This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the British Embassy in the Hotel de Charost in the rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris. This imposing 18th-century house, named after the family who built it in 1725, was later owned by Pauline Borghese, the beautiful but notorious sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was she who sold it to the 1st Duke of Wellington in August 1814, for 861,500 francs – about £40,000 – throwing in all her sumptuous Empire furniture, which includes a luxurious bed, a series of monumental clocks and splendid ormolu firedogs. Remarkably, the house survives as the residence of the British Ambassadors to France (diplomatic business now goes on in the Chancery next door), but even more astounding is that most of Pauline’s furniture and bronzes survive.
I first became interested in the Hotel de Charost in 2003, when I stumbled across a collection of vintage photographs of grand interiors on a stall in the Portobello Road. They turned out to be the houses of Sir Francis Bertie, personal friend of Edward VII and Ambassador to France 1905–18. They included several photographs on the interiors of the Hotel de Charost and there was even a picture of Sir Francis’s carriage parked outside, with liveried footmen clinging to the back. Sir Francis was by all accounts a bit of a roué – the innocent prints in his study were double-sided so he could enjoy far more salacious images on the reverse. Perhaps this was why my photographs were signed by Eugène Pirou, who is also known as the maker of the first pornographic film!
Years later, in a damp bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, I found another cache of Edwardian photographs of the Embassy. They came in handy in 2005, when I succeeded the late John Cornforth as Adviser on Historic Interiors to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. My portfolio included the Paris Residence, which is always regarded as the most splendid British embassy building anywhere, and I was delighted when I had the opportunity of reproducing some of my photographs in a lavish book I wrote on the history of the British Ambassador’s Residence in Paris, commissioned by the then Ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott, and published by Flammarion in 2011.
This week I am back in the Hotel de Charost to help it celebrate its bicentenary. The current Ambassador, Sir Peter Ricketts, has asked me to give a tour of the historic rooms to the assembled dignitaries. They are immaculately maintained by the Residence staff and still blaze with the showy furnishings and bronzes of Pauline Borghese – their Empire opulence somewhat mellowed and made more comfortable by two centuries of British occupation.
Tim Knox is the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and author of The British Ambassador’s Residence in Paris (Flammarion, 2011)