Saturday, 12 June 2021

Queen Victoria, Count Walewski and a Famous Painting

Napoleon at Fontainebleau, 31 March 1814 Paul Delaroche

There appear to be a number of versions of Delaroche's painting of Napoleon's first abdication. One has been in the Musée de l'Armée in Paris since 1954. (1) Another resides in the Royal Collection.

In 1852 the painting was viewed at Windsor by Alexandre Walewski (1810-1868), Napoleon's natural son, now French emissary to the Court of St James. Victoria entertained Walewski and his wife a few days after the British Government had officially recognised Louis Napoleon as Emperor of the French!

The Walewskis & Lord Malmesbury to dinner, the Count, sitting next to me. He was very amiable & talkative, speaking immediately, & in great admiration, of the fine picture we have here of Napoleon at Fontainebleau, by P. Delaroche. The Counts own likeness to Napoleon is very striking, & if there was a doubt of the relationship, the fact of his appearance is an infallible proof. (2)

Alexandre Walewski (1810-1858)

Queen Victoria got to know Walewski and his second wife very well. In the early year things were rather strained. She was concerned that Lord Palmerston had expressed his approval to Walewski of the coup in which Louis Napoleon had seized power, which cost Palmerston his job. She also refused to give her support to the proposed marriage of Napoleon III to her niece, Princess Adelheid of Hohenlohe-Langenburg.

In her diary she commented on Walewski's lack of tact, and later described him as a rogue when he appeared to criticise Napoleon III, for whom after a rather hostile start, the Queen came to develop a surprisingly close attachment.(3) She also was very well aware of Walewski's relationship with the promiscuous actress Rachel, who had a few years earlier borne him a daughter:

The latter was full of awkward "mal à propas", being famous for want of tact. He is most anxious our Fleets should have an opportunity of acting together, — enquired after the Orléans family, — spoke of Rachel, whose former liaison with him is notorious! &c(4)

A year or two later, during the Crimean War,in which the two great enemies were for the first time allies, Victoria entertained Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, with whom she was to forge a long lasting friendship. The meeting was a great success, but Victoria could not help appreciate the irony of entertaining a nephew of Napoleon:

Then dancing began, I, dancing a Quadrille with the Emperor, Albert opposite, with the Empress. This was followed by a Reel, in which Vicky danced very nicely, then a Valse which the Emperor asked her to dance with him, & which frightened her very much, &c — Really to think of a Gd Daughter of George IIIrd, dancing with the nephew of our great enemy, the Empr Napoleon now my most firm Ally, in the Waterloo Gallery, — is incredible! And this Ally was only 6 years ago, an exile in England, poor, & not at all thought of! The Emperor led me in to supper & Albert, the Empress. Her manner is the most perfect thing I ever saw, so gentle, graceful & kind, & so modest & retiring. All was over by ½ p. 12. Vicky behaved extremely well, making beautiful curtseys & was much praised by the Emperor & Empress, about whom she raves.(5)
A few months later Victoria was in Paris, the first British monarch to go there for four centuries, and whilst there paid her respects before the tomb of the "Great Napoleon"!

1. The Musée de l'Armée version, was bought by the Liverpool industrialist John Naylor, and was for years part of the Naylor Collection in Wales. An article published by theNapoleon Foundation says it was bought and donated to the Museum by Francis Howard, the Founder of the Grosvenor Art Gallery in London, a European educated American, the great grandson of Benjamin Franklin.
2. Queen Victoria's Diary, 9th December 1852. DNA has now confirmed Victoria's judgement that Walewski did descend from the male Bonaparte line.
3. Diary, 10th June 1853, 4th September 1859.
4. Diary 10th June 1853.
5. Diary 17th April 1855.

Friday, 21 May 2021

The Bicentenary: An Update

Napoleon's Grave, St Helena, May 2021

After years of preparation, the disruption of the pandemic and the debate in France over Napoleon's legacy, the ceremonies on St Helena have now passed.

In my previous post I said that the commemoration would be very different from that in 1921. It didn't take any special foresight to say that! Commemoration of the bicentenary took place in a world perhaps even further removed from 1921 than that era was from 1821.

In the shadow of the Great War, most if not all of the imperial certainties of a European dominated, Atlantic centred world remained. That era has now long gone. The UK has moved on from Empire to Commonwealth, and now, after a brief semi-detached sojourn in the European Community, in the midst of a global economic and environmental crisis, to the Anglosphere and "Global Britain". One wonders what our descendants will make of that in 2121. One wonders also what place St Helena will have in this new world.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

May 5th: Thoughts on the Bicentenary of Napoleon's Death

The Centenary of Napoleon's Death, St Helena 1921

Napoleon's Tomb, St Helena

Despite the pandemic an impressive programme has been planned on St Helena both at Longwood House and around the empty grave. It will be a very different atmosphere from a century ago. I will be surprised if the Union Jack is flown as it was in 1921, and I expect a low key, more informal ceremony with the participation of many ordinary Saints, few if any of whom appear to have been present a century ago.

In Paris President Macron has somewhat controversially decided to lay a wreath beside Napoleon's tomb in Les Invalides. It will probably come as a surprise to many English patriots to find that Napoleon is not universally admired in France. At the risk of over-simplification his memory is more revered on the political Right than on the Left! Macron of course is a centrist.

Macron's aides have let it be known that "Someone at the start of the 21st century does not think like someone at the start of the 19th century. Our history is our history and we accept it. "

The novelist L.P. Hartley put it more succinctly:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

With that in mind I have decided to return to what has been a major theme of this blog: the surprising amount of support for Napoleon in England, in folk songs, in people christening their children "Napoleon", and in the political campaigns of the Radicals, not to mention the better known but more measured support from Lady Holland and the Foxite Whigs.

"The most wonderful man that ever existed"

Henry "Orator" Hunt, the radical leader who was imprisoned after the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, on hearing of Napoleon's death wrote these comments from Ilchester Jail. (1)

For Radicals Waterloo and Peterloo were of one piece - to cement the hold of autocratic rulers against the forces of liberty on the continent and in England.

Curiously on St. Helena Napoleon spoke of Orator Hunt, and it is fair to say that he did not have that much sympathy for his cause, which he seems to have identified with mob rule from which he believed he had saved France. He marvelled though at the ability of the English aristocracy to laugh at liberty and at freedom of the press. (2)

On Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's Gaoler: "very unlike the English to have behaved like that"

Finally a few comments by Queen Victoria, just under two years old when Napoleon died, but clearly schooled by the Whigs! On hearing of the death of Hudson Lowe in 1844 she wrote:

Sir Hudson Lowe has just died. He was chiefly renowned for his custody of Napoleon at St. Helena, which he is said to have performed with great harshness.(3)

Napoleon she considered was "one of the most remarkable men in the world's history, though not the best.(4) A few days later she added:

Sir Robert Gardiner has no good opinion of Sir Hudson Lowe & says his treatment of Napoleon was most unfeeling & harsh, & that altogether the way in which he was treated at St. Helena, was abominable & disgraceful, & most ungenerous towards a Captive of such note as he was. I must say I think it is very unlike the English to have behaved like that.
1. To the Radical reformers, male and female, of England, Ireland, and Scotland p. 238-239.
2. Napoleon at St. Helena, Memoirs of General Bertrand, Grand Marshall of the Palace January to May 1821 (London 1953) p. 71.
3. Queen Victoria Journal, 12th January 1844.
4. ibid .
5. Queen Victoria Journal, 15th January 1844.