Napoleon at Sir John Soane’s Museum

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 3 iconic items. Here is the selection of Dr Frances Sands, curator of Drawings and Books, from the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

La version française est disponible ici.

A view of the Père-Lachaise cemetery

Henry Parke, Soane office Royal Academy lecture drawing showing the Cimetière Père Lachaise, Paris, September 1819, SM 22/6/3, © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

The British architect and collector, Sir John Soane, visited Paris three times. First, at the beginning of his Grand Tour, in March 1778, en route to Italy. Then again in August-September 1814, during the brief cessation in hostilities between Britain and France, during Napoleon’s exile on the Island of Elba. Finally, he visited in August-September 1819. Of the three visits, most information survives about the last. An array of archival material survives at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, recording Soane’s activities. There are notebooks recording daily events, sketchbooks and memorandum books containing notes and drawings, Soane’s accounts detailing his expenses, a list of the many books Soane purchased in Paris, and even a list of the places he had visited. These included Notre Dame and the Basilica of St Denis, the Tuileries, Malmaison, Versailles and the Sevres manufactory.
On that visit to Paris in 1819, Soane was accompanied by his talented pupil, Henry Parke. Among other responsibilities during the trip, Parke created a selection of survey drawings and topographical views of buildings and places in Paris. These informed a series of large-scale ‘lecture drawings’ – just a small portion of the 1,000-strong series of Royal Academy lecture drawings which Soane commissioned from his own office to illustrate his lectures in his position as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in London. Parke’s work resulted in magnificent drawings illustrating Parisian buildings including the Palais des Tuileries, the Palais du Louvre, Notre Dame, Les Invalides, Ste Geneviève, the Arc de l’Etoile, and a series of three magnificent topographical drawings made by Parke in Paris showing the Cimetière Père Lachaise.

A book by Percier and Fontaine

Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine,
Palais, maison, et autres édifices modernes, dessinés à Paris,
l’an 6 de la République française, 1798, plate 86.

This very copy of Percier and Fontaine’s book was presented to Joséphine Bonaparte in the year of its publication. She would be crowned Empress by Napoleon in 1804, six years after the appearance of the book, during the same ceremony at which Napoleon was crowned Emperor. Percier and Fontaine worked in the so-called ‘Empire’ style for the royal couple, having first worked for Joséphine on the future Empress’s House of Malmaison, the library of which originally contained this book. They would later remodel Napoleon’s official residence, the Tuileries, and they also designed a series of fabulous interiors for the Musée Napoleon. The book focuses on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century villas and palaces. This copy is probably unique, being a presentation copy, with its hand-coloured duplicate plates which accompany the standard monochromatic illustrations. It has a gilt-tooled cover explaining that it was made for Joséphine, and it is signed by the authors. The British architect and collector, Sir John Soane, purchased the book in London, at a Sotheby’s sale on 28-30 May 1818 of the ‘Library of a Foreigner of Distinction… brought from Malmaison’: clearly Josephine herself. Given Soane’s well-known interest in French architecture and in Napoleon himself, both the subject matter of this book and the provenance of Joséphine’s ownership would have been deeply attractive to Soane. It is now held among 7,000 books within the library at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.

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