Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rule Brittannia!

The rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré is one of those posh Paris Streets that wanders down from the 16th through the 8th to the 1st arrondissement and beyond. Home to such fancy boutiques as Chanel and Lanvin, Burberry, and many more, it attracts a pretty posh population.

Right in the middle of the 1st arr., above the doorway of no. 39 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, a familiar (to Brits) Coat-of-Arms can be spotted embazoned on the wall. Step through these doors, and you find yourself visiting what has been, for the last two hundred years, the official residence of the British Ambassador to France.

Built in the 1720's for the Duke of Charost, a courtier of Louis XV, ownership of the house flitted through a number of aristrocatic families until 1803, when it was purchased by Pauline Borghese, the favorite younger sister of Napoleon Bonaparte.

A dazzling beauty in her day, Pauline attracted admirers by the score, lovers in equal numbers, and two husbands. As the wife of Prince Camillo Borghese, one of richest men in Italy, she spared no expense in furnishing the elegant Hôtel Charost in the finest of silks and trappings, many of which survive to this day.

 She also wasted little time observing the manners and mores of the times. The number of lovers increased to a point where the poor Prince Borghese had her put under house arrest! Adding insult to injury, she also commissioned this nude sculpture, for which she herself posed, by the Florentine artist, Canova. Today, it stands proudly in the lobby of the building, testament perhaps to a true free spirit!

Alas, all good things came to an end with the downfall of Napoleon and his exile to Elba. Pauline Borghese sold the Hôtel Charost in 1814 to the Duke of Wellington, already a highly distinguished general, for 861,500 francs. That same year he was appointed the English Ambassador to France and immediately took up residence. From that time to the present, it has remained the official home of the British Ambassador. It is said that Wellington paid Pauline in installments of Louis d'Or (gold), and that she sent the money to her brother in exile, thus helping finance his dramatic return the following year. If true, there's a certain delicious irony in the thought of the English (Wellington) helping finance Napoleon's return, and then Wellington leading the British army that thoroughly walloped him at the Battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815 (you cannot make this stuff up!).

When you enter the building today you come face to face with elegant busts of both Napoleon (on the left) and Wellington, an attempt perhaps to signify a rapprochement in a relationship that, from time to time over the centuries, has been more than a little touchy.

 Churchill's there, too, just to keep an eye on things...

...and a very young and lovely Queen Victoria.

Moving into the "Red" Room, you quickly realize that no effort has been spared in these public rooms to keep a sense of Princess Borhese's home.

Gold and red silk chairs, originally a set of 40 in the days of Pauline...

...elegant French chandeliers...

...and the first of several intricate, ornate, gilded clocks.

Moving into the "Blue" Room, your eye is caught almost at once by this dramatic black marble and gilt pendulum clock. A variation on the theme "ars longa, vita brevis", the clock is full of metaphors of the arts, letters and sciences, all living within the framework of the limits of time.

The day we visited, the Blue Room was setting up for a luncheon for a visiting member of the British trade commission. As with most formal British gatherings, place mats rather than tablecloths are the order of the day, allowing the gleam of the table to shine through. I have to confess I found myself wondering if, once the place settings had been laid out, Carson would be appearing with his measuring stick to check that everything was "spot on".

Next door, Princess Borghese's "Salon" features her original choice of furnishings and colors. In her day, it was known as her bedchamber, with perhaps many a secret tryst taking place behind the lovely draped curtains that surround her bed...

...watched over by Egyptian figurines at the corners, and guarded by lions on the top!

Believe it or not, among the public rooms on the ground floor of the residence, there is actually a "Throne Room". We were assured the "throne" is reserved only for the reigning Monarch. If there are official investitures or proclamations to be delivered by the Ambassador, he or she will stand in front and below the throne. Whew!

The elegant 18th century stairway leads the way to the Ambassador's private living quarters.

I loved the detail of the "sunburst faces". Alas, that was as close as we got to the upper levels of the residence!

We were told of the beautiful library up there, dedicated to Duff Cooper, a prominent British diplomat and politican in the early part of the 20th century...

...and of the less formal family sitting rooms, although the elegance of the chandelier and paintings on the walls look pretty grand to me. As in most English homes, though, I would lay pretty good odds that tucked away in the kitchen cupboard there is a jar of Marmite and a tin of Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup!

For us mere mortals, though, it remained only to see the grand ballroom with its glowing parquet floor and English crystal chandeliers...

...before it was announced that "tea is served" in a tiled hallway looking out onto the extensive gardens.

Here, a very charming young English footman graciously poured us all a "nice cup of tea"...

...and served us delicious Welsh tea cakes, still warm from the oven. Yum!

As we made our way out, I paused for a moment to give a quick nod to HM the Queen herself, who was last here with the Duke of Edinburgh in 2014 to honor of the centenary of the beginning of WWI. She has now surpassed Victoria as Britain's longest reigning monarch. As I stepped out into the bustling rue du Faubourg Honoré, I looked back at this little bit of England in the middle of Paris, and said a quiet "God Save the Queen"!

À bientôt!


  1. Oh, I love Welsh tea cakes, haven't had them in years. Thanks for the tour! Susan

  2. God Save the Queen. Oh yes.
    A little teary thinking of you there and so close to home. Thank you for such a splendid walk through. It looks 'lovely'.

  3. Catching up on blogs another amazing one sorry for delay but dealing with a lot