art & design

What Napoleon’s hat tells us about the power of branding

On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, we look at a rare bicorne hat which Bonaparte famously wore sideways, showing the emperor understood the importance of branding, says Claire Wrathall

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power as First Consul of France, in 1799, he ordered himself a coat of arms. The politician Emmanuel Crétet (later first governor of the Banque de France), who had supported the coup that propelled him to power, suggested an eagle, a lion and an elephant. The lawyer Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, author of what became known as the Napoleonic Code, on which French law remains based, suggested bees — to symbolise the idea that France was industrious, a hive ruled by a monarch. The result, like any number of imperial insignia, had at its centre an eagle flanked by bees.

Look at any of the great coronation portraits of the emperor — by Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Robert Lefèvre, Anne-Louis Girodet et al — and there are golden bees, 300 of them, all over his crimson velvet robe. They’re there again, in ormolu, on the soundbox and neck of the Cousineau-built harp in the music room at the Château de Malmaison where Napoleon lived with the Empress Joséphine until he divorced her in 1810. There is even apian decoration on the Egyptian-style Napoleonic medal cabinet, thought to have been made by Martin-Guillaume Biennais, goldsmith to the Imperial family, recently acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum for its soon-to-open new Europe 1600-1800 Galleries.


Robert Lefèvre (Bayeux 1755–1830 Paris), Portrait of the Emperor Napoleon (1769–1821), Full-length, in Coronation Robes, Before his Throne. Signed and dated ‘Robert Lefèvre fecit 1813’, given by Napoleon’s mother Madame Mère in 1816 to Sir Michael Shaw Stewart. Estimate: £400,000 — 600,000. This work, and Napoleon’s hat, are offered in the Exceptional Sale in London on 9 July

Indeed when Andrew Roberts’ masterly biography Napoleon the Great was published last autumn, Penguin’s art editor, Isabelle de Cat, intentionally eschewed portraits and images of battle scenes for its cover, opting instead for a large ‘N’ surrounded by an orderly swarm of golden bees. She was taking, she said at the time, ‘a symbolic approach, with the cover creating a sort of “brand” for Napoleon.’

Not that she needed to, for Napoleon himself had been wise to the power of brands and the need for logos, so to speak. Take the glass bottle found in a carriage of Napoleon’s that Christie’s is selling on 9 July (see below). There at the base of its neck is, not a bee, but a letter N in bold relief, surrounded by laurels and topped with an imperial crown.

As the great authority on branding Wally Olins put it in his book On Brand, ‘It was the French who really started national branding in 1789 after the Revolution. The tricolour replaced the Fleur de Lys, the Marseillaise beaome the new anthem, traditional weights and measures were replaced by the metric system, a new calendar was introduced. God was replaced by the Supreme Being. France was quite consciously and overtly rebranded, the first nation to enter on so self-aware a course.’ Napoleon’s challenge, on crowning himself emperor, was therefore, writes Olins, ‘quite consciously and overtly [to] rebrand’ not just France but Europe, an achievement ‘the whole [continent] was profoundly influenced by.’

When it came to the battlefield, Napoleon’s personal style signifier, so to speak, was his hat

Of course initials and gilded bees have no place in war. When it came to the battlefield, Napoleon’s personal style signifier, so to speak, was his hat: a black felt bicorne, made by Poupart & Cie, which had premises in what is now the Palais-Royal in Paris. The convention of the time was to wear such hats with their corners pointing forward and back. In order to ensure he was instantly identifiable on the battlefield, Napoleon wore his sideways.

Poupart is thought to have made about 120 hats for him, only a minority of which survive, one of which Christie’s is also selling this summer. He would order four new ones a year, and didn’t like to wear them new. Rather he had his valets break them in for him.

This one (Estimate: £300,000–500,000), which is lined in olive-brown silk and has an interior circumference of 59cm — suggesting that Napoleon though comparatively short of stature had quite a large head ­— is known to have been worn at the Battle of Friedland in June 1807, in what was then Prussia and is now Kaliningrad and in which he was victorious against the Russians.

2-the-emperor-napoleons-hatThe Emperor Napoleon’s hat. Worn throughout the Campaign of 1807. Imperial black felt bicorne campaign hat £300,000–500,000

Three weeks after the battle, Napoleon met Tsar Alexander II, who was anxious to negotiate a truce, on a raft on the river Nieman at Tilsit. ‘Sire, je haïs les Anglais autant que vous les haïssez vous-même [Sire, I hate the English as much as you],’ the tsar is reputed to have said, to which Napoleon reportedly replied: ‘En ce cas la paix est faite! [In that case peace is made!]’ A truce was duly signed.

One suspects their mutual hatred of the English may have been shared by Sir Michael Shaw Stewart, the Scot who purchased this particular hat in 1814 — a year before Waterloo — from the keeper of the Palace of Dresden, who had in turn acquired it from Napoleon’s valet. He paid, so he wrote in his diary, 10 thalers, the equivalent of ‘two English guineas’, and brought it home to Ardgowan House on the Firth of Clyde near Inverkip in Scotland, where it has sat until now, on a green velvet cushion under a glass box, atop a specially designed stand (also included in the sale) of polished rosewood embellished with ormolu.

Despite the fact that Britain had been at war with France since 1803, Shaw Stewart (who married a direct descendant of the native American ‘princess’ Pocahontas) was something of a sympathiser with the enemy. Having met Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte (whom Napoleon had crowned King of Naples) in Paris in 1814, he delivered papers to the emperor during his exile on Elba, for which he was rewarded with the gift of an imperial state portrait from the emperor’s mother.

3-the-emperor-napoleons-hat-playing-card-and-map-wine-bottle-from-his-carriage-at-waterlooThe Emperor Napoleon’s hat. Worn throughout the Campaign of 1807. Imperial black felt bicorne campaign hat. Estimate: £300,000–500,000; The Emperor Napoleon’s playing card and map. A three of diamonds playing card and a map of France. The card autographed by Napoleon, 1807; the map dated 1808. Estimate: £3,000–5,000. Napoleon’s wine bottle from his carriage at Waterloo. A dark green glass wine bottle with a crowned ‘N’ enclosed in laurel wreath, circa. 1810, unopened and believed to contain wine. Estimate: £10,000–20,000

Among the other items of Napoleonic memorabilia he acquired (and which will also feature in this sale) were a lock from the ivory-coloured mane of his horse Marengo, the mount on which Napoleon is seen crossing the Alps in David’s heroic equestrian portrait and who carried him safely through not just the Battle of Marengo, but Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstedt, Wagram and Waterloo. There is also a playing card (the three of diamonds) inscribed, cryptically, with the words ‘L’admiral anglais aux Dardanelles’ in Napoleon’s dense script, along with a line in Shaw Stewart’s more elegant hand authenticating it; a bundle of maps and letters; a bust of Napoleon by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen; and another portrait by Lefèvre.

But the highlight is the hat, which has survived in near perfect condition bar a little wear on the underside of the brim and a nick in its left-hand edge. Evidence that its owner was not just a man of action, but one who understood, as Shakespeare has Polonius say in Hamlet, that clothes make the man.

Napoleon’s hat is a highlight of Christie’s forthcoming Exceptional Sale in London on 9 July