe_Huet_Château de Chantilly_c1737_03a

Fig. 4. Detail of the satirised Prince de Condé with two of his enfants.

The French philosopher, artist and writer, Denis Diderot was similarly enlisted to further imbue the French with a series of papers and books which persuasively integrated monkeys into everyday life.


Fig. 5. One of several popular marquetry designs by Diderot (this one from Encyclopédie) depicting storks delivering les enfant, circa 1751.

Anthropomorphic monkey motifs soon appeared in all branches of French decorative arts ranging from sculpture (fig. 6) to ormolu mounts (fig. 7) and porcelain (fig. 8). Throughout, the monkeys were always depicted as the social equal of humans and superior to all other animals (fig. 9).

pulpit_singerie_in_L’église Saint-Eustache_Paris_01a

Fig. 6. The pulpit of L’église Saint-Eustache, Paris, carved with a seemingly literate enfant.


Fig. 7. Ormolu mount of a scholarly enfant wearing a mortarboard, circa 1745.


Fig. 8. Meissen enfant figurines, circa 1753.


Fig. 9. Andieu de Clermont, Formation d’un Chien, circa 1737.

Marlborough and his co-conspirators went to extraordinary lengths to orchestrate the elaborate deception: Les enfants, for instance, were fashionably outfitted by modish London tailors (fig. 10) and extensively tutored to prepare them for cultured French family life (fig. 11).


Fig. 10. Enfant’s red silk coat in the French taste, circa 1740-50.


Fig. 11. Landry Mortimer, The pupil Louis greeting The Duke of Marlborough on a visit to Burnham-Ayt, circa 1747.

By the time Huet, de Clermont, Diderot et al had completely inculcated the French with the belief that boisterous hairy children with tails was tout à fait normal, the troupes of trained enfants were ready to be seamlessly integrated into French society.

Newborn infants and children up to the age of twelve were routinely supplanted with rhesus macaques and capuchin- and mangabey monkeys. In anticipation of errant detection, Simian operatives quadrupled the production of absinthe (a popular crutch amongst the pot-valiant haut monde). It proved unnecessary however, as the French, being generally of a light-minded disposition; the deception went largely undetected for two decades.

The aristocratic and Bourgeoisie families were so utterly accepting of les enfants that it became commonplace to have prominent British, French and other European artists portray them and their ‘children’ (figs. 12, 13 & 14).


Fig. 12. François-Hubert Drouais, Aurélie Vigée-Lebrun avec sa fils Étienne, circa 1742.


Fig. 13. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Manquez Élodie Labille sur son poney Arabella, circa 1737.

J_ Jarvis_after_William_Hogarth__Taste_in_High_Life_c1746 _01a

Fig. 14. J. Jarvis, Taste in High Life, after William Hogarth’s Goûter à la Grande Vie, circa 1746.

Simian’s objectives were gradually realised beginning with the French loss of Quebec to Britain in 1759 and Montreal the year after. During what came to be known as the Seven Years’ War, Britain enjoyed other victories over the French in Europe, Bengal and India. France’s global position was further weakened when its closest ally, Spain suffered the loss of Manila and Havana to the British.

Britain had managed to pull off the unimaginable and quash the French terror that threatened the whole of Europe. A consequence of Britain’s unconventional mission was a legacy of unique animal art that would undoubtedly never have otherwise seen the light of day.

Jack Plane

[1] Inevitably, a number of the primates eventually escaped the island and from the mid-eighteenth-century the island was known as Monkey Island – a name it retains to this day.

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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9 Responses to Monkey Business

  1. Ron Jones says:

    This history is made all the more relevant by the soon to be released sequel to the third iteration of the Planet of the Apes films series. The mounted chimp looks rather sharp.


  2. Greg Forster says:

    Thank you once again for an enlighting glimpse of history.


  3. Brian Groshinski says:

    Fascinating! This would account for the hirsute ancestor whose portrait hangs in my cousin’s castle in Bordeaux.


  4. Beth Connolly says:

    How despicable! What happened to all the innocent children that were abducted?


  5. Dave Proper says:

    Thanks for story!


  6. Tim C says:

    Thank you, Jack. We always enjoy the breath of fresh air that comes from your uniqe window on British history.


  7. Sylvain says:

    Very well written and documented (as usual) which gives it some credibility. The best I have seen today.


  8. Jim says:

    And I thought they swapped all the princes for frogs!


  9. Jim says:

    To this day denizens of Hartlepool are known as monkey-hangers. In the Napoleonic war a shipwreck had a monkey dressed in uniform as the only survivor. It didn’t survive for long as it was unable to answer questions and was hanged as a spy.


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