Napoleon’s Hat

As a recent auction has shown, interest in Bonaparte's bicorne is alive and well.
Napoleonic bicorne hat in the collection of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
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Napoleon’s Hat

Joseph J Sullivan’s 1888 music hall song poses a question that has been asked by auction houses around the work since 1815, albeit that the enquiry invariably refers to one specific model of ‘tile’: that worn by Napoléon from 1800, shortly after he became First Consul, until his death in exile on St Helena in 1821.

The iconic image

Known as a bicorne à la française, these distinctive black, military-style hats were made for Napoléon by the Paris-based hatters, Poupart et Delaunay, whose shop was located in the Palais Royal arcade. Each hat cost him F60 (2020: £166) and it is believed that, in the fifteen years before Napoléon exile in 1815, he was supplied with 120 of them, in varying weights and fabric to suit the weather and the time of year. Each hat was expected to have a lifespan of three years and, at any one time, some twelve bicornes could be found in the imperial wardrobe. Despite the number supplied, and their expected longevity, only thirteen with an imperial provenance survive.

When it came to his clothes, Napoléon had three obsessions in addition to that of personal cleanliness, which necessitated several baths every day and the supply of literally gallons of his favourite perfume, Eau de Cologne. This he used at the rate of sixty bottles a month. During his exile on St Helena, an English friend and supporter, Lady Holland, sent him crates of this fragrance, along with a thousand books, journals, an ice-making machine, and food parcels. In gratitude, Napoléon bequeathed her a gold snuff box, inset on the lid with an agate cameo of Bacchus on a goat, presented to him by Pope Pius VI. Lady Holland in turn bequeathed it to the British Museum on her death in 1845.

Elizabeth Fox, Lady Holland (1771-1845) by Louis Gauffier (Wikimedia Commons)

As far as the clothes on his cologne-suffused body were concerned, Napoléon insisted that they had to be clean and smell fresh. For this reason, in the era before dry cleaning and deodorants, his three principal uniforms – the blue and white of a Colonel of the Grenadiers à Pied of the Imperial Guard, the green and red of a Colonel of the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Imperial Guard, and the blue and white uniform of the National Guard – were ordered in bulk, with forty being delivered every quarter day by the imperial tailors (Chevallier until 1812 and Lejeune thereafter). His second obsession was a horror of new shoes and hats; these items of clothing would be broken-in by one or other of his valets. His last sartorial obsession was the maintenance of his iconic image, which comprised the bicorne, the Imperial Guard uniforms, a plain but distinctive greatcoat, and a pale grey Arab charger, when mounted on parade or in battle.

As a result of this last obsession, as Andrew Roberts and others have remarked, Napoléon is about the only historical figure who is immediately recognisable in silhouette. But that is not the only by-product of the Emperor’s image making, for as Penny Cobham and I discovered when researching our latest book, The Imperial Impresario: The Treasures, Trophies & Trivia of Napoléon’s Theatre of Power, an unintentional result is that these items of imperial iconography, and the bicornes in particular, are now enormously valuable, although this was not always so.

Prince Louis II of Monaco

A bicorne worn by Napoléon during the campaign of 1807, and at the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit on 7th July of that year, was purchased for the equivalent of two guineas (2020: £185) on 26th August 1814 by Sir Michael Shaw Stewart Bt, who bought it from the Palace of Dresden, where it had been deposited by an imperial valet. Sixty-four years later, another Napoléonic bicorne, also with a good provenance and a pre-sale estimate of £800-£1,200 (2020: £4,600-£7,000), failed to sell at a London auction. However, a mere thirty-six years after that disappointment, an imperial bicorne from the collection of Prince Louis II of Monaco sold at auction for nearly €1.9 million (£1.5 million).

Two hundred years after the Emperor’s death, the Shaw Stewart hat found its way back onto the market when it was offered for sale by Sotheby’s on 15th September 2021 with a pre-sale estimate of €400,000 – €600,000 (£340,000-£510,000). It sold for €1,222,500 (£962,298) including the buyer’s premium. Just over a month later, Bonham’s auctioned a newly-discovered Napoléonic bicorne with traces inside of the Emperor’s DNA. With a less certain past, it had a more modest pre-sale estimate of £100,000-150,000 and sold for a hammer price of £160,000, thereby proving that provenance is everything – and the significance of the title of Sullivan’s 1888 ditty.

Christopher Joll is the author, along with Penny Cobham, of The Imperial Impresarioavailable from 16th November.