Friday, 5 February 2010

Sir John Soane and the Napoleon Mourning Ring

Mourning Ring carrying lock of Napoleon's hair, created in 1822 for Sir John Soane.

The lock of hair was presented to Sir John by none other than Betsy Balcombe:

Knowing how much Mr. Soane esteems the reliques of great men Miss E. Balcombe presents him with a lock of Bonaparte’s hair received by her from the hands of that great Personage.

The ring has a French inscription which reads (in translation): This lock of hair of Napoleon Buonaparte was presented to John Soane Esquire by Miss Elizabeth Balcombe. It also has the words Prier Pour Moi.

The ring which was left by Sir John to his family, has now, after 170 years absence, returned to the Sir John Soane Museum in London. Its former owner, an English Napoleonist, who bought it in an auction at Christie's earlier in 2009, agreed to sell it to the Museum. It has been on display in the North Drawing Room since November, and will remain there until the end of March 2010.

Sir John Soane, RA (1753 – 1837).

The son of a bricklayer, he became one of England's most distinguished neo-classical architects.

He was best known for designing the Bank of England. Among his other works were the design of the State Dining Room of 10 Downing Street and also the Dining Room of 11 Downing Street.

After his death his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields became Sir John Soane's Museum.

According to the Director of the Museum, Soane had a horrible fascination with Napoleon!

Among the Napoleonic items he collected, and which are now in the museum are a number of busts of Napoleon, Napoleon's pistols and two miniature portraits : one which was probably the first image of him to appear in England, and the second by Isabey depicting him on Elba just before his final fall from power.

In his guide book Soane referred to Napoleon unequivocally as that Great Man. He saw no contradiction between his admiration of Napoleon and his own patriotism. Soane empathised with Napoleon's relatively humble origins, and was fascinated by his genius, his personality, his sense of destiny, his achievements and his ultimate failure.

As an architect he particularly admired Napoleon's reconstruction of Paris which he contrasted with the unplanned sprawl that characterised London. When Napoleon died he recorded privately When shall we look upon his like again!

As anyone who has looked through this blog will by now appreciate, Sir John was not alone in nineteenth century Britain in his fascination with and admiration for Napoleon. What intrigues me is why so many Britons now seem so uncomfortable about this!

This engraving was perhaps the first image of Napoleon to appear in England (in 1797).

The Sir John Soane Museum contains a small oil painting done in the same year by Francesco Cossia. I have no means of knowing whether this engraving is based on Cossia's painting or that of another artist.

Soane thought that his painting was commissioned by Josephine and was the work of Francesco Goma. He was wrong on both counts.

Unfortunately it seems impossible to get an image of either of the miniatures in the Soane Museum. Both are relatively unknown works. Looks as if a visit is called for.

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