Monday, 7 October 2013

"Napoleon's Desk" at Downton Abbey: all is not what it seems

"Napoleon's Desk" at Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey)

During our stay on St Helena earlier this year we visited Longwood House after 30 or so pieces of furniture had been removed, packed and sent to Paris for renovation in time for an exhibition planned at Les Invalides in 2016. Not long after our return to the UK we received with some incredulity a report from a friend that she had just seen Napoleon's desk from Longwood House at Highclete Castle!

Sure enough a web search revealed that such claims were made for this piece of furniture by the current owners of Highclere as recently as January 2012:

The mahogany desk and chair in the Music Room belonged to Napoleon. “They were bought by the third earl of Carnarvon in 1821 after Napoleon’s death,” Lady Carnarvon said. The chair was made for Napoleon, and the Carnarvons have a sketch of him by it circa 1804. "The desk is probably from the same period, and both pieces went with him into exile at Longwood house on St. Helena,” she said, referring to the island where Napoleon died. (1)
Another article, dated April 2013 claims
The green leather-topped desk and carved griffin-image chair were created by Jacob Frères, the furniture-making company of the brothers Georges II and François-Honoré Jacob from 1796 to 1803. Napoleon took the desk and chair with him into exile on the Island of St. Helena after his defeat at Waterloo. The pair was purchased by the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon in 1821 after Napoleon’s death that year. (2)

Now one thing we do know with certainty is that other than his camp bed, on which he died, Napoleon took no furniture with him to St Helena. We also know that all the furniture at Longwood was English, and as the furniture restorer currently working on the Longwood furniture in Paris said to me, it is far inferior to the pieces on display at Highclere Castle.

Highclere Castle, home of the Carnarvon family, scene of the TV series, "Downton Abbey"

In view of these erroneous claims I contacted Highclere. I was informed that the guides had originally been told that the desk was English, probably by George Bullock, and was purchased for Napoleon by the Britsh Government. This information was changed a few years ago to say that it was made by the same person who had made the chair stamped ‘Jacob Freres rue Meslee’, which did not come from Longwood House, contrary to the quotations above. I was also informed that the desk was purchased in 1827, being part of the contents of Longwood House, and that Highclere Castle has a note from Napoleon’s chaplain (presumably Vignali not the ubiquitous Rev Boys) saying that it came from St Helena after Napoleon's death. (3)

The archivist at Highclere later confirmed to me that there have been changes in the attribution of the desk, but also that there is very little about it in the archives. So I think we can state with certainty that none of the conflicting stories linking this desk to Longwood House have any credibility. The furniture in Longwood House was British, this beautiful desk is French, it was not taken by Napoleon to St Helena.

The most logical explanation is that the 3rd Lord Carnarvon was the victim of a scam, and that his descendants have been clutching at straws in order to validate the desk's faulty provenance. One would have hoped that at the very least the owners might have contacted the curator at Longwood House before allowing such claims to be made, but in any case I think it is time to tell the truth.


1.Los Angeles Times, Jan 30 2012

2. Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine, April 2013

3. Boys was the Anglican priest who never actually met Napoleon but along with his descendants has been the source of much confusion. I have written a number of blogs about Rev Boys, concerning another armchair allegedly from Longwood, about other confusing claims and the death masks his family years later claimed were made for Rev Boys on St Helena.

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