From Pauline Borghese to Queen Victoria. The Paris Embassy between Legacy and Ceremony
In this blog, Dr Laura Popoviciu gives an insight into the history of the British Embassy in Paris during the 19th century through a selection of historical works of art on loan to the embassy from the Government Art Collection.
Portraits of royals and diplomats, as well as paintings showing significant events in Anglo-French history have been on display at the Paris Embassy since the late 1930s.
This extraordinary location also includes a space dedicated to contemporary British art where the displays are periodically updated. Whether historical, modern or contemporary, these works reveal how art can encourage dialogue, generate unexpected connections and contribute to cultural diplomacy.
This painting by Heinrich Johann Lüttringhausen gives a wonderful insight into what the British Embassy gardens would have looked like in the 19th century. A visit to the Embassy in Paris in 1827 would have included, no doubt, a delightful stroll through the garden in the company of the Ambassador’s wife, Lady Harriet Granville:
You do not know how enjoyable it is at the moment. It is perfect retirement, and as fresh and fragrant as if it was fifty miles from a town. Roses and orange trees are all in bloom.
Letter from Lady Granville to Lady Carlisle, June 1827 in H. C. Granville, ‘Letters of Harriet Countess Granville 1810–1845’.
Exploring the garden today, Shirazeh Houshiary’s sculpture Extended Shadow acts as a contemporary punctuation mark to the history of a place that witnessed 19th-century costume balls, tea parties and a siege during the fall of the Commune.
In 1803, the British Embassy in Paris was a residence owned by Princess Pauline Borghese, Napoleon I’s youngest sister. This marble statuette by Antonio Canova depicts Princess Pauline as Venus Victorious. Admired by many for her classical beauty and unrivalled elegance, Pauline reshaped the interiors of her residence to reflect the sumptuous Empire style. Strong-coloured fabrics and giltwood furniture brought the rooms to life.
In 1804, her husband, Prince Camillo Borghese honoured Pauline with a commission from the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. Initially instructed to fashion her as the goddess Diana, Canova opted for a more gratifying solution showing her as Venus Victorious. Canova’s original statue is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
This small-scale copy of Canova’s original, placed above the mantelpiece in a room that was once Pauline’s bedchamber, is a discreet yet eloquent reminder of her lasting legacy to the building that is now the British Embassy in Paris.
Hanging in the Salon Jaune of the British Embassy Paris is a painting by Sir George Hayter of sculptor Antonio Canova, whose links with the Bonaparte family date back to the early 1800s. Canova visited the Paris residence in 1815 while on a mission to negotiate the return of art removed from Italy during the Napoleonic campaigns. As the President of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, he supported the English painter George Hayter during his Italian Grand Tour. This portrait was commissioned in 1817 by John Russell 6th Duke of Bedford, a mutual patron of the two artists.
This 1814 painting depicts the 1st Duke of Wellington, the British Ambassador to France. That year, whilst Princess Pauline was on her way to Elba to accompany Napoleon on his forced exile, her residence was being sold to the newly-appointed British Ambassador to France, and, ironically, her brother’s greatest nemesis – Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. With this acquisition, Wellington secured, for the first time, a permanent seat for a British embassy. To mark his appointment, Wellington employed one of the most sought after artists of the French Empire period to paint his portrait, which can now be admired in the Anteroom on the first floor of the British Embassy. Wellington, however, did not get to cherish his Parisian residence for long. In 1815 he was sent to represent the British delegation at the Congress of Vienna, and ultimately, put an end to Napoleon’s military career at Waterloo.
Lord Charles Stuart succeeded Wellington as British Ambassador to France in 1815.
An ambassador who worthily expressed the intelligence, amiability, and the wealth of the great country to which he belonged.
R. H. Gronow, ‘Reminiscences of Captain Gronow’, London, 1862.
This portrait by Sir George Hayter depicts Lord Charles Stuart posing ceremoniously in his peerage robes. On his desk are diplomatic treaties and a map of Spain as a reminder of his campaign against Napoleon. Originally displayed in the family seat at Highcliffe Castle in Dorset, the portrait and its companion pieces showing Lord Stuart’s family now hang in the opulent Salon Rouge.
This unfinished watercolour by Sir George Hayter depicts Napoleon III’s reception at the Guildhall in London in 1855. Matrimonial alliances, exchanges of visits, conflicts and resolutions have shaped the long history of diplomatic relations between Britain and France. In April 1855, Napoleon III and his wife Eugénie were received by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor. The three-day state visit included an inauguration ceremony, a visit to Buckingham Palace and a congratulatory address followed by a sumptuous dinner at the Guildhall.
George Hayter, by now elevated to the status of Principal Painter in Ordinary to the Queen, was called upon to sketch the event. His watercolour displayed in the Stuart Guest Room of the Paris residence, vividly captures what Queen Victoria described as:
the very intimate alliance which now unites England and France
Memorandum by Queen Victoria’, 2 May 1855 in A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher (eds), The Letters of Queen Victoria, 1854-61.
Later that year, it was Queen Victoria’s turn to reciprocate the visit, the first time a British monarch had travelled to France in over 400 years. Such an historic occasion deserved to be celebrated with a spectacular feast at Versailles. Queen Victoria also visited the Paris Embassy where she saw the copy of her portrait painted by William Corden after Franx Xaver Winterhalter. Placed in the entrance hall of the Embassy, its solemn air draws today’s visitors into a space situated between the shadow of Princess Pauline and the light of more recent figures.
The works on display at the Paris Embassy tell a story full of meaning and subtlety. They recreate the backdrop against which diplomatic relations between the two countries began to unfold during the 19th century and beyond.