The Celebrity Who Made Cannes
Cannes today is a gorgeously glamorous jet-set destination. It plays host to the eponymous Film Festival, along with boat shows, car shows, real estate congresses, yachting regattas—the list goes on and on. There are Dior and Prada stores, Chanel and Louis Vuitton… fine dining… superyachts and supercars… homes in the hills with jaw-dropping price tags.
But Cannes wasn’t always the epitome of European glamour. Before it was host to the world’s most fashionable red-carpet festival, it was just a simple fishing village. Until Lord Brougham showed up.
Henry Peter Brougham stands out as one of the most famous, forward-thinking, important and impressive British politicians in history. A Scot by birth and a lawyer by training, at age 14 he went to Edinburgh University, where he studied Humanities and Philosophy. It was here that he acquired his interest and skill in public speaking and helped to found the The Edinburgh Review. He was known as a colorful character with a strong personality.
In 1810, he entered Parliament and almost immediately championed an Act outlawing one of the greatest injustices of the age: the slave trade. Learned, passionate and superbly eloquent, he was frequently quoted in newspapers and became famous as one of the greatest advocates of the day.
Further bolstering his celebrity was his extraordinary achievement of successfully defending the Queen, Caroline of Brunswick, against a false charge of adultery trumped up by her horrible husband, King George IV. Brougham became a major celebrity of the era for his charismatic speeches and his defense of Caroline. He was very recognizable, and large crowds often turned out when he visited towns outside the capital.
Political cartoonists of the era took great pleasure in caricaturing the outspoken M.P. and barrister, with his long nose and trademark plaid trousers.
Soon after, he helped create the University of London and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, intended to make good books available at low prices to the working class. He was largely responsible for the establishment of the central criminal court in London and the judicial committee of the Privy Council. He greatly speeded equity proceedings, a county court system, and was a leader in forcing the parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 through the House of Lords, a critical stage on the way to universal suffrage.
As if all that wasn’t impressive enough, he went on to argue many precedent-setting cases of the era. At the time, British sailors and soldiers were still flogged for infractions, and when one newspaper ran an article criticizing the barbaric practice, its publishers were sued by the Crown for libel. Brougham successfully defended them. He also gained an acquittal for 38 weavers from Manchester, a major textile center, accused of attempting to unionize. He gained further admiration by proposing to guarantee freedom of the press.
Brougham had less success in his personal life. In the summer of 1819, he learned that he’d gotten a woman pregnant, and so he secretly wed Mary Anne Spalding, a widow with two children, and the couple had a daughter, who was born that November. Their second child was born not long after. Sadly, their marriage was an unhappy one due to an intellectual mismatch, and both daughters were doomed to die young. Exhausted, in 1834 Brougham left office, never to return. His brother had just died and he was tired from years of overwork.
In the winter of 1834, his six-horse carriage arrived in Cannes. On board: Grand Chancellor Henry Brougham, and his sick daughter Eléonore-Louise. They were heading to Italy where they hoped to cure her respiratory ailments (at the time, they didn’t know what the cause of ‘consumption’ was: tuberculosis). But the carriage was forced to stop, and Brougham was warned that they would not be able to enter Italy. An outbreak of cholera meant his route was blocked and he had to wait in Cannes for the quarantine order to be lifted.
This was not the reception Brougham had anticipated: he was used to getting his own way, and, as the historian Macaulay said, “There is no other man whose entrance into any town would be so certain to be greeted with huzzaing.” Yet although Brougham huffed and puffed, the border guard stood firm. History is made on such incidents.
So they turned back and stopped in the village where they spent the night before and rented a room in the ‘Auberge Pinchinat’ — the only inn in town. Situated on the apex of the bay, looking out to the Îles de Lérins, sheltered by high ground to the west, north and south, Cannes was then a fishing-village called Le Suquet, with no more than three hundred inhabitants and two streets of very humble Provençal houses.
In the days that followed, Brougham fell in love with this small port at the foot of the Suquet tower. He toured the area, and the red rock of the Esterel captivated his heart. He was hooked. “In this enchanted atmosphere, it is a delight for me who loves dreams, to forget for a few moments the ugliness and miseries of life”, he wrote to a friend who remained in London. One day, two days and then more… While discovering the surroundings, Brougham imagined the life he and his daughter could have if they settled there.
One of the guests at the Auberge Pinchinat said: “Ten apartments have been fitted out there, as well as a small villa in the old stables. Other small houses were built in the park. This one, in Brougham’s time, was much more extended both towards the Croix des Garde and towards La Bocca… We live well here. The villa is still beautifully made and the place is pleasant,” said one of the residents. “Perhaps we could consider sealing a plaque at the entrance to remind us that this is where Brougham settled,” she suggested. This plaque can still be seen today in the small rue du port which joins the boulevard Jean-Hibert and the rue Georges-Clemenceau.
Brougham was enchanted by the winter warmth, the light and the scenery. He also enjoyed the local bouillabaisse, and even the region’s thin wines. Thwarted in an attempt to rent a house once used by Napoleon (the French objected to its occupation by an Englishman), within a week he bought a tract of land overlooking the sea and began working on the plans to build Villa Éléonore-Louise . He named the villa, which was completed a couple of years later, after his daughter, whom he built it for. Fate had other plans: his daughter died in 1839 and he decided to make the chateau his own.
He wrote to the folks back home that he had been “enjoying the delightful climate of Provence, its clear skies and refreshing breezes, while the deep blue of the Mediterranean stretched before us. The orange groves and cassia plantations perfumed the air around us, and the forests behind, crowned with pines and evergreen oaks, and ending in the Alps, protected us by their eternal granite, from the cold winds of the north.”
Then, in a phenomenon that repeated itself to the extent that it became a critical factor in the development of the coast, Lord Brougham himself became an attraction. His enthusiasm for Cannes and its mild winters attracted the wealthy and powerful from across Europe. They, too, built spacious villas. His patronage of the town made it the talk of Europe; royalty and aristocrats from Queen Victoria to the Tsar of Russia made a point of holidaying there, and the town took full advantage of its newfound fame. As this word-of-mouth marketing spread, hotels were built. Gradually, the fishing village passed into history, and the glamorous Cannes as we know it was born.
“At some time or other,” wrote Brougham’s biographer G. T. Garratt, “everyone of importance seems to have drifted down to see him in the South of France.” Brougham was nothing if not a puller of strings. After he had settled himself in Cannes, he used his friendship with King Louis-Philippe to have Cannes improved.
The local roads were so poor that the best way to reach the town was by sea. The bay, though fine when the wind was northerly, was impossible for coastal vessels to use when it was blowing from the south. Cannes needed an artificial harbor: not only would this enable Brougham and his friends to reach their private paradise more conveniently, it would also allow the produce from Grasse to be exported far more easily and cheaply than carting it over land to Marseille.
In 1838, he designed ‘the Brougham carriage’, the first four-wheeled carriage intended to be drawn by only one horse. The Brougham carriage became very popular with gentry and royalty of the day. The Studebaker brothers adopted the carriage design in the United States selling it to the rich and famous including Presidents, such as Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevolt. A motorised version was later created and was very popular. General Motors and Ford adopted the Brougham name for their cars as it became synonymous with quality and elegance.
At around the same time, he persuaded Louis-Philippe to put up nearly two million francs for a breakwater on the west side of the bay, and work started in 1838. In 1847 Murray’s Handbook described Cannes as a “neat and cheerful small town”. Courtesy of Brougham, Cannes had arrived.
In Cannes, Brougham’s villa was the first of many. One of his friends, Thomas Robinson Woolfield, became the village’s first de facto estate agent: he acquired building plots from the locals and sold them on to aristocratic English acquaintances. At the Villa Victoria, Woolfield introduced flora to the coast that eventually came to be regarded as typical of the region and thought by many to be indigenous: gooseberry, sweet potato, eucalyptus and acacia. Soon mimosa and palm trees joined them.
Not content with these adornments to the landscape, Brougham himself led the way in importing turf from England to create an ‘English country garden’ – although the summer temperatures meant it had to be replaced every year.
A man of many opinions, his writing never stopped, including his many thoughts, books and autobiography. He often entertained at his villa in Cannes, bringing high-profile guests like King Louise-Phillippe of France to Cannes.
Brougham never remarried and spent much of the last 30 years of his life in Cannes, until his death in the spring of 1868 (at age 89). His body is buried in Cannes’ Grand Jas cemetery , and a statue of Lord Brougham stands in Allée de la Liberté , next to the Palais des Festivals. There is also a boulevard Lord Brougham in his memory. His villa still stands, but has since been remodeled and divided up into residential apartments. The Auberge Pinchinat inn is now a private residence. Examples of the original Brougham carriage still form part of collections at Buckingham Palace, Castle Howard in Yorkshire and Littlecote in Berkshire.
If the duly-anglicised Cannes was the creation of Henry Brougham, Menton was the child of Dr James Henry Bennet. Cannes was for the living, while Menton was for the dying. Learn about the birth of the French Riviera and Menton’s pitch to sick Brits.