Monday, 24 March 2014

Auction of Napoleon's last shirt in Paris

Several items of clothing and personal belongings of Napoleon Bonaparte were due to be auctioned last Sunday in Paris at Maison Orsenat.

Among them were a cambric shirt worn by the emperor the day before he died (estimated at between 30000 and 40 000 euros), a lock of hair cut the day of his death (which may fetch between 3 000 and 5 000 euros), bandages and two handkerchiefs. The items were collected by the emperor's servant, Achille Archambault, but their ownership is now disputed and the auction was postponed in order to enable the courts to establish the identity of the rightful owner.

I always find it fascinating - if a little macabre - to be able to see for myself personal items which have belonged to a historical figure, writer or actor, but I'm really not sure I would ever put a bid in for any of them, even if I had the money. I think they should really belong in a museum, not in the hands of a private collector. 

Napoleon died at Longwood on the island of St Helena on May 5th 1821 after a six year long exile. A striking, desolate mass of rugged rocks St Helena is located in the middle of the South Atlantic ocean with the nearest land six hundred miles away. 
Wathen, T.E. A Series of Views Illustrative of the Island of St. Helena. Clay, London, 1821. 
Napoleon first stayed at Briars Pavillion on the island then moved into Longwood, a two-stories house in a cold, windy and damp part of the island. Although the British government recognised the inadequacy of Longwood as the former emperor's residence, it was deemed the safest place for him. Sir Hudson Lowe, the island's governor, was indeed haunted by the fear that Napoleon should escape and behaved like a jailer toward him, ordering that his correspondence and newspapers be censured, and even forbidding the former emperor any news from his wife Marie-Louise and their son. In fact relationships between Napoleon and Lowe were so bad they only met six times during Napoleon's exile and the former French emperor is said to have complained to his physician O'Meara that Lowe has such a 'horrid countenance' he feared he had the evil eye and had poisoned his cup of coffee just by looking at it!
Wathen, T.E. A Series of Views Illustrative of the Island of St. Helena. Clay, London, 1821. 
Longwood was designed in a cottage style and contained twenty-four rooms, with Bonaparte occupying the right wing. In an illustrated book published in 1821, T.E. Wathen gives a striking description of the desolate, rocky island and of Longwood House and the rooms allocated to the defeated French emperor. 

The drawing-room was coloured 'various shades of green and arabesque gold panels, with curtains of light silk taboret, of Pomona green, and velvet borders edged with gold coloured silk twist'. Wathen even describes some of the furnishing: a carpet of 'various shades of brown, olive, and amber; an elegant oak centre table; pier table, inlaid with a slab of Verd Antique Mona marble; splendid pier glass, with a frame of Buhl and ebony; chairs of British oak; two Greek sofas and footstools ornamented with Or Moulu; a piano forte; and chandeliers and candelabri to light the apartment.'
Thanks to Wathen we know that next to the dining-room was a library, which was 'furnished in the Etruscan style, with several dwarf book-cases' and desks and that the sitting-room was 'ornamented with an ethereal blue carpet shaded with black, and several ebony cabinets inlaid with brass'. The emperor's bedroom featured a high canopy 'bedstead, enclosing a silken mosquito net, and hung with furniture of lilac Persian edged with gold coloured fringe.' 
In the bathroom was a tub was lined with marble 'made to admit hot or cold water'. 
The other wing of Longwood House contained spacious apartments for Bonaparte's suite, with servant's offices and store-rooms in the rear and the kitchen was located in a separate building.

Before Napoleon's funeral, which took place on May 9 1821, one hundred men were made to cut a path directly to the burial site the emperor himself had chosen shortly after his arrival on the island for its proximity to willow trees and a spring - a place called Devil's Punch Bowl. At the time of Wathen's visit to St Helena, a sentinel constantly guarded the grave. 
Wathen, T.E. A Series of Views Illustrative of the Island of St. Helena. Clay, London, 1821. 
Napoleon's remains were removed in 1840 and shipped to Paris where they were buried with full military honours in a marble casket in the Hotel des Invalides on December 15 1840. Despite the biting cold the crowds were huge along the avenues where the military cortege passed, so much so that the government feared a revolutionary outbreak. 

Victor Hugo wrote about that memorable day
 'O frozen sky! and sunlight pure! shining bright in history!

Funereal triumph, imperial torch!
Let the people's memory hold you forever, 
Day beautiful as glory,
Cold as the tomb'

  ("Ciel glacé ! soleil pur ! Oh ! brille dans l’histoire ! / Du funèbre triomphe, impérial flambeau ! / Que le peuple à jamais te garde en sa mémoire / Jour beau comme la gloire, / Froid comme le tombeau." - Victor Hugo, Les Rayons et les Ombres, 1840.)
Only government officials and military personnel were allowed at the ceremony itself, and many French were angry that they had not been able to pay their respects properly to the man they had come to consider as a martyr. Worse still for the government, many people still believed that Napoleon had not died on St Helena, that the commission sent to retrieve his remains had found only an empty coffin and rumour spread that the tomb at Les Invalides was only a cenotaph.

Napoleon's remains repose today beneath the dome in the Invalides, in a monument designed by architect Louis Visconti in 1842, but which was only completed in 1861.
So what will become of Napoleon's last belongings - a shirt, a lock of hair, a couple of handkerchiefs? Time, and the French courts, will tell...


  1. What a fascinating post, Marie! I had no idea St Helena was so cut off from everywhere. The photos show a luxurious home - a real gilded cage. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for your comment Helena. I didn't know much about St Helena. It does look very rocky and inhospitable and it is indeed so far away from anywhere Napoleon couldn't really have escaped back to France. Apparently even if Londwood House looks pretty and quite luxurious inside, it was very damp and exposed to the wind and the nearest source of fresh water was three miles away!

  3. Fascinating! I saw Napoleon's tomb a few years back. I didn't know he had been exiled to this island, but it looked like a veritable mansion to me. Such luxury!

  4. Thank you very much for visiting Suzanne. Yes, it does look rather grand, doesn't it but it was very isolated. I don't think I could live in such a lonely, faraway place.