Monday, 16 November 2009

Napoleon’s hair on display in London

by Kathryn Hadley

Last Thursday, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London announced that a gold mourning-ring belonging to Soane and containing a lock of Napoleon’s hair had been returned to the museum. The museum had previously tried to acquire the ring at an auction held by Christie’s in June. At the time, however, the museum was the under-bidder. With the support of The Art Fund and private donors the museum has now successfully purchased the ring for £41,000.

The ring originally belonged to Sir John Soane and was allegedly one of his most treasured private possessions. It featured on his will among the items to be kept ‘as heir looms in my family’. However, it eventually passed out of the family’s ownership and was deemed lost. When it went on sale in June, it was the first time that the museum had news of its whereabouts since Soane’s death in 1837.

The ring is hallmarked London 1822, the year after Napoleon’s death. It contains a lock of plaited brown hair, which was given to Sir John by Elizabeth Balcombe, the daughter of an official on St Helena who became close friends with the Emperor. Sir John Soane’s Museum Archive contains a brief letter of presentation from Elizabeth Balcombe which reads:
‘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.’
A French inscription on the inside reads in English: ‘This lock of hair of Napoleon Buonaparte was presented to John Soane Esquire by Miss Elizabeth Balcombe.’ It also includes the words Prier Pour Moi (pray for me).

It is believed that Sir John Soane commissioned the ring to contain this ‘relique’ and chose the inscription himself. Soane was fascinated by Napoleon. On the south wall of the Breakfast Room in the museum there are notably two portraits of the Emperor, one as a young soldier and the other on the eve of his downfall. In the words of Tim Knox, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum:
‘Soane had a horrible fascination with Napoleon and this ring, with its plait of
the vanquished Emperor’s hair, was the ultimate trophy. We are thrilled to get
it back to its old home.’

The ring is due to go in display in the museum at the end of November.

Read the press release on the website of The Art Fund.
For further reading on Napoleon, visit our Napoleonic Era focus page.

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