This beautifully preserved hat is of the notorious bicorne – or à la française – shape which has since the early 19th century become one of the quintessential attributes of Napoleon Bonaparte who, contrary to customary use, would wear it sideways with the two ends over the ears. He wore the same model throughout the fifteen years of the Empire, the hats at times differing only slightly in proportions. These were principally supplied by Poupart & Co., hatmakers located in what is today known as the Palais Royal in Paris; Like all of the Emperor's hats, this one has an added black felt patch on the inside of the front brim, allowing an easier handling. There is also no leather to the interior headdress, which is again characteristic of Napoleon's hats since he was apparently allergic to this material. Another bicorne hat belonging to the Emperor, of slightly smaller dimensions, was sold last year at Osenat in Fontainebleau for €1,800,000 (Osenat, 16 November 2014, lot 89) and while only a handful of bicornes remain in private hands. A few more are known in museum collections around the world including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Russian Campaign, 1812), the German Historical Museum (Battle of Waterloo hat) and of course, the Musée de l'Armée in Paris. The present hat was said to have travelled with Napoleon throughout the campaign of 1807, and finally worn at the infamous Treaty of Tilsit; it was purchased in 1814 by Michael Shaw Stewart and subsequently brought back to Ardgowan House, in Scotland. He commissioned a cover and stand for the hat, interestingly this stand has identical mounts to a pair of tables commissioned for Harewood House, Yorkshire, attributed to Marsh and Tatham, [see Christie's, London 21 May 2015, lot 46.]
While the primary value of undertaking a Grand Tour in the early 19th century lay in the discovery of classical and Renaissance cultures, it could also sometimes transform into an adventure in itself for the young aristocrats who set off on this lengthy voyage, (Shaw Stewart's lasted two years). Shaw Stewart embarked on this European tour in the spring of 1814, accompanied by his younger brother Jack. Less than a month earlier, the Treaty of Fontainebleau had brought a conclusion to Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule as Emperor of France and proclaimed his exile on the island of Elba, marking the end of over 20 years of Napoleonic Wars. Interrupting his career in politics, Michael Shaw Stewart left the family estate of Ardgowan and sailed for the Continent; he carefully recorded his exploration of Europe in a diary which is today still in the collection of the Shaw Stewart family.
This diary, full of anecdotes, tells the story of Shaw Stewart’s meeting with Jérôme Bonaparte, younger brother to Napoleon, who requested he carry letters from him to Napoleon and their mother in Elba. The young Shaw Stewart agreed, but missed the former Emperor who had just escaped the island to reach France, and begin the ‘Hundred Days War’ which would lead him to his final demise. This near-miss did not prevent Shaw Stewart from meeting another member of the Bonaparte family, Madame la Mère, who received him and showed him around the house; he would later refer to her in his diary as the “Mother of so much Mischief” and stated “how extraordinary it was to be in the same room with Mother (…) Sisters (…) Brothers of the man who had made all Europe tremble and who in England we so particularly feared and hated…”. They would meet again briefly in early 1816, and the flirtation continued when she presented him with a full-length painting of Napoleon by Lefèvre. These extracts from Shaw Stewart's diary also provide further evidence of his seemingly insatiable appetite for keeping mementoes of his time amongst Napoleon's family. From the library at Elba, he acquired the pamphlet for the funeral oration of the Empress Josephine, which, it was said, Napoleon had been reading only the night before.
It was during a visit at the Brühl-Marcolini Palace in Dresden that Michael Shaw Stewart made what is described in his own words as “the most valuable and curious acquisition by far I have yet made in my travels”. He discovered with awe the treasures held within the Palace, alongside details about Napoleon’s time there: “we saw the room he always breakfasted and dined in, and in it the little round table he used”. Upon the end of his visit, he enthusiastically purchased the present hat from the Keeper of the Palace, a transaction carefully recorded in his diary: “(…) the hat of Buonaparte which he wore at the Battles of Jena, Friedland and Eylau and at the Treaty of Tilsit. (…) He wore this hat for ten months. On leaving Dresden, Napoleon’s valet de chambre gave it to Jean Baptiste Kühnel, concierge du Chateau, from whom I this day bought it at his own price, viz. 10 thalers or about two English guineas. I will not say how much I would have given for it but having got it I know that no price would tempt me to part with it. I consider it as a most curious and interesting thing to be possessed of and I shall spare no care or expense to get it back home.”
Often referred to as ‘The War of the Fourth Coalition’, Napoleon’s 1807 campaign turned out to be a great triumph for him despite the striking number of fatalities amongst the French army. It culminated in the Battle of Friedland, which took place on the 14th of June 1807, and saw the Grande Armée victorious; a gratifying success for Napoleon after the inconclusive Battle of Eylau of the 7th and 8th of February which is considered one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Following their defeat at Friedland, the Russians reacted swiftly to settle this war, one reason being that Czar Alexander I was worried that more fighting on Russian soil might lead to a revolution against him. Alexander suggested peace talks between himself, Napoleon and King Frederick William of Prussia, which Napoleon agreed to, seeing it as an opportunity to further stabilise his dominance in Europe and isolate Britain. Napoleon and Alexander I met on a pavilion erected on a raft in the middle of the Neman River, the border between the Prussian and Russian territory in Poland. On the 7th and 9th of July 1807, France, Russia and Prussia ratified the two Treaties of Tilsit, which effectively divided Europe into French and Russian spheres of influence, while halving Prussia’s territory. Amongst other major decisions, France pledged to support Russia against Ottoman Turkey, and Russia agreed to join the Continental System against Britain.
These few days at Tilsit in early July 1807 propelled Napoleon at the zenith of his power and exemplified his crafty diplomatic skills. It is recorded that, while on St Helena towards the end of his life, a conversation turned which moment he would consider the happiest of his life, to which Napoleon replied: “Yes, I was happy when I became First Consul, happy at the time of my marriage, and happy at the birth of the King of Rome (…). But then I did not feel perfectly confident of the security of my position. Perhaps I was happiest at Tilsit. I had just surmounted many vicissitudes, many anxieties, at Eylau for instance; and I found myself victorious, dictating laws, having emperors and kings pay me court”.