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How the world of Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon was brought to life

Designing Napoleon: how production designer Arthur Max and set decorator Elli Griff created the sets and interiors of Napoleonic France

As one of the most famous figures in history, Napoleon Bonaparte is having his cinematic day in the sun. While you know the comments about his height, his trademark black boat-shaped bicorne hat, his romance with Josephine, and his miscalculations at the Battle of Waterloo, there is so much more to learn about one of the most famous Frenchmen of all time.

Debuting this month, the epic film Napoleon chronicles the rise, reign, romance, and ultimate fall before his exile (played by Joaquin Phoenix). No stranger to massive-scale films (Gladiator), director Sir Ridley Scott was drawn to the project, noting: “Napoleonic history is the beginning of modern history. He changed the world; he rewrote the playbook. I think one of the reasons people are still fascinated by Napoleon is because he was so complicated. There is no easy way to define his life. You can read a biography to know what happened, but what interests me as a filmmaker is his character – going beyond the history and into the mind.” The film also concentrates on the love story and tempestuous and unconventional marriage between Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) and Napoleon.

Vanessa Kirby as Josephine and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Boughton Manor in Northamptonshire, England – which stood in for Bonaparte's French chateau. Effect Magazine
Vanessa Kirby as Josephine and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Boughton House in Northamptonshire, England – which stood in for Bonaparte’s French chateau.

Creating the worlds of the Emperor and Empress with longtime production designer Arthur Max (15 collaborations to date with a Gladiator sequel in the works), their creative journey takes the viewer from battlefield and war room to majestic palaces and architectural triumphs in France, Russia, Egypt and Corsica. Benefitting from the elegance and grandeur of Empire Style, Scott explains: “It’s my favourite architectural period, and it’s very diverse. It covers the extreme spectrum from the opulence of the palaces to the real misery of hovels, with a few burning villages on the way. We’re at sea with ships. We have giant military engagements – the Battle of Austerlitz, Waterloo, Marengo, and Borodino. It’s an enormous box of toys and a feast for a designer, the whole saga of it.”

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in the coronation scene in Napoleon, which was filmed at Lincoln Cathedral  - Effect Magazine
Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in the coronation scene in Napoleon, which was filmed in the UK at Lincoln Cathedral (Photo: Aidan Monaghan)

The design team looked to the famous paintings of Napoleon for inspiration and researched the extraordinary palaces and estates where he resided. Filming in England instead of France, Max details: “There is enough Neoclassical architecture in England to make it possible, probably because a lot of the design that comes out of France and England is based on Italian classic Palladian architecture.”

Located in Northamptonshire, one of the more magnificent locations was just a three-hour drive from London. Coined the “English Versailles,” Boughton House served as Napoleon’s chateau, which Max notes “was built in the 18th century by a Francophile – an Englishman who loved French architecture looks just like a French chateau in a beautiful estate, with hundreds of acres, sheep and horses grazing and beautiful old oak trees everywhere.” Initially a Tudor building, the owner turned it into a stunning French manor. The National Trust property (also a location for 2012’s Les Misérables) boasts seven courtyards and a church. Chosen for its Neoclassical Palladian style, Blenheim Palace served as Napoleon’s staterooms in the Fontainebleau and Tuileries Palaces, while Petworth House was selected for Josephine’s Château de Beauharnais and the site of the Victim’s Ball.

Tasked with everything from the proper lighting to the selection of period-perfect set decor, British set decorator Elli Griff (Glass Onion) notes period interiors are no easy feat as there are “so many caveats while working in the national heritage buildings. When you are in there, you realise the beautiful room you want to shoot has furniture that cannot be moved even an inch. The compromises are enormous.” The veteran decorator scoured London’s Farley, Eccentric Trading Company, and Old Times prop houses for the appropriate piece and preferably, one that can reside in a room with up to 300 actors and crew.

While strategic battle plans were Napoleon’s forte, his creative endeavours in the worlds of architecture and design are also noteworthy. The rise of Empire Style, a neoclassical movement seen in furniture, interior design, and architecture, was inspired by Napoleon’s desire to recreate the grandeur of imperial Rome and ancient Egypt. French Empire furniture is characterised by gilt, paint or mahogany finishes, clean lines, Roman, Egyptian and Greek motifs, and claw or paw feet and legs, and it remains popular today.

Boughton House also served as the French dining room where Josephine is toasted by the nobility

Napoleon is also associated with the building of Paris landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the Palais des Invalides, and Notre Dame Cathedral.

The Napoleon Bee, chosen as an emblem of the Emperor, remains a popular motif in home furnishings. Ornamentation in the form of the letter N surrounded by a laurel wreath, stars, and an eagle were also imperial symbols. Josephine was fond of swans that appeared in the arms of chairs, porcelain, and carpet designs.

Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures' Napoleon - Effect Magazine
Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures’ Napoleon (Photo: Aidan Monaghan)

Influenced by his military roots and life at war, collapsible campaign furniture, tented beds, and pennant-style draperies were known as Napoleonic style. The tented fabric bed was a mainstay in Josephine’s bedroom.

Designed by Napoleon’s architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, Malmaison is filled with a tent-shaped room, decorative painted friezes, Doric pilasters and stucco columns, Roman and Pompeian ceiling paintings, and wallpapers with Neoclassical motifs. As the final resting home of Josephine (she resided there until her death five years later), the chateau and mansion are a must-see for anyone who appreciates the decorative arts.

And the Mona Lisa graced the walls of Napoleon’s lavish bedroom at the Tuileries before her final resting place at The Louvre, proving nobility has its benefits.

Read more: Interior Designers I Interiors |  Design | Production Design | France