Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Windsor Castle Part I: Marryat Prints of Napoleon on his death bed

Albert Benhamou, St George's Chapel Windsor Castle

Albert Benhamou and I were privileged to visit Windsor Castle recently, to look at the surprisingly extensive collection of Napoleonic prints apparently put together by the Prince Regent and added to by Queen Victoria, with a few later additions by Queen Mary in 1931.

Our main interest was in images of Napoleon on his death bed. Among the collection at Windsor we were intrigued to find a drawing "after" Captain Marryat, in black and white chalks, showing a reverse image of Marryat's original drawing.

Reverse Image of Napoleon on his death bed

On the back of this was an inscription indicating that the portrait had been made with the permission of Sir Hudson Lowe. Intriguingly, in the same handwriting were two lines of poetry by Lord Byron:

Before Decay's effacing fingers
Had swept the line where Beauty lingers.

We wondered who had produced the reverse image of the death bed scene, when it was done, and who had written the inscription on the back, particularly since the poetry was by Lord Byron, a well known admirer of Napoleon who had in 1815 been invited to Holland House in a forlorn attempt to charm Sir Hudson Lowe before the latter took up his appointment as Napoleon's gaoler.

After our visit we discovered that there are two versions of Marryat's drawing at the Royal Museums Greenwich. First there is what is described as the original framed drawing, with an inscription,"Napoleon Bonaparte as he appeared on Sunday morning on the 6th of May, 14 hours after his death, laying upon the bed that he died in".

Original drawing showing Napoleon with his head on the left

Then there is a graphite drawing showing Napoleon's head on the right, similar to the one in the Royal Collection at Windsor, with an inscription underneath indicating thst the drawing was made at the request of Sir Hudson Lowe and with the permission of Count Montholan (sic) and Count Bertrand.

The Greenwich Museum seems to have no further information on this drawing, and I am inclined to doubt if it was done by Marryat himself, and if he did do it, I am at a loss to explain the reverse image.

There are also at Windsor and at Greenwich prints showing Napoleon with his head on the right, attributed to Marryat and published by S.& J. Fuller, well known London Lithographers.

Lithograph of Napoleon on his death bed, dated 16 July 1821

This print is larger than the drawing, with the same inscription beneath, but with a less detailed image, in particular the crucifix on Napoleon's chest is barely visible.

Unfortunately we were unable to take photos inside the print room at Windsor that would have enabled us to make careful comparisons with the drawing and print at Greenwich. The similarity of the inscriptions suggests a common origin.

I have also discovered online a German version of the original print. This is an indication, if it were needed, of the intense interest at the time in the fate of the "martyr of St. Helena", an interest that, judging by the size of the collection at Windsor, extended also to the British Royal family.

Our thanks to the Curator of Prints and Drawings at Windsor for making our visit so pleasurable, and for unexpectedly showing us what must surely be, to Napoleonic anoraks at least, the most interesting of Windsor's treasures. More on that in a later blog.
1. "The Giaour" by Lord Byron, first published in 1813

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