In the centenary year of the start of the First World War, Sir John Soane’s Museum presents Peace Breaks Out! (20 June – 13 September) an exhibition focusing on the summer of 1814, when Europe celebrated peace after the Treaty of Paris following the fall of Napoleon.
Displaying over 100 rare pieces from the museum and private collections, the exhibition will explore this pivotal moment in the history of Europe, through the eyes of its contemporaries. Pieces on show include celebratory paintings and prints created for the festivities held in London and across the United Kingdom to mark the Treaty; drawings of Paris demonstrating the architectural changes that took place under Napoleon’s government; Sir John Soane’s collection of Napoleonica – objects belonging to Napoleon and his closest collaborators; and a quirky, satirical depiction of Englishmen visiting Paris, as seen by the French.
Dr Jerzy J. Kierkuć-Bieliński, Exhibitions Curator at Sir John Soane’s Museum, explains:
‘The Peace of 1814 and the subsequent congress of Vienna in 1815, after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, laid the geo-political framework of the European Empires that would dominate the Continent and much of the globe up to the outbreak of the First World War. The Allies who celebrated the signing of the Treaty as guests of the Prince Regent in London, would, almost exactly one hundred years later face each on the battlefields of Europe – this time as enemies. In many ways, to understand the origins of the First World War, one has to look at the events of 1814 and the false promise of lasting peace that it offered’.
Sir John Soane’s drawings of Paris, commissioned by his clerk Henry Parke during their second visit in 1819, will be on display. The collection documents Soane’s personal study of the vast architectural changes to the French capital under Napoleon’s empire, especially the introduction of public space. Soane saw the French ruler as a great example of a self-made man, and he appreciated Napoleon as a patron of the arts, and keen supporter of architecture. From the Arc de Triomphe, to Place Vendôme, the drawings illustrate how Napoleon’s architectural innovations made a great impression on Soane.
Items from Soane’s collection of Napoleonica - bronze medals commemorating the significant events of Napoleon’s reign, and a sword thought to have been presented to Napoleon by one of his officers, will also be on display. The collection of Napoleonica features rare books from Soane’s library, including an exquisite hand-coloured volume by Napoleon’s personal architects and interior designers, Percier and Fontaine - arguably the most famous interior designers of the time. The volume, a gift to the future Empress Joséphine, illustrates a selection of late 15th and 16th-century villas and palaces in and around Rome. The influence of Percier and Fontaine’s designs are most evident in Soane’s designs of his Library-Dining Room in the Museum. This section of the exhibition is completed by Sir John Soane’s ‘Napoleonic Ring’, a chased gold ring containing a lock of the Emperor’s hair, and a portrait from 1797 of a young Napoleon - aged just 27 – the youngest portrait of Napoleon in any British collection, painted by a little known Italian artist named Cossia.
French caricatures of the British visitors to Paris in that summer of 1814 will complete the exhibition, presenting a view of French-British relations at the time. Paris had been cut off during Napoleon’s reign but in 1814 saw visitors flooding the French capital. The image portrayed is not flattering: the Parisians saw the British as awkwardly dressed, glutinous, obsessed with bodily functions and prone to the charms of Parisian courtesans. Such scenes, including the English gawping at the treasures amassed in the Louvre, dining at the elegant Café des Milles Colonnes or strolling in Place Vendôme would have been familiar to Soane, who travelled to Paris shortly after the fall of Napoleon.
This is the first exhibition devoted to marking a significant but somewhat overshadowed bicentenary. In 1914, plans were underway to mark the centenary of the Peace Treaty in 1814 but the outbreak of the Great War meant that these plans were abandoned as Europe (and much of the globe) spiralled once again into conflict.
Historian Alexander Rich, co-curator, comments: ‘We are now as far away from the outbreak of the First World War as the protagonists of that conflict were from the Peace Celebrations of 1814. This exhibition looks for the first time at a very specific time in the artistic production of Europe, and offers a different, perhaps hidden perspective, on the events that have shaped the world as we know it today’.
Peace Breaks Out! is part of the London Festival of Architecture. A series of events, special curator-led tours giving unprecedented access to unique and rarely seen architectural models in the Soane’s collection will be offered as part of the Festival, and will be announced in May.