The Napoleonic Elephant and the Tuscan Horse

But for Spanish insurgents, Place de la Bastille — today the site of an Opera house  — would have been graced with a vast bronze Napoleonic Elephant, notes Toronto writer Norman Ball in his latest illustrated stroll around Paris.

And to think Place de la Bastille might have been home to a Bronze Elephant instead. (Credit Wikipedia)

And to think Place de la Bastille might have been home to a Bronze Elephant ! (Credit Wikipedia)

Republished from here by kind permission of the writer who is joint publisher of the Parisian Fields blog.

Pugin’s Picturesque Paris

Posted on January 19, 2014 by 

For us, no trip to Paris is complete without time browsing through racks, boxes or bins of old engravings of Paris. We find them at antique fairs, flea markets, galleries, book stores and many other places. Quite a few were originally published as part of books long since disassembled.

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This is one of a half-dozen prints we bought one afternoon at an antiques fair outside the Saint-Sulpice church in June 2013. Initially attracted by the view of the Tour St. Jacques, it was the lesser details on the river that caught our attention. The floating bathhouse for women (Bains des Dames) spoke of an important part of Paris life. And what is the story behind the sinking vessel in the foreground?

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This view of the Canal de l’Ourcq also attracted me with its exaggerated perspective and height. I did not hesitate to put in the purchase pile.

Both engravings bore the inscription “A. Pugin Dirext.” immediately below the image. It meant that Pugin was not the artist, but the one who had supervised the work. The Paris-born Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) was a renowned artist, writer on mediaeval architecture, and draftsman.

Philippa used some of these images in a blog on the old customs houses of Paris. But we wanted to know more about the source of the illustrations.

Then, in early November, we attended the Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair, where we enjoyed looking at the books on display and meeting old friends. Gordon Russell of Alexander Books in Ancaster, Ontario, told us he had a book that “might be of interest.”

The object of interest had clearly not had a happy life. There was water damage, the binding was fragile with one hinge broken, and the other was ready to go. But it was already an old friend, nonetheless, and it seemed our duty to rescue it. This is how we became the owners of Paris and its Environs Displayed in a Series of Picturesque Views. The drawings made under the direction of Mr. Pugin, and engraved under the superintendence of Mr. C. [Charles] Heath, with topographical and historical descriptions.

Volume I had been published in London in 1830 by Robert Jennings (62 Cheapside) and Volume II the following year by the renamed Jennings and Chaplin at the same address. Each volume contained 100 engravings plus accompanying text in French and English.

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We were thrilled to own the book, but concerned about its fragility. Fortunately, Toronto bookbinder Kate Murdoch of Taylor-Murdoch-Beatty bookbinders turned it into a sturdy volume that will easily last another century or more.

Now we can browse the book with no worries that it will fall apart. It allows us to enter the Paris of the 1820s. Some of the scenes have disappeared completely, some have been changed dramatically; but every image is intriguing. So come browse a few images with me.

The title page above is one of the most damaged pages in the book. It also leads to an intriguing story about the statue(s) of Henry IV which it portrays.

The Pont Neuf was started in the reign of Henry III and finished in the reign of Henry IV. Composed of two parts of unequal length that meet on the Ile de la Cité, it is here that a famous statue of Henry IV was erected. But the story of the statue is more complicated than most people realize.

The story starts far away from Paris. Ferdinand, Grand Duke of Tuscany, planned a magnificent equestrian statue of himself. He began by arranging to have a colossal bronze horse cast, but his own death prevented the casting of his own statue to ride the horse. The riderless horse eventually ended up in the hands of Marie de Medici, regent of France, who had it shipped to France.

The ship carrying it was wrecked on the coast of Normandy. The horse “was, however, by immense efforts, dragged from its watery grave, and finally conducted in triumph to Paris.” Still riderless, it was set upon the Pont Neuf and eventually became known simply as the Cheval de Bronze, until a statue of Henry IV was added.

The statue suffered indignities during the Revolution and “in 1792, when the revolutionists were short of cannon, the horse and rider disappeared,” presumably melted down for cannon. Henri and his horse returned after the Bourbon restoration, when another statue was erected on the same spot. This is the statue we see today.

The Canal de l’Ourcq shown above has the intriguing subtitle, “Sous la fontaine de l’éléphant” (under the elephant fountain). What elephant would that be?

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The image is described as “the model in wood of the celebrated bronze Elephant which Napoleon designed to erect in the Place de la Bastille.” Had the decree of February 9, 1810, been carried out, it would have been quite something. The elephant and its proposed castle or tower would have risen to a height of 24 metres (72 feet). The legs were two metres in diameter and one would have had a winding staircase for visitors to climb. The whole thing was to be cast in bronze from the “cannon taken from the ‘Spanish insurgents.’ ” The foundation masonry was constructed, but that was as far as it went. “The ‘Spanish insurgents’ were destined to overthrow this amongst other colossal schemes of Napoleon.” (For the full story of the elephant, read this post on the excellent blog Culture & Stuff.)

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However, Napoleon did succeed in another venture made of melted-down cannons, with the Colonne de la Place Vendôme. The square now known as the Place Vendôme was created in 1699. Until the Revolution, it had been dominated by an equestrian statue of Louis XIV. This, like the Henri IV statue, eventually fell victim to the Revolutionaries.

Later, Napoleon decided this would be the perfect location to celebrate his recent victories. Inspired by the Roman column of Trajan, Napoleon’s column, completed in 1810, rose to a height of 44.3 metres. Built of stone, it is clad in bas-reliefs cast in bronze. And the source of the bronze? Melting down “twelve hundred pieces of cannon, taken from the Russian and Austrian armies.”

Pugin’s book is full of stories like these, written at a time when the Revolution and Napoleon were still part of living memory.

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For example, the Tour St. Jacques is all that remains of a church demolished by the Revolutionaries in 1793. However, their zeal was somewhat tempered, as the church was sold so the stone could be re-used for building materials on the condition that the tower would be preserved. There appears to have been no restrictions put on the use of the tower. As the text of Paris and its Environs notes, “The tower, passing into the hands of private persons, has been converted into a patent shot manufactory.”

This sounds like a curious use, but one well suited to the tower’s height of about 50 metres. Lead shot consists of spheres of lead of varying sizes used in firearms, particularly shotguns. It can be made by pouring molten lead through a sieve into water, but in 1782 William Watts of Bristol, England, patented an improved method that put the sieve high above the ground. The molten lead was poured through a sieve and cooled as it fell; the surface tension of the liquid lead formed spheres which fell into water, where they cooled. The height of the Tour St. Jacques proved ideal for this purpose. Later the City of Paris purchased the tower and square.

I find this sort of detail fascinating. More images and stories from Paris and its Environswill find their way into subsequent blogs. However, I should like to close with a few words about this work, drawn from an excellent article, “Paris and its environs: Augustus Charles Pugin’s view of the city” by Andrea Quinlan from the British Art Journal.

The Paris-born Pugin (1762–1832) was a prolific artist who spent most of his life in England. But beginning in 1819, he made frequent trips to France with art students and his son, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, an architect whose reputation eventually overshadowed that of his father. The many watercolours the group painted formed the basis of subsequent engravings for this book.

The text was by L.T. Ventouillac. Born in Calais in 1798, Ventouillac came to England in 1816, and became a professor of French literature and language at the Royal College of London in 1830. Ventouillac had “published a number of books on French language and culture” before writing the text for these images.

Paris and its Environs was Pugin’s way of recovering from a financial trough after losing a lawsuit. The book was intended for a middle-class audience and was an early type of travel guide. Not everyone enjoyed such books. One contemporary writer grouped it in with other travel guides as “the damdest, lying, ill got up, money-getting clap-trap possible” while another praised it, noting “the name of Mr. Pugin was a guarantee for the excellence of the drawings…and the superintendence of Mr. Heath was an assurance that the pencil would be done justice to by the burin.”

Who cares if Pugin’s motives were mainly to make money? I have been paid for books and articles I write. Nearly 200 years later, I am grateful to him for capturing a Paris that has largely disappeared. The book preserves the city as it looked after the Revolution and before the changes instigated by Napoleon III and Haussmann, a view seldom seen these days.

Text by Norman Ball

Reprinted by kind permission of Parisian Fields blog and Norman Ball. Toronto writer, Norman Ball, co-authors Parisian Fields blog with Philippa Campsie.

Norman is a retired university professor trained as an historian of technology, design and engineering, who can’t stop taking pictures of Paris graffiti and interesting cars. Philippa Campsie as she notes on the blog: “studied in Paris as a university student, and has never quite got Paris out of her system ever since.”

Philippa has written two walking guides to Paris – Audrey Hepburn in Paris. “The Audrey Hepburn walking tour through central Paris links the locations of some of her best-known films…” and -Shopping with Jackie in Paris “The Shopping with Jackie Kennedy walk focuses on the places she knew back when she spent her year abroad in Paris…” Both can be downloaded from the web and cost just $1.98 each.

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