A Napoleonic Interlude. June 2014.

Dear Rowley,

Having not been in Paris since the launch of The Perfect Gent at Ralph Lauren’s flagship on the Boulevard Saint Germain, it was something of a pleasure to return at the invitation of Chaumet to speak to their in-house summit at Le Meurice. Since its inception in 1771 in Calais as a coaching inn, the Meurice has held favour with English aristocratic tourists.

A Meurice hotel has been established in Paris since 1817 and on its present Rue de Rivoli site since 1835. Queen Victoria was a guest in 1855 when she paid the State Visit to Paris at the invitation of the philandering Emperor Napoleon III and his elegant empress Eugenie. So flawless was the Meurice staff’s English that the hotel was nicknamed the City of London.

As Thackeray wrote, ‘if you don’t speak a word of French and want your fellow countrymen around you, stand on any street corner in Paris and with your best British accent cry heartily “Meurice” and immediately someone will come forward to drive you straight to the Rue de Rivoli’. I didn’t test the theory having lunched at Le Meurice many moons ago with Chaumet’s historian Béatrice de Plinval.

Béatrice’s lair overlooking the Place Vendome comprises a gilded Louis XVI salon where Chopin played, a room with historic tiara maquettes lining the walls and her office that faces the Paris Ritz. I was invited for a glass of Champagne on the first evening in Paris and thrilled to hear about Madame de Plinval’s latest acquisitions and the hush-hush plans for future international exhibitions. Chic, m’dear, wasn’t even in it.

Now ordinarily when I’m footloose in Paris for an evening I will bag a bar stool at the back row of the Lido – in the spirit of Lola who was a showgirl – and sip bubbles while being bedazzled by the late show. But somehow I wasn’t in the mood to cabaret and, more to the point, I know it is folly to have a busy night before a speaking engagement. Is this the first sign of growing up I wonder?

Anyway, suffice to say I woke up in my own hotel room for a change and had a morning to delight the eye and inform the mind so decided to re-visit Napoleon III’s Private Apartments in the Louvre and view the newly opened Louis XIV-XVI Rooms. The Napoleon III Apartments linked the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace – Marie Antoinette’s last royal residence – and were completed in 1857 so are the last vestiges of French monarchical interiors.

Now I don’t know when you were last at the Louvre but it is a harrowing experience swimming through shoals – and I mean shoals – of tourists all armed with cameras, ruck sacks and industrial sized canisters of water invariably led by guides waving everything from umbrellas to glow sticks as they stampede towards the Mona Lisa. I kid you not, one half expects a bare breasted Marianne to be leading the charge.

Being of a rather contrary nature, my desire to visit the Louvre is not for the art or antiquities but to trace the steps of the royal residents who haunt the palace. The Medieval fortress familiar to Catherine de Medici and her poisonous Valois brood no longer exists beyond foundations and the French Kings effectively gave the Louvre to Paris as an exhibition space when Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles in 1672.

And yet if you look beyond the display cases up to the ceilings you can still see the ornately carved, gilded canopy of Louis XIV’s state bedchamber and the ceilings painted by Romanelli for his mother the Regent Anne of Austria. The Napoleon III Apartments are incredibly precious because they give an indication of how the Tuileries Palace may have been decorated in its twilight years. The Tuileries was burnt down in 1871 in the last days of the Paris Commune when Napoleon III was deposed.

You step away from the art galleries of the Louvre and leave behind almost all of the pernicious tourists only to step into low ceilinged anti-chambers, some of which are decorated with floral wallpaper chosen by the Empress Eugenie in a misguided attempt to make the progression from formidable palace to family rooms appear homely. From the antechambers one enters the private apartments decorated and furnished to entertain Napoleon’s Second Empire court.

Though dripping with vast crystal chandeliers worthy of the Palace of Versailles, Napoleon’s apartments are decorated domestically with bridge tables, occasional chairs, red velvet-upholstered rondels and occasional tables conducive to entertainment and intimacy. The Winterhalter portraits of Napoleon III and the Empress face each other across the long walk between the Grand Salon and the Dining Room. The glitter of gold and blaze of scarlet proclaims Imperial power and yet the decor suggests a palace of private pleasures.

Never one to resist a touch of prying, I couldn’t help duck a velvet rope to peer up a private spiral staircase leading to goodness knows where and peering out of every window wondering if it was a view that the Empress had passed as she fled the Tuileries for the last time. The fact that the Napoleon III Apartments are preserved almost as they were left is why I will always consider them one of the greatest treasures in the Louvre.

And what of the much-vaunted Louis XIV-XVI Rooms? Imagine a wing of the palace within which historic royal French interiors have been recreated room-within-room. We have Marie Antoinette’s salon from the Palace of Saint Cloud, an Arabian interior commissioned by the Comte d’Artois (the future Louis XVIII) and case upon case upon case of treasures of decorative art tracing the aesthetic history of the last three Bourbon monarchs including Louis XIV’s gilt jewel case and Marie Antoinette’s nécessaire. As for how the speech for Chaumet went at Le Meurice, I’ll have to tell you another time.