Stop 11: All English muslin must be burnt! Napoleon believed in honour. ‘

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Stop 11: All English muslin must be burnt!

Napoleon believed in honour. ‘A true man’ he once said, ‘hates no one’. While this very dignified outlook was good in theory, Napoleon sometimes found his own counsel hard to follow – especially when faced with an Englishman. A terrible feud existed between the two neighbours, and it looked to be a fight to the death.

How infuriating it must have been, therefore, for Napoleon to be ruler of a country in the grips of serious Anglomania. France in the early 1800s was possessed by a craze for all things English. Certain French people drank English tea, cooked Roast Beef, wore English frock coats and riding coats, went horse-racing, played whist, cultivated romantic English gardens and wore dresses made of ‘cambric’, a new and very fine English muslin. How this must have annoyed Napoleon! He must have felt betrayed by his own countrymen. How dare they desire to be little Englishmen and women! France was a glorious nation, but England, as he once witheringly said, was ‘a nation of shopkeepers.’ 

Napoleon’s desire to thrash the English was a passion that played out in many arenas, not just the battlefield. In 1803, he instituted a total trade embargo with England, hoping to dent her undeniably great industrial power. To this end, he demanded new innovations that would end the French dependence on English products. For instance, the English lead used in pencils was to be replaced by a mixture of clay and graphite – a French invention still used today. Napoleon also provided a good example by drinking orange-flower herbal tea in the morning instead of Chinese or Indian teas, which had come through English trade routes. Similarly, he demanded that chicory be drunk instead of coffee, and that sugarbeet be planted in Europe to replace sugarcane from the West Indies. He wrote to General Junot:

Take special care that the ladies of your establishment use Swiss tea. It is as good as that of China. Coffee made from chicory is not at all inferior to that of Arabia … Let them take care, also, that no part of their dress is composed of English merchandise … It is a contest of life or death between France and England.

This contest of life and death messed with Josephine and her daughter, Hortense’s, love of English fabrics. The Bonaparte women were highly fashionable, and they found it hard to renounce their love of gorgeously ephemeral English dresses. Hortense wrote of their sartorial sins:

Whenever my mother and I appeared before him, all dressed up, his first question was always: ‘Is that muslin you’re wearing?’ Often we replied that it was St Quentin linen, but a smile invariably betrayed us and instantly his hand would tear the foreign garment asunder. These sartorial disasters recurred frequently, and we had to turn to satin and velvet instead.

French manufacturers rejoiced. Napoleon’s instructions were a boon to the French luxury industry.

A directive to support French industries was adopted across the French empire. Napoleon’s aims in this were twofold. Firstly, he was an astute economist and he was mindful of the need to stimulate French industry in order to create jobs and foster prosperity. Secondly, he needed artisans who could create the most beautiful objects that reflected his own glory. France had a proud history of fine craftsmanship. Centuries of commissions from the Ancien régime had encouraged very distinguished ateliers that created the most exquisite wares. These were very significant industries for France – these luxury goods were exported right across Europe and, even today, France is still famous for its haute couture and luxury brands. These industries, however, had faltered during the French Revolution when styles turned from the aristocratic and elite to the democratic and rustic. But, now, with new commissions coming down from the Imperial Palace, France’s ateliers whirred back into action. Life returned to the workshops of cabinetmakers, bronze workers, wallpaper firms, and Lyon silk-weavers.

Luxury was also an indispensible feature of a great palace. When Napoleon ascended the throne, he inherited the grand estates that for centuries had been the province of the Ancien régime. He had his pick of the most distinguished buildings – exquisite châteaux such as Saint-Cloud, Compiègne or the magnificent palaces of Fontainebleau, Versailles and the Tuileries.

Having long abandoned his early Revolutionary allegiances, Napoleon had great empathy for these buildings. As he consolidated his power, he initiated campaigns to resurrect their now disheveled interiors. This is, of course, somewhat of an irony – Napoleon had come to power through the Revolution and, yet, as France’s new ruler he directed very substantial resources towards reinstituting the luxuries and lavish estates of the Ancien régime. And yet Napoleon made a fascinating distinction between his formal and informal spaces. Napoleon insisted that the formal spaces be of the very highest order of decoration. Yet in his personal capacity, Napoleon preferred a more unpretentious environment.

Over time, Napoleon became increasingly preoccupied with articulating the protocols for his court, reinstating a system of etiquette reminiscent of the Ancien régime. In 1806 he published the sixty-page volume Etiquette de Palais Impériaux, which set out his preferences.

While Josephine had previously been the prime arbiter of taste, she was now forced to acquiesce to his taste. She must have winced when the elegant curule stools from her game room at Fontainebleau, based on the ancient Roman campstool with curved legs, had their legs crudely lopped off because curule stools no longer conformed to the etiquette demanded by the Emperor.

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