Printer Friendly

A residence that's simply magnifique; Richard Edmonds is invited in to a grand government residence.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

The British Ambassador's Residence in Paris Tim Knox, with photographs by Francis Hammond (Flammarion: pounds 45) The sacking of the British Embassy in Tehran, at the end of November, served, to my mind, no purpose whatsoever.

Embassies, for whichever country they belong to, are generally - and quite rightly, regarded as sacrosanct.

They are there to embody the spirit and the aesthetic values of the country they represent. Therefore, smashing historic furniture, which is what happened in Tehran where the mob severely damaged a table upon which Winston Churchill once signed a historic treaty, tearing down and burning paintings and all kinds of similar atrocities, may indeed help a mob to let off political steam. But in the long run can only be perceived as mindless vandalism.

And Tehran residents of a milder disposition, the people who hold society together, namely the doctors, teachers, writers, lecturers, social workers etc, may well have regretted all this since they would have used the British Embassy along with its libraries and information services, when cultural matters needed organising or interpreting.

Lose all these benefits - which was very much the case in Iraq when the mob trashed the museum in Baghdad - and trust is broken along with priceless artefacts.

Happily, the British Embassy in Paris, generally regarded as the most impressive of foreign ambassadorial residences abroad, is immune to the kind of invasive attack we saw in Tehran. After all, Mr Sarkozy wouldn't allow it.

And there hasn't been looting in the Paris area - at least, not on the grand scale - since the sans culottes (or "trouserless") mob ripped the heart out of Versailles during the French Revolution.

So, this very beautiful embassy, with its English silver, English paintings, bronzes and fine furniture is safe - or at least, as safe as anything else in these curious times we live in when banks, once the acme of dignity and security, are now arraigned before the courts and seen as the cheap rip-off merchants they are while four-letter words, things which once caused shock and horror in conversation, are now common parlance.

In a book that would make an ideal Christmas present, author Tim Knox charts the fascinating story of this gorgeous house from its origins as the original home of the Duc de Charost, to its lavish heyday as the home of Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon and a woman no better than she ought to be. Incidentally, a full-length portrait of her still hangs in all its beauty in the Ante-room where you will see it in case you're ever invited.

A delightful story concerns the confrontation between the Emperor of the French and his flighty sister.

Apparently, Pauline had modelled in the nude for the brilliantly gifted sculptor Canova, posturing as some goddess or other. When he heard of it, Napoleon, as Emperor, was outraged at her behaviour. "Why did you pose in the nude?" he demanded. "Because it was hot," replied Pauline. Napoleon, apparently, boxed her ears soundly. Ah...these Corsicans.

It was the Duke of Wellington who established the British in this grand house in the rue du Faubourg-St Honore. By 1814 Wellington struck a deal. The Corsicans went out and we came in. The cost to the British Government - and the taxpayer, of course, was approximately pounds 40,000 and the deal included Pauline Bonaparte's lavish fixtures and fittings, much of which survive intact today.

All the British Prime Ministers have been over to the house at some time or other and it does make you wonder what that devout socialist Gordon Brown made of all this social elitism when he popped in for a cup of tea.

Successive ambassadors, their wives and staff, have occupied the house since 1814 and an ambassador en poste needed to be a wealthy man to carry it off. If you wonder just how much it all cost, records of ambassadorial expenses in Roman Naples are extant in a permanent exhibition at Attingham Hall near Shrewsbury where it would appear that you took your own silver to furnish dinner parties for at least 30 guests at a time.

And you received little enough in expenses. If you happen to be en poste at the court of the Russian tsars, you were given a jewelled box before you left.

Some impoverished ambassadors went round immediately to the jeweller who'd made the box and sold it back for cash.

Eventually, the box was repurchased by the Russian court for representation to another ambassador in the same boat.

Thus, the tsar was frequently astonished, not to say embarrassed, to see the same valuable box pass in front of him time and again, but, naturally protocol forbade comment.

Various ambassadors have altered the house to suit their requirements - notably, Duff Cooper and his very beautiful wife Diana. At one point, Diana was known as one of the most beautiful women in England. In the 1920s, she appeared as the Nun in Max Reinhardt's theatrical spectacle The Miracle. It is Diana's private study at the Embassy which is shown beautifully amongst Francis Hammond's hauntingly beautiful photographs which embellish this book in a particularly stunning way. A book like this is packed with stories and incidents and interspersed with a good selection of historical photographs showing the house dressed up up for State occasions.

But how nice to have been a guest on the evening when Charles Dickens (never made up to Sir Charles you notice) came over on the cross-Channel packet to give a private reading of the Pickwick Papers.

It may well have been that Dickens came in December and gave the French audiences his lovely descriptions of a Boxing Day Christmas at Dingley Dell with the sliding on the ice and Mr Pickwick trotting through the snow in his black gaiters.

As I said earlier, British Embassies enshrine so much more than mere passport offices, as no doubt the Tehran intelligencia know only too well and, no doubt, viewed the recent attacks on the ambassador and his staff with great sadness.


The grand dining room in the British Ambassador's residence in Paris
COPYRIGHT 2011 Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Dec 22, 2011
Previous Article:Rapper's worthy ideals poorly expressed; Children's Book.
Next Article:It's Christmas in a bottle; There is one fortified wine that captures the spirit of Christmas in a glass and it must be port, writes Clive Platman.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters