He had no liking for the game and even less aptitude. He preferred to use the green baize table for laying out his maps; much better than spreading them around him on the floor. Yet even the Emperor who had no liking for the game, in exile on St Helena, had a billiards room in his house, Longwood (below).
Not necessarily ironically but perhaps comically, his two wives, Josephine de Beauharnais and then Marie Louise of Austria, were much more enthusiastic players and I can only imagine the Emperor’s fits of temper as he was beaten for the umpteenth time by one wife or another.
By the time of Napoleon, the game had already had a long history. It is thought its original form was played in France since the 1340s and Louis XI certainly owned a billiard table in the 1470s. It is thought the name derives from the term “billart”, one of the sticks originally used to shove the balls across the table.
Josephine had a billiards room in her chateau of Malmaison and often had a game before breakfast but, more often, played late at night, as recounted in the memoirs of Louis Constant, Napoleon’s valet:
“She loved to sit up late, when almost everybody else had retired, to play a game of billiards… It happened on one occasion that, having dismissed everyone else, and not yet being sleepy, she asked if I knew how to play billiards, and upon my replying in the affirmative, requested me with charming grace to play with her; and I had often afterwards the honour of doing so.”
Apparently Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, was a whizz around the table. It seems poor Napoleon was surrounded by women who could thrash him at the popular salon game.
But there was another element to the game which made it a rather appealing spectator sport, for some. Ladies’ fashion of the time was for flattering dresses in gauzy material and low, scooped necklines.
Boilly’s painting, here, has a distinctly erotic element to it. And it’s not just my lurid imagination running away with me. In the always-frank memoirs of Captain Coignet, serving in the Imperial Guard, he comments on a similarly pleasurable pastime regarding the billiards prowess and style of the Empress Marie Louise:
“Marie Louise was a first-rate billiard-player. She beat all the men; but she was not afraid to stretch herself out across the billiard-table, as the men did, when she wanted to make a stroke, with me always on the watch to see what I could.”
When he adds, “She was frequently applauded” I find I’m not at all surprised.