Friday, 20 May 2016

Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène: La conquête de la mémoire (6 April to 24 July 2016)

A Hat that Napoleon Wore on St Helena

The current exhibition at Les Invalides is the climax of several years' work and planning by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, Honorary French Consul and Curator of the French Properties on St. Helena.

Napoleon's Uniform

Michel has had the unstinting support of the Fondation Napoléon, and has worked in collaboration with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, the National Museums of Malmaison and Bois-Préau, the Musée de l'Armée and the St. Helena Government.

Wash bowl used during the captivity on St. Helena

The recent visit of the former Governor of St Helena to Paris and Corsica is a symbol of unprecedented collaboration between the French Properties and the St. Helena Government, designed to promote tourism as the island prepares for the opening of the new airport.

Napoleon's bath without the wooden case that remains on St. Helena

As we went round the exhibition we became quite emotional seeing videos of present day St. Helena, a place from which like Napoleon we haven't really been able to escape.

It soon became apparent though that this is a once in many lifetimes exhibition. Here are items familiar from visits to Longwood, here too are unfamiliar and often grander ones from other museums, a totality unlikely ever again to be assembled in one place.

Here are clothes Napoleon wore, fine china on which he dined, a fine washbowl and ewer, a chess set on which he sometimes played, not that well,

to while away the endless hours of boredom,

the bed in which he died, and much else besides.

Here are pieces of furniture from Longwood, beautifully restored, that will eventually be shipped back to St. Helena.

Amongst the paintings on display is the now familiar one by James Sant, produced for Lord Rosebery around the turn of the twentieth century, and another painted around the same time by the little known Austrian painter, Oscar/Oskar Rex.

Oscar Rex, "C'est fini: Napoléon Ier à Sainte-Hélène"

This painting has been loaned from Malmaison, which we also visited on this trip.

The Exhibition has justifiably received great critical acclaim by UK as well as French journalists. Here for example is the one from the Guardian , which rightly gives a big tribute to the painstaking work done by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau over many years. It cannot though escape the English obsession with Napoleon's alleged smallness, here we find references to the "little corporal" and his "small feet." Thankfully we are spared mention of more private parts!

As we were walking round Napoleon's tomb after the Exhibition, we got a very pleasant surprise.

With Michel Martineau at Napoleon's Tomb

Here quite appropriately was Napoleon's representative on earth, showing a party of English speaking journalists around Les Invalides prior to a guided tour of the Exhibition.

Our meetings with Michel capped a great visit to Paris. My only regret is that I did not go round the exhibition a second time. It would surely have been well worth it.


Hels said...

The recent visit of the former Governor of St Helena to Paris and Corsica is indeed a symbol of special collaboration between the French Properties and the St Helena Government!! Alas you think these special objects are unlikely ever again to be assembled in one place again.

That gets me thinking. I have seen that or similar dinner sets before and know that Napoleon must have adored the painted designs. But they were hugely expensive back then, and even more so now. So a] someone allowed Napoleon to bring expensive dinner sets to the island for the private use of himself and his guests and b] they have been very well looked after ever since.

John Tyrrell said...

I assume that the things Napoleon took with him to St. Helena were hurriedly packed by servants under the direction of his valet Marchand. It may be that the china came from Malmaison, which of course was the Empress Josephine's house, and was where Napoleon stayed after his second abdication before heading south to what he expected to be exile in the United States. I have never done any investigation into this, but do remember that he took some silver plate with him, some of which was very publicly sold to make a political point. The plate, Sevres china and the wash basin, among many other things, was left in Marchand's care for Napoleon's son - I presume that the latter never received any of it.