On January 4,1820, an enormous conflagration consumed the house of lawyer and diplomat Joseph Bonaparte (1768–1844), former king of Naples and Spain and elder brother of Napoléon Bonaparte. Joseph arrived in time to see the roof of the house collapse as servants and neighbors rushed to retrieve his possessions. Later he wrote, “All the furniture, statues, pictures, money, plate, gold, jewels, linen, books, in short everything that was not consumed, has been most scrupulously delivered into the hands of the people of my house.”
Following his brother’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, Joseph had fled to the United States, where initially he settled in Philadelphia and then, in 1816, acquired a small estate called Point Breeze in Bordentown, New Jersey, on the Delaware River. Over a period of three years he considerably expanded the house and transformed the property into one of America’s first purposefully designed picturesque landscapes. After his first house was destroyed by fire, Joseph converted the former stables into a second grand house, where he lived with short interregna until he returned to Europe permanently, in 1838.
The archaeological traces of his first house lay hidden beneath manicured lawns until 2007, when Divine Word Missionaries, the current owners of the property, invited Monmouth University to conduct an archaeological survey of the property. Fieldwork identified the rubble-filled foundation of Joseph’s first mansion, several outbuildings, and numerous landscape features, ultimately recovering approximately 23,000 artifacts.
Among the items found in the burned ruins, under a stratum of carbonized floor joists, were several fragments of a shallow ceramic bowl (fig. 1). The sherds were stained black from the charcoal, but careful cleaning revealed a cream-colored refined earthenware decorated with a detailed black transfer print. On the lip of the vessel is a border of acorns; at center is a neoclassical image of a woman seated next to a furled flag and sail. Although the heat of the fire erased some of the image, the printed phrase “Histoire Romaine” is visible on the interior of the bowl. A maker’s mark is present but unreadable. Similar vessels were produced at the Creil et Montereau faience factory and other manufactories in France in the early nineteenth century. French creamware, or fine faience, rare in American contexts, “followed the classical forms of Wedgwood, but was decorated with elegant transfer prints, usually in black of mythological scenes or landscapes. . . . The shapes are extremely refined and the overglaze printing restrained, the whole providing a suitable utilitarian rival to French porcelain of the period.” This vessel appears to be part of a series depicting allegorical historical scenes that was produced by the Creil faience factory and decorated by the Paris firm of Stone, Coquerel, et Le Gros.
This shattered and stained vessel provides a glimpse of how Joseph Bonaparte, an exiled king living in America, once set his table. It is particularly appropriate that it is decorated with a classical scene celebrating Roman history. Joseph’s younger, more famous brother Napoléon is reputed to have said of him, “If I was in his place, I would found a great empire of all Spanish America, but you will see that he will be a bourgeois American and spend his fortune in making gardens.” Napoléon’s prediction came true—Joseph did spend a fortune making gardens—but it is clear he also set his table with fine French earthenwares, material reminders of the Bonapartes and their dashed imperial aspirations.
A special thanks to Divine Word Missionaries, Father Ray Lennon, and Dr. Andrew Cosentino for the opportunity to study Joseph Bonaparte’s Point Breeze. Thanks to Peter Tucci Esq. for his continuing support of this project. The assistance of Michael Gall, Sean McHugh, Gerry Scharfenberger, and Bill Schindler with the excavations is gratefully acknowledged. Andrew Cosentino, Donna Corbin, and Alexandra Kirtley all shared their insights into the piece’s history and suggested valuable sources.
Richard Veit, Monmouth University, Department of History and Anthropology, West Long Branch, New Jersey 07764-1898
Bowl, France (possibly Creil faience factory), 1808–1818. Creamware. D. 8 1/4". (Photo, Richard Veit.) This vessel is decorated with a classical design named Histoire Romaine (Roman History).
E[van] M[orrison] Woodward, Bonaparte’s Park and the Murats (Trenton, N.J.: MacCrellish and Quigley, 1879), p. 41.
Patricia Tyson Stroud, The Man Who Had Been King: The American Exile of Napoleon’s Brother Joseph (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), pp. 22–24.
Dorothée Guillemé-Brulon, La faïence fine française, 1750–1867 (Paris: Éditions Massin, 1995).
Howard Coutts, The Art of Ceramics: European Ceramic Design, 1500–1830 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 220.
For other vessels in the Roman History series, see the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/name/stone-coquerel-and-le-gros/2664/), and the French Ministry of Culture (www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde_fr?ACTION=CHERCHER&FIELD_98=AUTR&VALUE_98=%20LEGROS%20D%27ANIZY%20&DOM=All&REL_SPECIFIC=1 (both accessed February 26, 2011).
Stroud, The Man Who Had Been King, p. 77.