It was a two day conference investigating the cultural and commercial migrations of 18th century French boiseries from their places of production in Paris and the Bâtiments du Roi to the drawing rooms of Britain and America. The first major study of boiseries in the context of transatlantic cultural history was appropriately held at Camden Place outside London, a country house with a history and interior shaped by the migration of people and decoration over four centuries.
William Camden, author of Britannia and the Annals of Queen Elizabeth I, built a house close to the current building in 1609. A century later businessman Robert Weston constructed a new residence, calling it Camden House. In 1760 a lawyer named Charles Pratt bought the property and, working with architects George Dance and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, spent 25 years transforming it into a country house. He renamed it Camden Place. In 1765, Charles Pratt was ennobled and took the title Lord Camden. Cabra Castle in County Cavan and Enniscoe House in County Mayo were Pratt family estates in Ireland. In 1862, the enigmatic lawyer and fixer Nathaniel Strode bought the house. He was friendly with Napoléon III and that is how the Empress came to lease the property.
Dr Alexandra Gaia, lecturer in history at Jesus College Oxford, later confirmed at the Society of Antiquaries in Burlington House Piccadilly London, “William Camden was one of the greatest of English scholars. He was the first chair of history at Oxford – there still is the Camden Chair which is now political, not civil, history. He was at the centre of 16th century intellectual political life in Britain if not the centre.”
Dr Lindsay Macnaughton of the University of Buckingham, who organised the conference with Laura Jenkins of The Courtauld Institute of Art, opened the conference: “We are marking the death of Napoléon III here 150 years ago. The name ‘Camden’ evokes somewhere that doesn’t exist anymore, Château de Bercy.” We are in the dining room of Camden Place which is lined with boiseries from that château. “The scattered surviving evidence of the architectural vestiges of lost houses continue to live and breathe. These panels possess a sense of scale, of shared taste, the layering of history. From an historical perspective boiseries have always, in a sense, been mobile. In the 18th century, Parisian joiners and carvers travelled to locations outside the city to install panelling. Entire decorative schemes were sent abroad to Germany, Spain and Latin America. Shifting fashions and continual reallocations of appartements at Versailles set into motion near ceaseless rotations of décors, including boiseries.”
Her colleague Dr Thomas Jones spoke next on ‘Camden Place as a Headquarters of Bonapartism 1870 to 1879’. “The movement of boiseries is the movement of people and their things, of exile, of friendship. There were nine glorious years of Bonapartism at Camden. This house was ideally located close to ports and accessible to London by rail and the local church is Catholic. Eugénie and her son Louis Napoléon established a household of 62 while they waited for Napoléon III to join them. The year after the Emperor’s death, the Imperial Prince’s 18th birthday had a sense of massive celebration with 4,000 guests. Could there be a Third Empire? Both Napoléons had overthrown Republics, curbing the excessive influence of Paris with provincial assemblies. Their shared dynamic was one of dramatic action, over reach and disaster.” The potential Napoléon IV was killed serving for the British army in Zululand in 1879.
Scholar Dr Pat Wheaton referred to Camden Place as, “A composition of decorative taste, weaving the past until fragments become whole.” As well as Camden in north London he noted there are 23 Camdens in the US, one in the West Indies and three across Australia and New Zealand. Dr Rebecca Walker, also an independent scholar, referred to Camden Place as “an eclectic mix”. Dr Lee Prosser, Curator of Historic Buildings at Historic Royal Palaces, called the house “an architectural conundrum, an eclectic melange”. On a different note, Dr Frédéric Dassas, Senior Curator at Musée du Louvre, observed how the Paris Ritz is an American style hotel of 200 bedrooms behind a retained façade. Another case of design fusion.
The 48 hours (or 72 if you add the pre and post celebrations) spent at Camden Place were full of highlights. As Lee remarked, “There are so many luminaries in this room we hardly need the lights on!” The after lunch graveyard slot on the second day was anything but dead. Here are just some of the quickfire lines of Dr Mia Jackson, Curator of Decorative Arts at Waddesdon Manor, on ‘Contextualising the Rothschild collection of panelling at Waddesdon Manor’: “Waddesdon was originally meant to be twice as large. Think of how more stuff we could have fitted in! It’s like a Parisian townhouse albeit one that has been smoking opium. This is a brief segue into how obsessed I am with the house. If Waddesdon is a stage, boiseries aren’t scenography, they’re actors. The West Hall has some stonking panelling from Palais Bourbon. With the added excitement of carved cats! The Green Boudoir panelling is from Hôtel Dudin and has frankly bonkers iconography. The men ate their first meal of the day in the Breakfast Room while the ladies ate breakfast in bed as is right and proper.”
The most recent biography of Napoléon III is The Shadow Emperor by Alan Strauss-Schom (2018). Colourful extracts include: “a red blooded young man bent on adventure and excitement, and this, combined with an unquenchable idealism, was bound to resurface at the next opportunity … the young man continued to dream in a world of his own … Queen Hortense was without doubt the most influential person in Louis Napoléon’s life, inculcating his moral and spiritual values, strengthening his ego, and enforcing his determination to achieve supreme power … Louis Napoléon spent every day at her bedside. ‘My mother died in my arms at five o’clock in the morning today,’ he wrote his father on 5 October … As for the mourning 29 year old Louis Napoléon, his was a grief that would never disappear.”
“Downing Street gave Louis Napoléon permission to come to England, and the great houses of the capital opened their doors to offer him a warm welcome once again. The prince settled in at the spacious and fashionable 17 Carlton House Terrace, Pall Mall, overlooking St James’s Park. The prince’s second and last principal residence was at nearby 1 Carlton Gardens, a large, handsome, white two storey corner house, now the Foreign and Commonwealth Officer, then owned by the wealthy and influential Frederick John Robinson, the Earl of Ripon.”
“Although the French have never had clubs on as large a scale as the English, and never replicating the ambience and purpose of English clubs, Louis Napoléon himself was a natural ‘club man’ and a frequent visitor to the Athenaeum, Brooks’s, and especially the Navy Club … The key to Louis Napoléon’s private and public life was a modest gentleman rarely mentioned by historians, but whose real role was fundamental to everything … naturally he took his pleasures seriously, which centred more and more around Gore House, Kensington (on the site of Albert Hall). There the lovely Marguerite Gardiner, the Countess of Blessington, resided with her dissolute, effeminate lover and Parisian playboy, the talented painter and sculptor Alfred Count d’Orsay dubbed ‘the Archangel of Dandyism’ by Lamartine.”
Unlocking the Secrets of Camden Place: Remembering Napoléon III 150th Anniversary Dinner sponsored by Ovation Data was held on the first night of the conference. It was hosted by Peter Unwin, Chairman of Chislehurst Golf Club, with guest speech by historian and author Dr Edward Shawcross, and grace by Father Dr Francis Lynch of St Mary’s Church Chislehurst. Wine was suitably cross-channel: Gardner Street Henners Classic 2021 (English Sussex), Château Beaumont 2015 (French Haut-Médoc) and Vouvray Demi Sec Domain de la Rouletiere 2020 (French Loire). Vegetarian courses were roasted squash, Graceburn feta and cobnut dukkah followed by leek, mushroom and potato pithivier. Kingcott blue was served with quince jelly and cheese sablé and pudding was mandarin and lemon posset. Julie Friend was the Chef. Preceding dinner was a reception in the drawing room fuelled by Jacquesson, the Emperor’s favourite bubbly.
“Chislehurst Golf Club was founded in 1894,” explained Peter, “We have an 18 hole course in 70 acres of beautiful parkland.” He expressed his compliments on the star studded array of speakers at the conference and summarised the French connection: “On 9 January 1873 Napoléon III, France’s first President and last Emperor, died here at Camden Place. His funeral was a huge event attracting tens of thousands of mourners from France and England. For a combination of reasons his less than ordinary life has been largely eclipsed by his famous uncle. He lived at Camden Place for less than two years but he certainly made his mark! Chislehurst is proud to celebrate its French Imperial heritage and this week we remember the man who gave France 22 years of stable government and economic growth.” The Chairman also remarked that one of the guests, who works for a housebuilder, observed the golf course would make a great housing site.