A 17th century country house in Sussex features in the new blockbuster film Napoleon.

With its state rooms, grand staircases and French style interiors the National Trust’s Petworth House proved to be the ideal location for several scenes in director Ridley Scott’s epic film, which is released tomorrow.

The biopic details the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, played by Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix.

The Argus: Petworth HousePetworth House (Image: National Trust Images, David Levenson)

Rather than rely on constructed sets and CGI to set the scene, Ridley Scott and his team chose wherever possible to find real locations that could double for the palaces and stately homes that were the backdrop to Napoleon’s life.

The production team fell in love with Petworth House because of its more French features, large state rooms and items in its collection that reflect generations of its inhabitants’ taste in the objects and architecture of continental Europe.

The Argus: Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby as Napolean and JosephineJoaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby as Napolean and Josephine (Image: PA)

Production designer Arthur Max said: “There is enough neo-classical architecture in England to make it possible, probably because a lot of the design that comes out of France and England is based on Italian classic Palladian architecture.”

The Argus: The marble hallThe marble hall (Image: National Trust Images, Andreas von Einsiedel)

After two weeks of preparation, filming took place over two days at Petworth House in March 2022, with thirteen of the principle cast members on set, including Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, who plays Napoleon’s first wife Josephine, and 120 supporting artists and 200 crew.

The National Trust said it was “by far the biggest production ever to take place at Petworth”.

The Argus: Ridley Scott and Joaquin PhoenixRidley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix (Image: © Apple TV+)

The pivotal Victim’s Ball scene where Napoleon meets Josephine for the first time was filmed in the Beauty Room, Marble Hall, Carved Room, Little Dining Room and on the grand staircase. The Red Room and Square Dining Room were also filmed in the background of these scenes, filled with dozens of extras.

Visitor operations and experience manager Sue Rhodes said: “It was astonishing to see the Victim’s Ball being filmed. Part of it was done in one shot, with the camera moving through many rooms, all dressed for the period and atmospherically lit. The house looked gorgeous, much as it would have when it hosted balls and events like this hundreds of years ago.”

The Argus: Petworth's square dining roomPetworth's square dining room (Image: National Trust Images, Andreas von Einsiedel)


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The Argus: Joaquin Phoenix as NapoleanJoaquin Phoenix as Napolean (Image: © Apple TV+)

The Square Dining Room doubled for artist Jacques-Louis David’s studio where Napoleon’s coronation portrait was painted, and the Marble Hall was used for a meeting between Napoleon and his generals, which can be glimpsed in the film’s trailer.

All the scenes were pre-planned with storyboards, Ridley Scott and his cinematographer Dariusz Wolski would decide where to position the camera when they were on location, which meant every corner of each room had to be prepared and ready to be on camera. The two days of filming therefore required seven days of dressing the house.

The Argus: The team at Petworth House covering the Macbeth and the WitchesThe team at Petworth House covering the Macbeth and the Witches (Image: National Trust)

“Despite the challenges of such a huge production it was a fascinating experience and the cast and crew were incredible,” said Sue.

“So professional, and very respectful of the house. Ridley Scott was particularly impressed with our art collection.”

The income generated from the production will directly help care for Petworth’s collection and park, as well as enabling several conservation projects in the future.