One of our most important works of art is a desk and chair in the Music Room. They both belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte and are by the Jacob family of furniture makers. Under the arm of the chair is the date 1802 and the letter “C” meaning that it was made when Napoleon was Consul before crowning himself Emperor in 1804. There is an impressive brass plaque at the back.
The Frères Jacob inherited the family business from their father, Georges Jacob, a highly regarded artisan during the time of Louis XVI and on the underneath of the desk is the signature “G Iacobis”. Following this, and various other commissions from Bonaparte, his sons too achieved similar success.
I think the British have a quixotic and reserved appreciation of Napoleon. He dominated Europe for more than a decade and left an enduring political and cultural legacy: celebrated and feared for his military acumen but a controversial figure given the cost to human life of his political ambitions. The final defeat was of course at Waterloo.
Nevertheless Andrew Roberts, a friend of mine and, more importantly, a highly regarded historian and biographer of Napoleon, comments, “The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances…were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon”. Napoleon himself said “My true glory is not to have won forty battles … Waterloo will erase the memory of so many victories. … But … what will live forever is my Civil Code”.
The only thing about our desk which is not entirely clear is at what point it was purchased by the Carnarvons. After Waterloo the British exiled Napoleon to Longwood House on the island of Saint Helena, 4,500 miles from Paris, where he lived, taught himself English and struggled with the maritime climate. After Waterloo, George Bullock, a respected and celebrated London cabinetmaker, was commissioned to make a suite of furniture for him. Coincidentally his workshop was behind the Carnarvon’s London house and the Carnarvon’s also owned a desk and other furniture made by George Bullock, some of which was subsequently sold by the 6th Earl, Geordie’s grandfather.
The question is whether the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, who was in Paris during 1814/15, bought the desk, like others, as a memento and souvenir or whether Napoleon was permitted to take the Freres Jacob desk with him to St. Helena and it formed part of the sale of Napoleon’s goods after his death in 1821.
The only record we have is a note, which could have been attached to either desk and which reads:
“Coloured transparency of the label glued to the desk: signed by Chaplain at St Helena, 11 Apr 1827, certifying that “This Table was purchased at the Sale of Napoleon Buonaparte’s effects at St Helena after his decease, as part of the furniture of Longwood House / R Boys / Senior Chaplain” [The Revd Richard Boys (1785-1867), Junior Chaplain to the Honourable East India Company on St. Helena, 1811-15, and Senior Chaplain, 1815-30]”.
Perhaps as infamous as his military exploits, was Napoleon’s tempestuous relationship with his wife. He married Joséphine de Beauharnais just before his coronation and her name was on his lips as he died. Such was her renown that her name, Empress Josephine, is still almost universally recognised in itself.
These days, at Highclere, we have a little vintage French Citroen van, smartly painted blue and red, from which Luis (Highclere’s Carson) and his team produce cocktails or coffee, depending on the event and the weather. In honour of our desk, and the van’s nationality, we have called her Josephine and, living up to her name, she was a star attraction this past weekend during the Downton Abbey Live Evening. We could not make the Gin cocktails fast enough and at points the queue was overwhelming, though everyone was marvellously good humoured.
It was a magical, lovely summer evening. Jim Carter (the real Carson) was faultless – his voice so distinctive – and we re-lived favourite scenes and music from all six TV series played by some superb musicians and talented singers. I hope the rest of the audience enjoyed it as much as I did and that we might be able to curate another similar event again the same time next year.