Pauline Borghese’s House

Joanna’s blog of three weeks ago, set me thinking about Pauline Borghese’s house in Paris. JoannaPauline Borghese's house was talking about her visit to the Villa dei Mulini where Napoleon lived during his first exile. She described an enormous gilt mirror flanked by busts of Napoleon himself and “a woman in antique dress”. Tradition has it that the woman is Pauline Borghese.

Well, I thought that was odd. Maybe it would have been impolitic to take a bust of Josephine. But surely Napoleon had fallen out with Pauline (not for the first time) because she disliked his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria. Why would he want a bust depicting a family he had fallen out with?

So I dug about a little. And it seems that, after her brother’s first defeat, Pauline sold up everything and went to live in Elba. Apparently she was the only one of his siblings to visit him during that time.

So maybe that bust had earned its place in his palazzina-of-exile.

Visiting Paris

Writing Energy exhaustedI suppose I was particularly interested because, a few years ago now, I visited that house in Paris.

To put this in context, I’ve never much enjoyed Paris. For one reason or another, things always seem to go wrong for me there. This time was no exception. We had hell’s own job to find a  hotel at all. And then, when we did at last manage it, the friends with whom we were travelling had to book a different hotel. Paris strikes again, I thought, resigned.

Image by Gerhard Bögner from Pixabay

How wrong I was. Our hotels proved to be only ten minutes delightful walk from each other. Indeed, the Birdwatcher and I were lodged immediately opposite Les Deux Magots.

We met our friends there for a drink (a fabulous burgundy that I can still taste) on our first evening. And most evenings after. We would sit there as night fell, watching the world go by and discussing life, the universe and everything.

It felt deliciously decadent and very, very cool. Which, in my case, takes some doing.

Visiting Pauline Borghese’s House in Paris

But the object of our visit was to go to a special concert, reception and dinner at the British Ambassador’s Residence. All rather grand and just a little intimidating.

Only, after wandering round Paris all day for the first time with people who knew and loved the place, I was floating on air. Much too happy to be intimidated by anything, even the magnificence that is the hôtel de Charost.

When we arrived, it was turning gently to dusk after a gorgeous Indian summer day. A very pretty not-gargoyle seemed to be smiling at me from above one of the handsome windows. Was she wearing a mob cap? Surely not. Must be some goddess’s garland. Still, it was nice that she was female and looked sweet-tempered.

Behind me, someone said, “I always think this is a very feminine building.” And someone else said, ‘Of course, it was Pauline Borghese’s house.”

My whiskers started to twitch, for I had heard of Pauline, though on the spur of that moment I couldn’t remember who she was. And surely, I had read something about the Paris Embassy in a novel* somewhere. I needed to know more.

And, like magic, there it was, in the Ambassador’s residence and available to buy on the spot. The British Ambassador’s Residence in Paris by Tom Knox. It is absolutely gorgeous, with the most splendid photographs. Maps. Plans. Forewords from Distinguished Persons. It is the source of most of this blog.

(And yes, Regency Author friends, you may come and look at it but no, I’m not letting it out of the house. Stay as long as you like.)

So Who Built Pauline Borghese’s house?

Well, not Pauline. The Faubourg St Honoré is to the west of the old centre of Paris, on the road to Versailles. This was an area of market gardens and similar, until the death of Louis XIV.

(My own house was probably built on a former market garden or possibly a plant nursery. That gives me a certain sisterly frisson.)

After the Sun King died and the court shifted back to Paris, some of the grand families started to build their palaces in the old outskirts. The air  was cleaner, for one thing, and there was more space.

Among them was the hôtel d’Evreux, now the Elysée Palace, begun in 1718. And in 1722, Paul François de Béthune-Charôst, marquis d’Ancenis, started building the hôtel de Charost. It was basically collective housing for his entire family – father, wife, six children – along with an appropriate collection of servants.

And Who Lived in Pauline Borghese’s House before She Did?

Pauline Borghese's house

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

It stayed with the main family until the comte de La Marck took a lease on the house in 1785. The contract included various improvements, including an English garden (see below) and running water.

The Comte seems to have tried to broker an exit for the Royal Family during the Revolution, but failed and fled to Flanders, leasing the house to the Portuguese Ambassador before he did so.

But the Ambassador died after only a few months and La Marck’s creditors put the bailiffs in.

Meanwhile, as Tim Knox says, “Outside, the situation was desperate: the king was guillotined in the place de la Revolution (now the place de la Concorde, scarcely five hundred metres from the house) in January 1793.”

Pauline Buys Her House…

After the Revolution, the duc de Charost eventually reclaimed his property. But he died in 1800 and his widow agreed a couple of short-lived tenancies.

And then Marie-Paulette Leclerc, widow of General Victor Emanuel Leclerc and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, returned from the West Indies with her son and bought it. She was twenty-two. And she didn’t have the money to pay for it.

An added complication was that her brother had arranged a second marriage for her with Prince Camillo Borghese. His ancestral palace was in Rome and Napoleon expected the wedding to take place after her year of mourning for General Leclerc ended.

Neither her impending grand marriage nor her own continuing lack of funds deterred Pauline. She married the Prince in August, before their mourning year was up. It was a clandestine ceremony at the hôtel de Charost in which, Tim Cox records, she “was somehow already installed.” The marriage contract stipulated that Pauline’s Paris residence was to be her property alone – but she still hadn’t paid for it and, in fact, couldn’t.

Napoleon was furious with her for failing to observe a proper mourning period. He seems to have hoped that she would give up her idea of a Paris home altogether and settle down in Rome with her new husband. But her elder brother Joseph, with whom she had stayed when she first returned from the West Indies, seems to have persuaded Napoleon to settle her debts in April 1804. Her six year old son died that summer. So maybe it was sympathy which persuaded Napoleon to allow Pauline to return to Paris in time for his coronation in December of that year.

…And Makes it Her Own

Blue Salon, British Ambassador's residence, Paris, formerly Hotel de Charost

By © Croquant / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Initially Pauline’s improvements were all expressed in interior decor. She followed the style of Napoleon and his court, with much gilding, strong colours and forms borrowed from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.

For instance, the panelling in what is now the Salon Bleu was installed by the comte and comtesse de la Marck in 1790. But it was probably Pauline who introduced the rich gilding.

It is also true that the overmantel ‘mirror’ in that salon is in fact a window into the neighbouring Salon Pauline. Tim Cox again: “during Pauline’s day, it is said that this was a two-way mirror, allowing her to survey the company in the room next door before making her entrance.”

In 1809 Napoleon increased her allowance to 1.3 mn francs. So she commissioned Pierre Nicolas Bénard to add two wings – the Picture Gallery (now the Ballroom) and a grand Dining Room (now the State Dining Room) – to the garden front.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century and my friends and I listened to a concert of Berlioz’s music in the one, and took supper in the other.

Berlioz, incidentally, married his pash, Harriet Smithson, in this house in October 1833; no more happily than Pauline and Camillo, in the end, sadly.

My photograph shows drinks in the very English garden as the sun goes down. (The trees hide both wings, though. Sorry!) It was amazingly quiet and full of that end-of-summer smell of mown grass and coming rain. Everyone seemed relaxed and even rather dreamy.

So What Was Pauline Like?

Expensive, clearly. Wilful. Extravagant, even grandiose. When she moved into the renamed Palais Borghese, Pauline had twenty-seven members in her household. They included, among others, “a dame d’honneur, seven chamberlains, four equerries, doctors and an apothecary, with many of the senior staff being members of the great families of the old aristocracy.”  And, of course, there was an entire troop of supporting domestics in the kitchens and stables, along with footmen, guards, a librarian and an in-house upholsterer.

Pauline Borghese as Venus VIctrixAnd she was – um – lively. Her premier valet de chambre was Camille Paul, a back Egyptian who wore Eastern costume and carried Pauline to her bath. Shock, horror, gasp.

It seems that this was too much for Camillo Borghese, even though to begin with the two had been pretty keen on each other. He had even commissioned a statue of her from Canova, now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Initially they intended it to be the virgin Diana. Only Pauline seems to have laughed her head off and said that nobody would believe in her as a virgin. So the commission changed to Venus Victrix.

And she was a really good sister to Napoleon. She joined him in exile in Elba, after all. And after the Hundred Days, she petitioned the British Government to allow her to go with him to St Helena. They refused. And it looks as if the proceeds of the sale of Palais Borghese went to support him, too.

Pauline Borghese’s House after Pauline

I tend to forget the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. But that was when the invading Allies commandeered the Palais Borghese – originally for the use of the Emperor of Austria. Pauline herself was in Provence, outside Gréoux-les-Bains and clearly planning to accompany her brother into exile. She put the house up for sale.

The Duke of Wellington, newly appointed British Ambassador, arrived in Paris in June 1814. After visiting the house, he ordered his aide de camp, Sir Charles Stuart, to negotiate its purchase. By August 1814 Pauline’s comptroller Michelot had agreed a price with Quintin Craufurd a wealthy ex East India Company merchant, who acted as Stuart’s middle man. The price was 500,000 francs for the house, 300,000 francs for the furniture and 61,500 francs for the stables. This was apparently  50,000 francs below the asking price, although 100,000 francs more than Pauline had paid for it unfurnished in 1803.

The Duke moved in at once (August 14th, although the sale wasn’t completed until 24th October). Thereafter he “entertained lavishly at the Embassy, but was less pleased in October, when his wife, to whom had formed a great aversion, came out to join him in Paris.” [Tim Cox, once more]

That poor house really doesn’t seem to be a great nurturer of married love.

Pauline Borghese House. Britih Ambassador's Residence. Copper beechesWellington was off to the Congress of Vienna in January 1815. Then came the Hundred Days, after which Sir Charles Stuart returned to Paris as Ambassador. He remained in post until 1824, when his successor, Lord Granville found the Embassy buildings dilapidated.

Bet you’ve guessed it. Pauline’s extensions of 1809 had serious structural problems. “The walls are light and the roofs are so injudiciously constructed that both of them are giving way,” wrote reporting architect Sir Robert Smirke.

Thank Heavens for the English Garden.

Sophie Weston Author


*Don’t Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford

11 thoughts on “Pauline Borghese’s House

  1. Elizabeth Rolls

    As soon as you mentioned reading about it in a novel I remembered where I first heard Pauline’s name – Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred. Thanks for a fascinating read.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Maybe too big for a novel, except in a walk-on part? As I dug deeper, I kept muttering, “I don’t believe it!”

      I mean, quite apart from anything else, how can anyone “buy” a house and move in without paying for it? Though I suppose the Duke of Wellington did the same thing, come to think about it.

      1. Joanna

        I’d guess that power, or powerful friends, can achieve a lot. Pauline had Napoleon and Wellington was…well…Wellington.
        Pauline seems to have been quite a woman. Zillions of lovers. And she spent money like water. She got 6 million when she sold her Duchy of Guastalla to the Duchy of Parma in 1806. And later, as you say, she was getting 1.3 million francs p.a. from her big brother. It makes the 800,000 francs that Wellington paid for the house seem paltry, doesn’t it?

  2. Joanna

    Inspired by this, I went looking for more pics and found these: the interior of the State Dining Room and Ta-Da! the wings of the house, slightly less obscured by the trees. These, of course, are not Pauline’s wings, but the wings as reconstructed by Lord Granville.
    State Dining Room, British Ambassador's Residence, Paris Garden, British Ambassador's Residence, Paris
    By © Croquant / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

  3. Sarah Mallory

    Such an interesting blog – if only walls could talk, what wonderful scenes that house has witnessed! Thank you, Sophie, I really enjoyed reading about Pauline and the house. How wonderful to attend a concert there and on such a lovely evening, too.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Such an interesting woman and very brave, I think. When I think of how little I had done by the time I was twenty-two, I was pretty gobsmacked by her sheer pazzazz.

      Yes, it was a gorgeous evening. I count myself very lucky, especially as the invitation was to my partner, so I really only got in as the Birdwatcher’s Plus One.

  4. Rosemary Gemmell

    A fascinating post – thanks for all that interesting information, and lovely photos, Sophie. What a great experience to actually attend an event at the Residence!

    1. Sophie Post author

      She was certainly worth pursuing a bit, Ros. And yes, the evening at the Residence certainly set my imagination working. And the moment when someone told us that the concert was in the same room where Berlioz and Harriet married, certainly lifted the hair on the back of my neck.

      But it was really the outside – the facade and the garden – that gave me a feeling of the people who had been before. I didn’t get much sense that anything personal to anybody was left in the public rooms.

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