N for Napoleon

Napoleon is a name so loaded with associated imagery that for the design of a new biography, Penguin art editor Isabelle de Cat looked to avoid images of bicorne hats and battles – and instead referenced some intriguing symbols of the French emperor’s own invention

Napoleon is a name so loaded with associated imagery that for the design of a new biography, Penguin art editor Isabelle de Cat looked to avoid images of bicorne hats and battles – and instead referenced some intriguing symbols of the French emperor’s own invention…

“We all have a certain image that springs to mind when we think of Napoleon Bonaparte”, says Penguin art editor de Cat on the Penguin blog. “From the heroic figure on the white horse to the short man with the characteristic velvet hat, hand stuck inside his coat. To the British public Napoleon has become a caricature of himself, almost a figure of comedy.”

For the cover of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great, de Cat saw that it was necessary to move away from these stereotypes.

“Very early on we decided that the cover shouldn’t feature any portraits, oil paintings, or battle scenes,” she says. “Instead, it would take a symbolic approach, with the cover creating a sort of ‘brand’ for Napoleon.”

So de Cat sought to avoid this kind of thing …

Napoleon Crosses the St. Bernard, by Jacques-Louis David (Malmaison), 1801 (Wikimedia Commons)

… and this …

Portrait de Napoléon dans son cabinet de travail, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 (Wikimedia Commons)

… as much of the perception of Napolean, via James Gillray’s drawings of him as the King of Brobdingnag or George Cruikshank’s sketches of ‘Little Boney’, had already become more caricature than anything:

Napoleon as played by Terry Camilleri in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1989 (cinema.de)


De Cat says that far from struggling to find appropriate imagery, however, there was a wealth of symbolic material to work with.

“As he rose to power Napoleon himself created a consistent iconography to represent and ‘settle’ his regime,” she explains.

“Borrowing from classical antiquity and early medieval French sources, he reinvented the symbols of power and defined the fashion of the Empire that he was building.”

Monogram of Napoleon in the gate Marengo of the Cour carrée of the Louvre, Paris (detail, Wikimedia Commons)

De Cat’s use of the Napoleon ‘N’ monogram and the ‘bee’ symbol on the book’s cover


“His monogram, the eagle holding thunder, crowns of laurel or oak leaves – to name just a few – began to be seen everywhere.”

These symbols were embroidered, carved, engraved, printed or sculpted in the most luxurious of materials, de Cat says, and surfaced on everything from “furnishing, military uniforms and equipment, to buildings, books and dishes”.

Also of note was the symbol of a bee which Napoleon used because of its links to notions of immortality and resurrection – “it linked his new dynasty to the very origins of France,” says de Cat.

“Golden bees were discovered in 1653 in Tournai in the tomb of Childeric I – founder in 457 of the Merovingian dynasty and father of Clovis – and, as such, were considered as the oldest emblem of the sovereigns of France.”

Golden bees found in the tomb of Childeric I, founder of the Merovingian dynasty (Wikipedia)


De Cat shortlisted a few of these ornamental symbols and began to combine them in different ways.

“The monogram (‘N’) and the ‘bee’ symbol stuck from the very beginning, in some versions combined with a title,” she says.

“The options which used only the bees and monogram pattern felt much stronger and we opted to pursue this route. I was delighted to be allowed to carry on with a cover without a title or an author name on it!”


However, this approach did mean that the spine of the book had to do a lot more work. But being over 1,000 pages in length, Roberts’ study presented a big canvas and an opportunity for de Cat to make the spine really stand out.

“My inspiration was from one of Napoleon’s achievements,” she says. “He rethought the entire French legal system, which was recorded in a volume which came to be known as the Code [see below].

“The first edition of this book has a bold and magnificent embroidered spine, which I used as the basis for the spine design of the biography.”

German language edition of the Code Napoleon (originally the Code civil des Français) – for sale at Eric Chaim Kline Bookseller


“The next challenge was to find a finish which was strong enough to carry the title-less and author-less front cover approach, and to convey the exquisite and luxurious craftsmanship of the Napoleonic era,” says de Cat.

“Rather than embroider the pattern on a cloth cover we decided with the producer of the book, Imogen Boase, to stick to a traditional paper cover and find a foil reminiscent of the golden thread embroidered on Napoleonic fabric, uniforms and ceremonial clothing.”


The finishing touch was the choice of end-papers, which can be seen in the first image on this post and in full in the shot of the window display below (also shown is Timorous Beasties’ ‘Napoleon Bee’ wallpaper – see timorousbeasties.com).

“Although we wanted to avoid showing Napoleon in his more stereotypical personae, I thought that a close crop on a lesser-known portrait of him as a young (and handsome) man would evince his extraordinary charisma,” says de Cat.

“With the help of Peter Pawsey, who did a magnificent job of rescuing a badly damaged and stained drawing, the gaze of young Napoleon was restored to its original magnetism and strength.”

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts is published by Penguin imprint, Allen Lane, and is available to purchase here. De Cat’s post on the design of Napoleon the Great first appeared on the Penguin blog at penguinblog.co.uk. Extracts are republished with permission


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