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The Treasures, Trophies and Trivia of Napoléon’s Theatre of Power

by Christopher Joll and Penny Cobham

Christopher Joll has produced once more a fascinating (and I mean fascinating) book on Napoléon and the extraordinary manner and style in which he lived and sustained his life as Emperor.  A keen collector of ‘Napoléonica’ he has joined with Penny Cobham this time, to create a most interesting record. He has done this by describing the players, principally Napoléon’s Marshals, the palaces and the props, e.g. the Eagles relating to the First Empire.  The book is written in much the same style as his previous book Spoils of War but concentrates on the Emperor and provides an insight into Napoléon’s extraordinary way of life.  This is not a book, however, about the politics and campaigns of Napoléon; for that you should go no further than Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon The Great but it is complementary and covers details of the trappings of Empire which Andrew does not.  I discovered many details I had not previously come across and the book will be of interest to any keen reader of the Napoléonic era.

One of the tragedies which has a major outcome on Napoléonic relics is the fire at Madame Tussauds wax work museum in 1925. In this fire, the subject of Christopher’s next book, a vast collection of ‘Napoléonica’ was destroyed.  Many items had been collected by a Mr Bullock in the 1820s, who took his collection on tour and made a handsome profit and even more so when he sold the collection, much of it going to Madame Tussauds.   Other stories appalled me, not least, as a Grenadier, the theft of the Eagle 1st Regiment of Grenadier s à Pied of the Imperial Guard from a museum in Boston USA in 1990. This regrettable incident underlines the exceptional value of all things related to the Emperor which continue to attract high sums; a bicorne worn by him realised £1.5 m in 2014. However, the research to discover the successive and various owners and what they paid for the relics is impressive.    Tantalisingly, the link to a website and the virtual tour of a collection of Napoléonica in a palazzo owned by a member of the Emperor’s family in Rome which does not work. The correct address is https://tourvirtuale.museonapoleonico.it and I recommend anyone interested to have a look as it is a very well-produced virtual tour.

There are, of course, many myths related to the Emperor but the authors have deftly avoided promoting them by merely mentioning doubts which surround them.  What is not a myth is the extraordinary opulence and expenditure for the Coronation in 1804 and the wedding to Marie Louise in 1810. The Crown Equerry at the Royal Mews will be interested to know that, in 1804, 25 coaches were arranged for the procession and, in 1810, an amazing 40 and 244 carriage horses.  Not surprisingly the man responsible was designated as ‘The Grand Equerry’!

There are a few editing mistakes, for example the small silver beaker mentioned on p.59 is not illustrated as stated and the photograph on p.45 is back to front.  Whilst appreciating the excellent timeline, I would have liked to see a simple family tree to show for example where Hortense and the Prince Imperial fitted into the family.  Also, the picture credits are few, for example the artist of the fine portrait of Napoléon’s sister Elisa is not mentioned.  But these are quibbles as Christopher and Penny have written and produced a fine book which is most informative and beautifully illustrated. The book is published by Nine Elms, run by a former Mick, Anthony Weldon.

Evelyn Webb-Carter

Nine Elms Books      


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