In Napoleon the Great, Andrew Roberts takes on the challenge of exploring the life and work of one of the titans of modern history. Its designer, Isabelle de Cat, had the daunting task of creating a cover that could do justice to the book and its legendary subject. She shares stories and symbols that inspired her striking design.  

We all have a certain image that springs to mind when we think of Napoleon Bonaparte. 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’ book to capture the greatness of Napoleon, we needed to move away from these stereotypes. Very early on we decided that the cover shouldn’t feature any portraits, oil paintings, or battle scenes. Instead, it would take a symbolic approach, with  the cover creating a sort of ‘brand’ for Napoleon.

napoleon cover

There was a wealth of material available to help me. As he rose to power Napoleon himself created a consistent iconography to represent and ‘settle’ his regime. 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.

His monogram, the eagle holding thunder, crowns of laurel or oak leaves – to name just a few – began to be seen everywhere. From furnishing, military uniforms and equipment, to buildings, books and dishes, these symbols were embroidered, carved, engraved, printed or sculpted with an exquisite craftsmanship and in the most luxurious materials.

napoleon window display

Bee wallpaper by Timorous Beasties

The bee is one of the most recognisable symbols of Napoleon. He chose it because in addition to signifying immortality and resurrection, it linked his new dynasty to the very origins of France. 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.

I had shortlisted a few ornamental symbols and started combining them in different ways. The monogram (“N”) and the bee symbol stuck from the very beginning, in some versions combined with a title. 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!

napoleon cover close up

This approach did, however, mean that the spine had to do a lot more work. Fortunately, as this is quite a substantial biography, there was the opportunity to make it really stand out. My inspiration was from one of Napoleon’s achievements. He rethought the entire French legal system, which was recorded in a volume which came to be known as the Code. 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.

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

napoleon end papers

The finishing touch was the choice of end-papers. 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. 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.

If the story of Napoleon’s cover design has piqued your curiosity about the book, its author, Andrew Roberts, will be joining us on the Penguin Twitter feed for a live Q&A session on Thursday 11th December 2014, from 4pm to 5.30pm (GMT).

Tweet your questions for Andrew to @penguinukbooks in advance, follow him on Twitter on @aroberts_andrew, or join us on the day to hear more.

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. Such a beautiful book. This is definitely going onto my Christmas list…

  2. […] De Cat’s post on a settlement of Napoleon a Great initial seemed on a Penguin blog during Extracts are republished with […]

  3. […] de Cat, the cover designer for Andrew Roberts’ remarkable new biography, recently explained the significance of the bee pattern adorning Napoleon the Great. Bees are one of Napoleon’s most enduring personal emblems, but […]

  4. Beautiful cover. May I ask why it didn’t appear on the American edition?


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