Supplied to Princess Pauline Borghèse (1780-1825) circa 1809 for her Paris residence at Hôtel Borghèse.
Purchased in 1814 by the Duke of Wellington for the British government, along with all of the Princess’s art collection and her residence which then became the British Embassy Paris, where the set remained until at least 1831 or 1841. By repute acquired by Baron Henri James Nathaniel Charles Rothschild (1872-1947) and housed at his Swiss residence Castel Beau Cèdre (also known as Castel Beau Cidri), Jouxtens near Lausanne.
Literature: Sylvain Cordier, “Pierre-Gaston Brion, menuisier et sculpteur sur bois” in “L’Estampille-l’objet d’art”, June 2005, p. 40, illustrating the chambre de Pauline Borghèse (or Salon Pauline) in the British Embassy Paris, showing an elaborately sculptured bed attributed to P.-G. Brion and one of a number of fauteuils of identical design to this suite. Jean-Nerée Ronfort and Jean-Dominique Augarde, “A l’ombre de Pauline La Résidence de l’Ambassadeur de Grande-Bretagne à Paris”, 2001, p. 57, pl. 31, illustrating a carved giltwood fauteuil of identical design to the present example in the Salon Pauline in the British Embassy Paris. And p. 58, pl. 34, illustrating a detailed image of the latter fauteuil.
A very important and rare set of Empire painted and giltwood furniture comprising a canapé, two fauteuils and two side chairs attributed to Pierre-Gaston Brion each stamped with the initials B.E.P. below a crown for the British Embassy Paris and one inscribed ‘Salon’ (followed by an undecipherable word), the set of five pieces forming part of a larger suite delivered in about 1809 to Princess Pauline Borghèse’s Paris residence at Hôtel Borghèse (previously Hôtel Charost and later the British Embassy Paris), each seat with a rectangular padded back, seat, sides and arm rests covered in a turquoise and gold silk, all with a rectangular channelled back ornamented along the top rail by rosettes and foliate scrolling with fluted banding to the side and lower rails, the canapé and fauteuils with straight elongated arm rests with semi-circular terminals ornamented by a palmette above flat-fronted upright supports and legs of which the canapé and fauteuils are ornamented with husk trails and the side chairs with simpler classical ornament, each of the seat rails with rosettes and palmettes and all with semi-circular feet centred by a palmette
Paris, date circa 1809
It is extremely rare to find a set of Empire furniture of this quality and importance on the open market since most are now in public collections. The canapé, pair of fauteuils and two side chairs can confidently be attributed to the esteemed menuisier and sculpteur en bois Pierre-Gaston Brion (1767-1855). Furthermore they were once part of a much larger suite of seat furnishings made for Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister Pauline Borghèse (1780-1825), which were delivered to her Parisian residence the Hôtel Borghèse in about 1809. In 1814 the Princess sold her palatial home, complete with all of the newly made luxury furnishings and works of art, to the British ambassador and plenipotentiary to France, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) on behalf of his government. Thereafter the residence became the British Embassy in Paris, hence each of these five pieces bear the British Embassy Paris stamp. The house continues today as the residence of the British ambassadors to France while diplomatic business is now conducted next door in the Chancery.
During the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, the Embassy used a number of different inventory stamps, of which the one featured on the underside of each of these five pieces (composed of the initials B.E.P. below a crown) dates from 1831 or 1841. Thus we know that these seats were still in the British Embassy until at least that time. It is also believed that when, in 1814, the Duke of Wellington acquired the Hôtel Borghèse and its contents from Princess Pauline, these pieces belonged to a suite of forty giltwood seats upholstered in green velvet, which at that stage were in the ancient Galerie de Tableaux. At a subsequent date (probably after 1831 or 1841) some of the suite was moved to the Salon Pauline (the former Chambre à Coucher), where a number of chairs attributed to Brion of identical design to the present examples can still be seen in situ. Another giltwood canapé of identical design to the present example recently appeared at auction (Christie’s Paris, 21st October 2013, formerly from the Michael Kroger collection). We know that the latter canapé was made for Princess Pauline and the Emperor Napoleon’s brother Lucien Bonaparte, prince de Canino since his initials L.B. are carved within a central cartouche along the top rail. Like the present canapé, Lucien Bonaparte’s canapé was not stamped with a maker’s name though interestingly the auctioneers noted that owing to its quality and design it should either be attributed to the eminent firm of Parisian ébénistes Jacob-Desmalter or to Pierre-Gaston Brion.
As a menuisier and wood carver of exceptional talent, Pierre-Gaston Brion also created a number of other sumptuous pieces for the Hôtel Borghèse. Included is a magnificent sculptured bed gilded by Louis-François Chatard featuring four female Egyptian caryatids and crouching lions surmounted by an Imperial eagle upon a carved canopy from which hang abundant draperies. Today the bed is in the Salon Pauline, close to Brion’s aforementioned fauteuils. The bed was not only used by Princess Pauline but was subsequently slept in the Duke of Wellington, numerous British monarchs and princes and in April 1814 by Francis 1st of Austria, father of Napoleon’s second wife Marie-Louise. The British Embassy also possesses a number of seats by or attributed to Brion that were made for Princess Pauline including some fauteuils which are now in the Salon Rouge (illustrated in Ronfort and Augarde, op.cit. p. 51, pl. 25) as well as another set of seats in the Antichambre, with rectangular backs and turned legs and supports that were originally gilded overall (illustrated ibid., p. 69, pl. 51). In the Salon Vert or Or is a set of equally magnificent fauteuils with semi-circular feet and canapé with an enclosed base attributed to Brion which are carved with sphinx heads below the handrail (illustrated ibid.,p. 75, pl. 62 and Sylvain Cordier, op.cit. p. 42, pl. 2).
Pierre-Gaston Brion obtained the commission to create all of these fine pieces for the Hôtel Borghèse through Jean-Joseph Andry (1759-1832), Tapissier de l’Empereur and Brion’s close friend and neighbour, who witnessed his marriage and like the ébéniste Bernard Molitor was also a witness to his divorce. Andry was responsible for much of the interior design and decoration for the Princess Pauline’s residence and thus played an important role in Brion’s career when he asked him to become involved with the project. At that stage Brion had already established his name as an extremely skilful sculpteur sur bois (a term he preferred rather than menuisier) but as yet he had not received any official commissions from the Imperial Garde-Meuble.
Born in the Marne village of Lenharrée on 7th August 1767, Brion was the fifteenth child of a family of labourers. In 1780 he left his home to work in the atelier of Louis-Alexandre Regnier, (1751-1802) who prior to the Revolution worked for a number of leading menuisiers such as Georges Jacob and Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené. In 1797, when Brion was thirty, he married Adélaïde-Marie-Françoise Desandré, whose wealth considerably advanced his prosperity and enabled them to move to a house in rue Bleue close to the faubourg Poissonnière quarter. Their only child Hippolyte-Isidore-Nicolas (1798-1863), who became a very able sculptor and later specialised as a portrait painter, had initially studied under his father and then François Joseph Bosio. Unfortunately Brion’s marriage was not happy and so in 1801 he filed for divorce. That same year he was recorded working as a wood carver for the esteemed ébéniste Bernard Molitor, for whom he carved a number of fine chairs and later reputedly a pair of winged lions supporting a pair of gilt bronze mounted mahogany console tables, c. 1809-11, made for Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme, King of Westphalia.
In addition to Jean-Joseph Andry, Brion collaborated with a number of other tapissiers such as Leroy, Jean-Louis Poussin and also Jean-Louis Lejeune, through whom he created a sumptuous suite of seat furnishings for the petits appartements de l’Empereur at Château de Fontainebleau in 1810. He also collaborated with the tapissier-ébéniste Alexandre Maigret in the creation of a suite of seat furniture with outstretched backs and arms with acanthus-wrapped terminals centred by floral rosettes on turned foliate carved legs that were reputedly given by Napoleon to the Sultan of Turkey. As noted he had executed fine carvings for Molitor and later collaborated with Jacob and other leading ébénistes.
Brion was not only a man of great talent and inventiveness but also of strong ambition who aspired to become the finest sculptor in wood. He also hoped to obtain commissions from the Garde-Meuble to refurbish many of the palace interiors after the Revolution. Thus in 1805 Brion asked the administration that he should succeed his deceased employer Regnier, as a supplier to the Garde-Meuble. Although Brion’s initial request was refused he was later successful when in 1811 he obtained the first of many important official commissions to supply furniture to the Imperial palaces. The first order in 1811 was considerable, consisting of numerous richly carved canapés, fauteuils, chaises and bergères as well as tabourets and méridiennes.
In 1817 Brion was appointed Sculpteur sur bois du Garde-Meuble de la Couronne – a position he had vied for against his rival Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Rode. This elevated position led to many more important commissions to supply furnishings for the Palais des Tuileries, Versailles, Pau and Louvre. But perhaps his most prestigious order came when he was commissioned to make State bed for King Charles X on his ascension to the throne in 1824. The royal bed was to replace one made for Napoleon Bonaparte that was later used by Charles X’s brother and predecessor Louis XVIII. The result was a richly carved and gilded lit à la duchesse, of which the headboard is carved with the French arms, flanked by two helmets and surmounted by a crown; the rest of the decoration includes heraldic and natural fleurs-de-lis, as well as acanthus leaves and is crowned above by a monumental rectangular tester from which hang the same silk hangings that adorned the State bed used by XVIII (now in the Musée du Louvre; illustrated in Denise Ledoux-Lebard, “Le Mobilier Français du XIXe siècle”, 1989, pp. 102-103).
It was only in 1835, toward the end of his career, that Brion and his wife were granted a formal divorce separation, at which stage Brion had ten employees. After that he left Paris and retired to Fère-Champenoise, close to his home village, where he lived for the next twenty years up until his death on 26th March 1855. He left his atelier to the ébéniste Jean-François-Pierre-Valentin Hurel, brother-in-law of the ébéniste Félix Rémond. Today one can find examples of Brion’s brilliant career in a number of important collections including the Musée du Louvre, Chateau de Versailles, the Musée de l’Armée, Hôtel National des Invalids and the Mobilier National.
As noted this set of five seats and the rest of the suite were delivered in about 1809 as part of a much larger commission to adorn the Paris residence belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister Princess Pauline. Beautiful, strong-minded and of infamous repute, she was known to have had numerous lovers including the violinist Niccolò Paganini, but like her elder brother, assembled a very fine art collection. At her Hôtel Borghèse were many fine newly acquired pieces of furniture by Brion and Jacob-Desmalter as well as bronzes by Pierre-Philippe Thomire, Jean-Baptiste Héricourt and Pierre-François Feuchère.
Against the Pauline’s wishes, Napoleon arranged a marriage between her and General Charles Leclerc; they married in 1797 and had one son Napoleon-Louis-Dermide (1798-1804). Leclerc died in 1802, while posted to Saint-Dominique, after which Pauline and her son returned to Paris, where she lodged with her brother Joseph. However she soon tired of her quiet existence and her exclusion from society during the expected period of mourning. Since Napoleon felt that she should not remain single for long, in August 1803 she hastily married a Rome nobleman Camillo Borghese, 6th Prince of Sulmona; he subsequently commissioned Canova’s famous Neo-classical marble statue of his wife posed as Venus Victrix as she sat reclining on a divan semi-nude (Galleria Borghese, Rome).
On 3rd November 1803 (two days before her marriage to Camille Borghèse was reconfirmed in a civil ceremony), the Princess Pauline purchased the beautiful early eighteenth century Paris mansion, the Hôtel Charost. Situated within spacious parkland in rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the residence dating from the early 1720s had been designed by Antoine Mazin, architect to Louis XV for Paul François de Béthune-Charost, who was one of the king’s senior courtiers. Initially Pauline spent little time there since immediately after her civil wedding, she and Camille Borghèse left for Italy. Their marriage and her time in Rome was not particularly happy and while he continued his military career, she returned to Paris though it was not until about 1809 that she began refurbishing her home in rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Again she had little time to enjoy the newly installed splendours since in 1812 she left for Aix-les-Bains and as believed, never returned to Paris again. Following Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814 and his subsequent exile to Elba, she went to join him on the island. On the 24th October that year she sold the Hôtel Borghèse and all its contents including its furniture, light fittings, monumental clocks, chenets, centrepieces and other luxury pieces for 861,500 francs – about £40,000 to the Duke of Wellington. Thankfully many of those original works of art can still be admired in situ. Inevitably a few items were sold by the Embassy including this set of seats.
According to repute they were later acquired by Baron Henri James Nathaniel Charles Rothschild (1872-1947) and housed at his home Castel Beau Cèdre (also referred to as Castel Beau Cidri), Jouxtens near Lausanne. Interestingly, and as believed, that was the same Swiss residence that once boasted a magnificent Louis XVI gilt bronze mounted marble chimney piece that was removed after World War II and in more recent years, was acquired by Richard Redding Antiques. It was also the Baron’s final home, where he died after a prolonged illness on 12th October 1947. Born in Paris, he was the son of James Nathan and Laura Rothschild and grandson of Nathaniel de Rothschild, founder of the French wine-making branch of the Rothschild family. He was therefore a fifth generation Rothschild and perhaps the most famous of the Paris Rothschilds of the fin-de-siècle period. A sleeping partner of the family bank and non-drinking owner of Mouton-Rothschild, Henri was also a qualified doctor, playwright, philanthropist and entrepreneur. He spent much of his life building medical institutions and promoting scientific medicine, including a means to cure syphilis and the use of radium for curing cancer. Besides the Radium Institute, he founded the Rothschild Hospital of Paris and organized the distribution of fresh milk and wine to Paris workers; he also pioneered the use of American milking machines and bred sheep, cattle and poultry on the Rothschild agricultural estate in Vaux de Carnay. In addition he was the author (usually writing under a pseudonym André Pascal) and producer of at least three European stage successes ‘Le Caducee’, ‘La Rampe’ and ‘Heritage’ and also published works on child health, milk production, burns and the throat glands. Like many of the Rothschild family Henri was also a connoisseur of the arts and as one obituary noted “an art collector of note. His collection of Chardin was said to be the finest in the world, and he owned paintings by Boucher and Fragonard and Gobelins and Beauvais tapestries. In 1933 he gave his collection of autographs [which he began amassing when still at school], consisting of over 5,000 documents, some dating from the fourteenth century, to the French National Library.... Baron Henri was probably the wealthiest man in France. In 1924 it was disclosed that he had paid income tax on 29,000,000 francs, his tax being the highest in the country” (“The Canadian Jewish Review”, October 31st 1947, p. 3). When the Germans invaded France in 1940, he fled to Brazil and then after spending time in Portugal, in April 1946, he returned to his home at Castel Beau Cèdre, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In the light of their fascinating history one can state that these seats have had an illustrious provenance. Having been made for Napoleon’s sister, the Princess Pauline, they then became the property of the British Embassy Paris and, as believed, subsequently graced the home of Baron Henri Rothschild. Thus over the years they would have been sat upon and admired by many leading figures of the day, from members of the royal and imperial courts, statesmen and dignitaries to millionaires, intellectuals and the artistic and literary elite. However their importance not only rests upon their history but in the knowledge of Brion’s superb craftsmanship, evidenced by their quality, elegant design, intricate carving and beauty.