A Napoleon III-Eye View of London

How did Regency and early Victorian London influence the design of Napoleon III’s Paris?

We know that Napoleon III lived in London during his exile before returning to France in 1848 and that he was very aware of the urban and social issues of his day. But other than rare instances (the Bois de Boulogne, the Parisian “squares”), there are no direct references to London in the urbanism Second Empire Paris.

At the same time, there is no doubt that the future Emperor’s stays in what was at the time the leading city of the western world played a role in forming his image of the modern city.

I therefore took to the field to conduct my own exploration of London from the perspective of the future Emperor to consider how his daily environment during his time here may have influenced his future remodeling of the French capital.

Louis-Napoléon settled in London in 1838, the year following his mother’s death, when he was forced to leave Switzerland due to diplomatic pressure from France. His first London home was at 17 Carlton House Terrace, part of an ensemble completed by John Nash only six years before Louis-Napoléon moved in. It was a very prestigious address; within a few years the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, would be living a few doors down, at number 5.

Carlton House Terrace (number 17 is toward the far end)

Louis-Napoléon’s everyday environment was therefore a very refined, carefully composed urban neighborhood. Around the corner was Waterloo Place – the name of which must not have been very pleasing to the nephew of Napoleon I – which becomes Regent Street. It is notable that Louis-Napoléon lived so close to London’s most significant example of a percée, although we know that the building of new streets through the urban fabric was already used as a technique in Paris before Louis-Napoléon returned. Perhaps though his familiarity with the Regent Street operation nevertheless helped him embrace this approach, which was enshrined as the preferred method for Paris by the Siméon Commission report of 1853.

At Waterloo Place, steps from Louis-Napoléon’s home, was a fine example of a London private garden. These so strongly marked Louis-Napoléon that he had many such gardens built in Paris, with the important difference that they were open to the public. This is the origin of the Parisian”square”. It seems likely that the Waterloo Place garden counted among the models for what became a thoroughly Parisian typology of urban green space.

Private Garden at Waterloo Place

In 1839, Louis-Napoléon moved to a truly exceptional property at 1 Carlton Gardens. The residence, at the far west end of Carlton House Terrace, is a bit separate from the other houses of the street and looks west toward Marlborough House. Lord Palmerston would later live in the adjoining number 2. Today, the home Louis-Napoléon occupied is an official residence usually assigned to the Foreign Secretary. In a fascinating historical juxtaposition, a statue of General De Gaulle just meters from the entry gate to Louis-Napoléon’s old house commemorates the fact that number 4 was used as the headquarters of the Free French Forces during World War II.

1 and 2 Carlton Gardens
1 and 2 Carlton Gardens seen from the Mall

Louis-Napoléon only had to walk down a flight of stairs to find himself on the Mall, across the street from Saint James Park. He loved his walks in London’s parks and none was as accessible to him as Saint James Park. It is not a stretch to see in this finely landscaped park, with broad lawns, old trees, and a lake full of ducks and swans, some of the inspiration that would lead Napoleon III to transform the Bois de Boulogne before creating the Bois de Vincennes, the Parc Monceau, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the Parc Montsouris.

Saint James Park
The lake in Saint James Park, with Buckingham Palace in the background

Louis-Napoléon stay in London was cut short by his unsuccessful attempt to trigger an insurrection in Boulogne-sur-mer in 1840. He then spent six years as a prisoner in a fort in northern France before escaping and returning to London in 1846.

His first address on his return was the Brunswick Hotel, one of London’s finest, located at 52 Jermyn Street. The hotel has since been pulled down and replaced with a building through which the Piccadilly Arcade connects Jermyn Street and Piccadilly.

Louis-Napoléon then found a home close to his previous residences, at 3 King Street. Although the building has been rebuilt since then, a plaque at number 1D King Street commemorates the fact that the future Emperor of France lived at this place. It is said to be the oldest of these blue commemorative plaques to be seen today in London.

Louis-Napoléon was again in the heart of Saint James, a neighborhood he visibly appreciated. This home was close to another private garden, Saint James Square, and a bit closer to Green Park than to Saint James Park. He also visited Mayfair during this period, as his mistress, Miss Howard, lived at 9 Berkeley Street.

King Street, London (number 3 was the third house on the right)
Plaque commemorating Napoleon III's residence at 3 King Street
Saint James Square

In February 1848, the Revolution removed King Louis-Philippe from the throne. Louis-Napoléon was, however, not allowed to return from exile until September. Thereafter, he would quickly become leader of France and spend the next twenty-two and a half years in power before returning to London in 1871 in the very different position of a gravely ill and defeated deposed Emperor of France.

Further reading: the best summary of the influence of London on Second Empire Paris is Philippe Gresset’s article “Architecture et urbanisme aux origines du Second Empire” in the catalogue of the exhibition at the Château de Compiègne on Queen Victoria’s visit to Paris in 1855: Catalogue d’exposition Napoléon III et la reine Victoria Une visite à l’Exposition universelle de 1855, Réunion des musées nationaux, 2009.

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