Soane curator on Napoleon’s impact on British architecture
The Soane Museum’s curator Jerzy Kierkuć-Bieliński talks about how Napoleon and Anglo-French relations influenced John Soane and 19th century British architecture
Greek revivalism, the rebuilding of the British Museum and the birth of the National Gallery were just some of the changes to Britain’s architectural and cultural landscape following the 1814 Treaty of Paris which brought 12 years of war with France to an end.
According to Jerzy Kierkuć-Bieliński, exhibitions curator at Sir John Soane’s Museum, John Soane also had an interest in Napoleon, both in his life story and his programme of urban improvement works in Paris and visited the French capital in 1814 and 1819, amassing a collection of Napoleonica and drawings influenced by what he saw in Paris.
These drawings and objects make up the bulk of an exhibition at the Soane Museum which explores the effect that the rise and fall of Napoleon and the subsequent Treaty of Paris had on 19th century England.
‘Soane was fascinated by the “romantic” aspect of Napoleon’s life – his rise from his origins as an obscure Corsican army officer to one of history’s great generals and Emperor to his subsequent fall,’ said Kierkuć-Bieliński.
‘Soane amassed a small but choice collection of items associated with the Emperor including a ring with a lock of Napoleon’s hair and a beautiful volume of architectural designs, by [Napoleon’s favourite architects] Percier and Fontaine… which later influenced the design of Soane’s own Library Dining Room’.
Soane would reference Napoleon’s urban works in Paris during lectures at the Royal Institution, and also designed a processional route from Windsor Castle to Westminster that was influenced by the wide boulevards and monuments of Paris. Parisian influence can also be seen at the Soane Museum’s Library Dining Room, which resembles the library at Napoleon’s Château de Malmaison (which he visited in 1819) in the use of piers and mirrors to divide the room.
However, while Soane sought to learn from Napoleon’s architectural legacy, much of the Greek revivalism in British architecture at the time came from a desire to diverge from the path of the French emperor.
‘Public buildings raised in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars – such as Robert Smirke’s British Museum, Barry’s Royal Institution Manchester (now Manchester Art Gallery), even the Euston Arch - are Greek revival,’ said Kierkuć-Bieliński.
‘The use of a Grecian idiom by Smirke at the British Museum was taken as a comment on the “democratic” nature of Britain and its public institutions, be they cultural or governmental. Napoleon, on the other hand, had quite clearly favoured a Roman architectural idiom – the image of Roman Imperial and autocratic rule is placed in opposition to the Greek tradition of the democratic city-state.’
Peace following the Treaty of Paris also meant a loan the British government had made to Austria could be paid back, part of which was used in cultural projects such as Smirke’s rebuilding of the British Museum and to buy 38 paintings from arts patron John Julius Angerstein which would become the first works of the National Gallery. British visitors also flocked to Paris, which had been off-bounds for 12 years, and caricatures of these new tourists by French cartoonists also make up part of the exhibition.
Exhibition: Peace breaks out! London and Paris in the summer of 1814. Until 13 September 2014, Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP
Interview: Jerzy Kierkuć-Bieliński, exhibitions curator, Sir John Soane’s Museum
What effect did the Treaty of Paris have on Sir John Soane and British architecture?
Public spending in Britain had been curtailed during the 12 years of war. This changed following the signing of the 1814 Treaty of Paris and also following Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo the following year. Britain was paid back a loan it made to the Austrian Government (given on condition that the Austrians enter the war against the French). Lord Liverpool, prime minister at the time, used part of this money to fund cultural undertakings. The Elgin Marbles were purchased and the money was used to implement Smirke’s rebuilding of the British Museum. The money also allowed the government to purchase 38 paintings in 1824 from the collection of John Julius Angerstein, which would form the nucleus of the National Gallery.
How had the Napoleonic Wars affected British architecture?
What is telling, is that public buildings raised in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars – such as Smirke’s British Museum, Barry’s Royal Institution Manchester (now Manchester Art Gallery), and even the Euston Arch, are Greek revival. Certainly, in terms of its architecture, the use of a Grecian idiom by Smirke at the British Museum was taken as a comment on the ‘democratic’ nature of Britain and its public institutions, be they cultural or governmental. Napoleon had clearly favoured a Roman architectural idiom – the image of Roman imperial and autocratic rule is placed in opposition to the Greek tradition of the democratic city-state. It should also be recalled that, in Britain, the franchise is extended following the Great Reform Act of 1832.
In what way was Sir John Soane affected by Napoleon and his visit to Paris after the fall of Napoleon?
Soane visited Paris in 1814 and 1819 and admired Napoleon’s urban improvements to Paris. For his 1819 visit he was accompanied by one of his clerks - Henry Parke - who was asked to draw specific buildings and monuments in Paris, such as the bronze column raised by the Emperor between 1806 and 1810 to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz.
Soane would cite Napoleon’s architectural improvements to Paris in his public lectures at the Royal Institution and was influenced by [Parisian] monuments, public buildings and boulevards when he started designing his ‘Processional Route’ for London between 1827 and 1828. The Route (which Soane probably realised would never be executed) was a ceremonial avenue that would have linked Windsor Castle with Westminster – a London equivalent of the Champs-Élysées if you like. Soane planned monuments and triumphal arches dedicated to the British army and its victories during the Napoleonic Wars, which would punctuate this Route.
What parallels can you see in the way foreign architectural influences are absorbed and mimicked today?
To answer that question, I suddenly had to recall what happened in my family’s home city of Warsaw after 1989. The change in political regime in Eastern Europe following the first (partially) democratic elections in a communist state – Poland – and the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall was just as momentous as the fall of Napoleon’s Empire in 1814. The urban fabric of Warsaw had, during the economic and political stagnation of the final decade of Communism, been neglected by and large. Central Warsaw was still dominated by the Socialist Realist skyscraper known as ‘The Palace of Culture and Science’. Although, Britain had not been directly involved in the change of regime in Poland, the UK was seen by many Poles as a political and economic inspiration. Margaret Thatcher was admired for her political stance during the Cold War and for the way she had changed the economy of Britain (whatever one may think of this today). As Poland’s economy grew in the 1990s Warsaw’s face changed.
I think it is indicative of the regard that many Poles traditionally have had for Britain that Norman Foster was chosen to design and execute a building in one of the most historic and symbolically loaded sites in Warsaw. His Metropolitan Building (1997-2003) is located on Pilsudski Square, which, over the past three hundred Years, has been named after Poland’s eighteenth Century Saxon Kings, after Poland’s pre-War leader Marshal Pilsudski and even, for a very short time, after Adolf Hitler during the German occupation of the city. The Metropolitan’s location on a square firmly associated with pre-war independent Poland, the city’s destruction during World War II and later with public gatherings during the People’s Republic of Poland where the call for democracy was made adds a particular symbolic weight to this building. Foster’s Metropolitan Building, I think, marked Warsaw’s return to the broader international community of cities – joining other capitals where the buildings of this British architect form an important accent.