Last week was discussed the Battle of Vitoria, by which Wellington and his allied forces defeated the French army, officially under the command of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s elder brother. Though Joseph Bonaparte was not much of a military commander, he was an experienced connoisseur of fine art with the power to take what he wanted from his new kingdom of Spain. When it became necessary for him to flee the Spanish capital, he did exactly that. In the aftermath of the battle, Wellington came into possession of a rich treasure, thanks in large part to the flight of Napoleon’s brother, the deposed puppet king of Spain. Some of the best of that treasure remains on display in Apsley House, Wellington’s London home, even today.
How Bonaparte’s booty became the Beau’s bounty …
Joseph Bonaparte was about eighteen months older than his brother, Napoleon, but he could not have been more different. Joseph was soft and rather gentle, while Napoleon was hard and often cruel; Joseph was self-indulgent in the extreme while Napoleon was very disciplined, Joseph enjoyed the luxuries of life while his brother was indifferent to them; and Joseph was drawn to beautiful things simply by their beauty, while Napoleon saw everything in terms of how it could support and advance his military and political power. Despite his weak character, Joseph was always very loyal to his brother and Napoleon liked having family members, whom he felt he could trust, in positions of power within his empire. In 1806, Napoleon first made Joseph military commander in Naples, a country he had recently conquered. Soon thereafter, Napoleon made Joseph King of Naples, where he actually became generally liked, in contrast to the hated monarchs who had preceded him. Joseph thoroughly enjoyed his sovereignty over the sybaritic Kingdom of Naples. So much so that he was reluctant to leave it in 1808, when his brother "promoted" him to King of Spain, soon after the French army had invaded that country.
The rightful King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, was forced to abdicate his crown to Napoleon. He was then sent to France where he became a "guest," not of his own choosing, at Tallyrand’s estate, Château de Valençay. King Ferdinand would remain there for about six years. In May of 1808, Napoleon set up his brother, Joseph, as his puppet on the throne of Spain. Though the majority of those in the Spanish government supported Joseph, mostly to appease his brother, Napoleon, the Spanish people most decidedly did not. There were multiple uprisings, which, along with the French-controlled Spanish government’s attempt to invade Portugal, led to the start of the Peninsular Wars, when Britain came to the aid of her ally, Portugal. Then began the long struggle on the Iberian Peninsula which Napoleon would come to call "the Spanish Ulcer." A struggle which he believed played a very large part in his downfall.
It was not long before Joseph, despite his lack of any true military aptitude, realized the Spanish people would not calmly accept his rule as had the people of Naples. In the fall of 1808, Napoleon returned to Spain with his armies to crush the armed resistance against his brother. By December of 1808, Napoleon entered Madrid, after having forcibly solidified his brother’s position as King of Spain. Accompanying Napoleon, as he often did, was his artistic advisor, Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon. Vivant Denon, among other things, was the first Director of the Musée Napoléon (the Louvre Museum), having been appointed by Napoleon himself, after he accompanied the French General on his Egyptian campaign. In was in large measure due to Denon that Napoleon routinely looted the best of the art from nearly every country he conquered. Denon had persuaded Napoleon that the art treasures he seized were trophies of his absolute power and their display in the Musée Napoléon was a key factor in developing and maintaining a national identity of the new, powerful, Napoleonic France. Thereby, to Denon’s delight, he thus became director of the pre-eminent art collection in all of Europe, which suited him very well.
Upon arriving in Madrid with Napoleon in December of 1808, Denon began reviewing the collections of Spanish art in the city. He intend to loot the best of them for the Musée Napoléon collections, which at that time had no paintings by Spanish artists. The taste in Europe as this time was focused on the works of the Renaissance and the Dutch and Flemish Baroque masters, there was little interest in anything else. With Napoleon as his principal procurer, Denon already had the best of those artists in his galleries and he was looking for something new and different. Imagine Denon’s anger and annoyance when he discovered that in the few short months that Joseph Bonaparte had been on the throne of Spain he had already begun to bring together an extensive collection of Spanish paintings. King Joseph was even planning to open a national gallery of Spanish paintings in Madrid. Joseph hoped that by showing his respect for the arts in Spain, he could begin to win over the hearts and minds of his new subjects.
Denon knew he had Napoleon’s complete confidence in matters artistic, but he also knew how very close the brothers were to one another. Though Napoleon had little regard for Joseph’s military skill, he had a high respect for Joseph’s intellect and his artistic taste. Joseph had already established himself in Europe as a man of excellent education and a connoisseur of the fine arts. There was no chance at all that Napoleon would require Joseph to relinquish any of the art he had already collected to Denon, even for display in the magnificent and eponymous Musée Napoléon. On 18 January 1809, Vivant Denon wrote to a friend from Valladolid, in which he expresses his disappointment, " … twenty paintings of the Spanish school absolutely needed by the Musée … [which] would have been a trophy in perpetuity of this last campaign." But he could not pry them away from Joseph. In the end, Denon had to settle for a few fairly minor Spanish works which he was able to take with him when he returned to Paris.
For the next five years, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain, continued to amass a huge collection of art, not just paintings, but also prints, sculpture, jewelry, precious gems and many objects of decorative art as well. Joseph did not limit himself to the works of Spanish artists. He acquired outstanding works by many of the great masters throughout the history of art. However, Joseph did hang the very best of the paintings from the Spanish collections in his own apartments in the royal palace, the Palacio Real. By the spring of 1813, the Spanish Royal Collection was one of the finest in Europe, if not the world. Then word reached Joseph Bonaparte that the British general, Wellington, had assembled an allied army numbering well in excess of 100,000 troops, and that army was already on the march into Spain. Wellington had captured Madrid the previous summer, but had not been able to hold it, due to lack of forces. But this new intelligence informed King Joseph that Wellington’s allied army was now nearly double the number of all the French troops in Spain.
At the news, Joseph panicked and decided he must flee Madrid as soon as possible. He was determined to go north, to the protection of a large French army under the command of Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, which he knew was operating in the vicinity of Burgos. But Joseph had no intention of leaving Madrid without the enormous treasure he had assembled. He commandeered every available wagon and ordered that everything of value be packed and loaded into those wagons. Within a few days, over one hundred wagons were piled high with the wealth of Spain. But time was growing short, there were no more wagons available and over one hundred and fifty of his favorite paintings, those from his private apartments in the Palacio Real, had not yet been prepared for transport. Joseph would not leave them behind and decided to add them to his personal baggage. The framed paintings were too unwieldy to be packed, but many of them were on canvas rather than wood. Therefore, Joseph ordered that the paintings not just be removed from their frames, but that they also be cut from their stretchers and rolled. Since there was no more room in any of the wagons in his baggage train, Joseph loaded all these rolled canvases into the huge imperial which was fitted atop his personal travelling coach, a berline. Many more valuable personal items were loaded into the boot of the coach, or into large trunks which were strapped to the outside. On Wednesday, 26 May 1813, Joseph, his own contingent of soldiers and his enormous baggage train begin the slow trek north, under the command of General Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo, the father of Victor Hugo. They reached Jourdan’s army on Saturday, 19 June, at their encampment near Vitoria.
Two days later, on 21 June 1813, Wellington attacked Jourdan’s position and soundly defeated the French. The fleeing French soldiers took all of the horses which had been used to draw Joseph Bonaparte’s massive baggage train, leaving it in the streets of Vitoria, at the mercy of the oncoming allied troops. But Joseph had been able to hold on to the horses which drew his personal travelling coach, as well as the mounts for his personal bodyguard. When he realized the battle was lost, Joseph fled north in his personal travelling coach, still fully loaded, accompanied by his bodyguard. Though he hoped to outdistance the pursuing allied troops, it seems it never occurred to him to reduce the weight the horses must carry by jettisoning any of his baggage. The heavily loaded berline was stopped not far out of Vitoria by Captain Henry Wyndham of the 14th Light Dragoons and Lieutenant Lord Worcester of the 10th Hussars. [Author’s Note: Lord Worcester, heir to the Duke of Beaufort, had purchased a commission in the Prince Regent’s regiment in order to escape the increasingly demanding attentions of the courtesan, Harriette Wilson.]
The two British officers fired their pistols into the coach’s right-side windows. While his bodyguards made a stand, Joseph Bonaparte quickly jumped out the door on the left side of the coach. It is not clear whether the two young officers simply did not recognize the erstwhile King of Spain, or if Joseph’s bodyguard was just too quick for them. In any event, Joseph and the remnants of his bodyguard escaped on horseback while Worcester and Wyndham investigated the contents of the coach. Captain Wyndham was delighted when he happened upon one of the less prestigious items in the coach, Joseph Bonaparte’s substantial solid silver pot de chambre, of which he immediately took possession. The pair found a number of diplomatic pouches and chests containing state papers and Joseph Bonaparte’s many love letters to his mistresses, which alerted them to the fact that the coach belonged to Bonaparte’s elder brother. Lt. Worcester, who was at that time serving as an ADC to Wellington, informed the general of their find.
Wellington ordered a detachment of the 18th Hussars to guard Joseph Bonaparte’s coach. However, these sentries were unable to resist going through the contents of the coach themselves. They ignored the rolled up paintings they found in the imperial atop the berline, thinking them of no value. However, a corporal opened a large blue velvet case, heavily embroidered with thirty-two gold eagles. Inside, though he did not know it, was the ceremonial command baton of Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, who had fled with his army, leaving his baton and its case in Joseph Bonaparte’s coach. The corporal removed the gold end caps before the baton itself was stolen from him by bugler Paddy Shannon, of the 87th Royal Fusiliers. The next day, 22 June 1813, the 87th presented the baton to Wellington, sans the gold end caps. When the 18th Hussars learned of the presentation, they sent along the gold end caps with their compliments, and " … to undeceive him about the 87th." Curiously, Wellington did not have the soldier who delivered the end caps prosecuted. Instead, he ordered that ten Spanish dollars be given to him as a reward.
Marshal Jourdan’s baton was reassembled and Wellington would eventually present it, along with Joseph Bonaparte’s ornate dress sword, which had also been found in his abandoned coach, to the Prince Regent. The Prince had gone into nearly uncontrolled paroxysms of ecstasy when he learned of the victory at Vitoria and had embraced John Wilson Croker, the man who brought him the news. The Regent was so pleased with these ornate military gifts that he wished to present Wellington with the English Field Marshal’s command baton, only to discover that no such emblem of military office existed, or had ever existed, in England. Not one to be deterred by such inconsequential details, Prinny set to work to design a baton himself, which he had made in the finest materials. He then personally presented it in a formal ceremony to Wellington.
A few days after the battle, Wellington had time to go through the remaining contents of Joseph Bonaparte’s coach. An art collector himself, he did look at many of the paintings, prints and drawings which were found in the imperial. He recognized a number of drawings and prints as works by Raphael and other artists of the Italian school. However he was unfamiliar with the painted works and therefore, could not be sure of their value. Initially, with so many works by Italian artists in the collection, he thought they might have been looted from Italy. But, since they had been in Joseph Bonaparte’s possession, it was also possible they had been taken from the Spanish royal collection. Since Italy was still under Napoleon’s control and the Spanish government was nearly non-existent at this point, he had the paintings crated and sent them to his brother, William, in England, for safe-keeping until an Italian or Spanish authority could be identified who could take official possession of them. Once the paintings arrived in England, William had the Keeper of Royal Pictures take a look at them. It was only then that their true value was understood. Among the collection were not only works by some of the greatest Spanish painters, such as Velasquez, but also important works by Correggio, Titian and Van Dyck.
When the news reached Wellington, he wrote to William, asking him to have the paintings cleaned, repaired and properly affixed to stretchers, in order to stabilize and protect the paint surfaces. In March of 1814, from his encampment on campaign in southern France, Wellington wrote to another of his brothers, Henry, who was currently the British ambassador to Spain. He asked Henry to arrange with Don Luyando, a Spanish diplomat, for a Spanish official to be sent to England to view the paintings and determine which, if any of them, belonged to the rightful King of Spain. He also told Henry that he was having a catalog of the paintings made and that he would send him a copy as soon as it was completed. Despite Henry’s best efforts, the Spanish government seemed in no particular hurry to reclaim their art works and nothing was done to deal with the repatriation of the paintings for more than two years.
In 1816, Wellington, then Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in France, tried to address the issue of the purloined Spanish paintings once again. By then, he had been able to establish that the paintings he had found among Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage were indeed taken from the Spanish royal collection. This time, he wrote to Count Fernan Nuñez, the Spanish Minister in England, asking him to arrange for the return of the paintings to the Spanish government. After discussing the matter with King Ferdinand VII, Count Nuñez, wrote to Wellington, "His Majesty, touched by your delicacy, does not wish to deprive you of that which has come into your possession by means as just as they are honourable." The Spanish king wanted to honor the man who had restored him to his throne. And so, Joseph Bonaparte’s favorite Spanish paintings became the property of the man who drove him from the throne of Spain. Wellington continued to collect paintings to add to his fine collection, and eventually added a new wing to his London home, Apsley House, to display them. Now known as the Waterloo Gallery, the majority of the Spanish paintings are on display there, in nearly the same positions in which Wellington himself had them hung. Of all of the Spanish paintings, Wellington’s favorite was The Agony in the Garden by Antonio da Correggio.
Despite the fact that Joseph Bonaparte left behind the bulk of his baggage, when he escaped from Captain Wyndham and Lieutenant Worcester, he did manage to get away with a very large hoard of precious gems from the Spanish crown jewels. The wealth with which he absconded allowed him to help finance his brother’s return from exile on the island of Elba in the spring of 1815. After Waterloo, Joseph still had enough money to travel to the United States, where he eventually bought an estate in New Jersey, financed by the wealth he had looted from Spain. Perhaps the most famous jewel among those which Joseph Bonaparte took from Spain also received its name due to his machinations. Thus, this large, white, pear-shaped pearl, which was already more than a century old when Joseph Bonaparte took it, came to be called "La Peregrina," which translates from Spanish as "the Wanderer" or "the Pilgrim." And so it has wandered, ever after. Joseph kept "La Peregrina," and bequeathed it to his nephew, Charles Louis Napoleon, who would become Napoleon III. Bonaparte’s nephew, in turn, sold it to James Hamilton, the 2nd Marquess of Abercorn, when he suffered serious financial difficulties while in exile in England. The Dukes of Abercorn retained possession of "La Peregrina," until 1969, when they sold it to the actor, Richard Burton, who presented it as a gift to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. "La Peregrina," went wandering again in December of 2011, when it was sold at the Christie’s auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, for US$11.8 Million, to a private collector.
Though it seems almost certain that Wellington was aware of Captain Wyndham’s "liberation" of Joseph Bonaparte’s silver chamber pot, Wyndham was allowed to keep it. Quite possibly since it would be rather embarrassing to return it to the Spanish government, and no one was the least bit interested in restoring it to Joseph Bonaparte. Captain Wyndham made a gift of Joseph Bonaparte’s silver jakes-pot to his regiment, the 14th Light Dragoons, who christened it "the Emperor." It was for that reason that the men of the 14th were thereafter sometimes taunted with the nickname "the Emperor’s Chambermaids." The men of the 14th soon found a use for this large silver vessel. It became the custom to employ it for drinking toasts in champagne on regimental guest nights. When a guest was dining with the regiment, near the end of the evening, the commanding officer would call for "the Emperor." It would be brought to him, he would fill it with champagne and drink a toast to the guest for the evening. The Mess Sergeant Major would take "the Emperor" to every other member of the dinner party in turn, and each would repeat the toast. When everyone had made a toast and had a drink, the commanding officer would then select one officer to finish off the contents of "the Emperor." If this officer could not polish off the remaining champagne, he was expected to tip it over his head. Remarkably, though the 14th Light Dragoons have been amalgamated into other units over the past two hundred years, they still retain possession of "the Emperor" and it is still used for the drinking of champagne toasts on guest nights at regimental dinners, to this day.
And so it was, that two hundred years ago this week, Joseph Bonaparte fled his private traveling coach, under fire from two young British officers, leaving behind his favorite paintings rolled up in the imperial strapped to the top of his coach. General Wellington took possession of those paintings with the full intention of returning them to the Spanish government. He sent them to one of his brothers in England for safe-keeping while asking another brother in Spain to arrange for the return of the paintings. The Spanish government was in disarray, and Wellington, assuming the paintings were of little value, let the matter slide while he devoted himself to the removal of Joseph’s brother from the throne of France. It was not until Napoleon had finally been exiled to St. Helena that Wellington had time once again to attempt to repatriate the paintings Joseph had stolen. By then, the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, had been released from France and returned to his throne in Madrid. He firmly believed that he had regained that throne primarily through the efforts of the man who was by then the Duke of Wellington and he wished to show his gratitude by making a gift of the stolen paintings to his benefactor. Joseph Bonaparte’s paintings became the neucleus of an important art collection to which the Duke of Wellington gradually added with his own purchases. Eventually, he had an addition built to his London home, Apsley House, which included a large gallery for the display of his most important works of art. And, every year, on 18 June, the Duke hosted a dinner in that grand chamber for all of the surviving officers who fought with him during the Waterloo campaign. That room became known as the Waterloo Gallery and it was Joseph Bonaparte, brother of the man vanquished at Waterloo, who did much to provide many of the fine paintings which lined the walls of that great chamber.