Napoleon at Chartwell

Napoleon Bonaparte is everywhere in the collections of many British cultural institutions. In the Napoleon section of this website, you can find some Napoleon Trails in a few of these institutions: the Royal Collection, the Wallace Collection, Westminster Abbey. They propose dozens of works of art, archives, and items showing the legacy of the Emperor in the British identity.
Some other institutions agreed to be involved in this Year Napoleon through Curator’s Choices, with 2 or 3 iconic items. Here is the selection of Henry Weeds, Collections and House Officer, at Chartwell, the home of Winston Churchill for more than 40 years.

La version française est disponible ici.

Churchill once remarked that Napoleon was “the greatest man of action ever known to human records”. It is perhaps no surprise given Churchill’s interest in military history that he would review Napoleon in such glowing terms. Though it does seem to jar somewhat with Churchill’s character given his staunch patriotism. At Chartwell, Churchill’s historic home, Churchill’s love for history and heritage remains a constant and the appreciation Churchill had for the French Emperor is hinted at during the visitor journey. There are two objects of note; the first is a Sevres figure of Napoleon in his iconic bicorn hat and grey cloak on horseback. This currently sits in Lady Churchill’s bedroom. The second is rather more obvious, a porcelain biscuit bust of Churchill in his study, arguably the most significant room at Chartwell. It is worth noting that the bust occupies prime real estate in the centre, surrounded by family. A little miniature of Admiral Nelson situated next to it, seems to pale in comparison. And what of Wellington? There is no doubt that Winston had a lot of respect for the great man, a pencil sketch of an older ‘Iron Duke’ is in Winston’s bedroom.

Copyright © NTPL

The original version of the bust on the Study desk was sculpted by Antoine-Denis Chaudet in 1799 before later produced by the Sevres manufacture on a larger scale, often as diplomatic gifts. The type of porcelain; biscuit or bisque refers to it being unglazed often white porcelain with a matte finish. The incised mark A B with a sloping cursive ‘B’ is the mark of Alexandre Brachard, head of the sculpture workshop, and the second with an upright ‘B’ that of Alexandre Brongniart director of the factory from 1800-47. The model was sculpted by Antoine-Denis Chaudet.

Copyright © National Trust / Amy Law

The date inscription reads ’28 jv. 8 no 8’, meaning it was made on ‘Janvier’ January 28th, 1808, and was the 8th made that that day.

It was Chaudet who created the original plaster bust of the Emperor and authorised the factory to “take as many moulds and casts in porcelain from this plaster model as required” as having them marked with his own stamp. The contract was exclusive to Chaudet and no other manufactory could produce them. Chaudet received the princely sum of 1200 francs for his work. These representations were part of new stylistic movement replacing some older depictions of the ‘general’ Napoleon with a new-Classical idealised portrait.

It’s not entirely clear how it came to be at Chartwell and could have been in the family’s possession a lot longer. It was on Churchill’s desk whilst he was at the colonial office in 1905, suggesting it may have been passed through the family and was even remarked upon by Lawrence of Arabia during a visit to Churchill’s office. Lawrence suggested a number of comparisons between Napoleon and the communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin which prompted a disagreement between the two!

The Napoleonic theme is unavoidable in Lady Churchill’s bedroom where in the two alcoves are a series of porcelain figures depicting officers and cavalrymen of Napoleon’s imperial army as well as the great man himself with his characteristic arm outstretched pose. Given the immaculate nature of the spaces designed by Lady Churchill, this set of figures does seem slightly out of place. Manufactured at the Postchappel factory in Dresden, established by Carl-Johann Gottlob Thieme in the 1860s, beginning as a small antique shop. Specialising in porcelain, the marks on Lady Churchill’s set indicate a rough date of production of between 1900 and 1950. Their passing into the hands of the Churchills is quite tragic. They once belonged to a close friend and confidante of Churchills, Brendan Bracken. Bracken was minister of information during the Second World War and was a frequent visitor to the Churchill’s at Chartwell. He passed away aged only 57 but had one last treat for Lady Churchill. In one of her letters, she writes:

I have just heard from Brendan’s Executors that in his Will that he has left me
his set of military China Horses – I am touched that he wished me
to have a token of his friendship

These have remained a crucial part of our story at Chartwell, and we continue to look after this set. After a noticeable decline in the condition of one of the horsemen, it was taken away for essential conservation. It was deconstructed and a trained ceramic specialist put the pieces of the horsemen back together.

Churchills interest in Napoleon was such that on meeting Charlie Chaplin for the first time in 1928, he offered to write the script for a film with Chaplin in the lead role as a young Napoleon. Letters from the archive indicate his intention to write the foreword for Robert Ballon’s biography on Napoleon. Clearly, the life and times of one of history’s greatest military leaders left an impact on Churchill which is still reflected in the presentation of Chartwell and his own writing.

A few references:
Richard COHEN, Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past, Simon & Schuster, 2022.
Mary SOAMES, Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill edited by their daugther Mary Soames, Stoddart Publishing, 1998.
Robin Fedden, Churchill and Chartwell, The National Trust, 1979.

Henry Weeds is very grateful to Chartwell in house curators who supported this project, especially Becky Wallis.

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