Monday, 21 October 2019

Napoleon and Churchill: Thoughts on Two Unrelated Images

Napoleon St Helena 1816, by Michel Dancoisne Martineau

The above portrait has just been completed by Michel Dancoisne Martineau. Aside from his incredible work with the French Properties on St. Helena, Michel has been extraordinarily productive as a writer and an artist.

This painting is based on Sir Pulteney Malcolm's description of Napoleon in the early stages of his captivity, before ill health and bitterness set in.

His hair of a brown-black, thin on the forehead, cropped, but not thin in the neck, and rather a dirty look ; light blue or grey eyes ; a capacious forehead ; high nose ; short upper lip ; good white even teeth, but small (he rarely showed them) ; round chin ; the lower part of his face very full ; pale complexion ; particularly short neck. Otherwise his figure appeared well proportioned, but had become too fat ; a thick, short hand with taper fingers and beautiful nails, and a well-shaped leg and foot. He was dressed in an old threadbare green coat, with green velvet collar and cuffs ; silver buttons with a beast engraven upon them, his habit de chasse (it was buttoned close at the neck) ; a silver star of the Legion of Honour ; white waistcoat and breeches ; white silk stockings ; and shoes with oval gold buckles . She was struck with the kindness of his expression, so contrary to the fierceness she had expected. No trace of great ability ; his countenance seemed rather to indicate goodness (1)

The portrait is surely also unconsciously influenced by what the artist has absorbed from other paintings and from numerous written accounts read over the years. The resultant figure that we see, shorn of contemporary conventions of portraiture, seems so realistic and human. Michel has spoken of the possibility of doing a study for each year of Napoleon's captivity, based on descriptions left by those who witnessed his decline. That would form the basis of a great exhibition for the bicentenary in 1821 and a fitting legacy of Michel's long service on St. Helena.

The second image is a photograph of Chamberlain's short lived wartime cabinet in September 1939, with Winston Churchill installed as First Lord of the Admiralty. I was intrigued by what each of the cabinet did with their hands. Some had their hands in their knees, some had their arms folded, some had their hands behind their back and one had a hand in his pocket. In the centre though sat Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, nearing the end of his Prime Ministership and of his life, his hands clasped in almost prayer like pose.(2) Behind Chamberlain stood Winston Churchill, his right hand thrust in his jacket, in a pose most commonly associated with Napoleon.(3)

Chamberlain's War Cabinet, September 1939

Churchill has appeared a number of times in this blog. A flawed genius, aren't they all, his admiration of Napoleon was well known to contemporaries, and like Napoleon he saw himself as a man of destiny.

I often reflect that like Napoleon, Churchill ultimately failed in his main aim. Napoleon failed to establish his Empire and the primacy of France on the continent. By the end of the second world war it was apparent that Churchill too would fail to safeguard the future of the British Empire and preserve its status as a great power. Although he did not preside over the Empire's dissolution, Churchill lived long enough to see others do it. How ironic that St. Helena, the scene of Napoleon's final years, remains one of the last outposts of that Empire that once bestrode the world.
1. A diary of St.Helena - The Journal of Lady Malcolm (1816, 1817) containing yje conversations of Napoleon with sir Pulteney Malcolm edited by Sir Arthur Wilson, K.C.I.E. with an introduction by Muriel Kent - Ed. by George Allen & Unwin Ltd - 1929 pages 26-27
2. Within 9 months Churchill was to succeed Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and a few months later, in November 1940, Chamberlain died of cancer.
3. The hand in jacket pose most often associated with Napoleon was apparently introduced around 1750 and signified calm and firm leadership.