Although Napoleon's rule in France and Europe was short-lived, Oxonian mandarins of Empire Carnarvon, Curzon and Rosebery fell under his spell. Christopher Danziger explores how they collected his belongings and absorbed his ideas with great gusto.

Napoleon at St Helena in a French engraving of 1855

by Christopher Danziger

We might not be surprised to find unconditional adulation for Napoleon in France, where judgements may be clouded by prejudices, or in Italy, which claims Napoleon as one of its own, where prime minister Berlusconi recently bought Napoleon’s four poster bed for “an undisclosed sum”. The cult, however, has a wider following than nationalism would suggest. Napoleon’s hat was recently bought by the South Korean businessman Kim Hong Kuk for £1.5m. The last Napoleonic death mask in private hands was recently sold to an anonymous Russian bidder for £250,000. Someone else who was infatuated with the Napoleonic legend and was the owner of many Napoleonic pieces was the disgraced Canadian publisher Conrad Black. How did South Koreans, Russians and Canadians come to fall under Napoleon’s spell? 

Sir Colin Lucas Room
Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, and Chancellor of Oxford University from 1908 to 1925

At least, we can console ourselves, the British are too rational to waste their emotions and their money in the cause of someone who, no matter what his achievements, has rightly been described as “treat(ing) power as a family business, plunder(ing) the states he conquered, creat(ing) a police state, subjugat(ing) women and reinstat(ing) slavery”.  Well, now you mention it, there were some maverick voices   -   Byron, Southey, Walter Scott (himself an assiduous collector of Napoleana)   -   raised in eulogy of the Corsican ogre, but then, of course they were poets, incestuous drug-addled romantics, whose heads were over-ruled by their hearts, so no stain on British judgement can be detected there.

But,  wait a moment.  Who are these other figures    -   Carnarvon, Curzon and Rosebery   -  mandarins of Empire in its high Augustan phase, who appear to have been prey to the Napoleonic spell? Surely these men, at the very apex of the British social and political system, to whom the fortunes of nation and Empire were entrusted, all of them with the extra benefit of an Oxford education, would not be hoodwinked by the Napoleonic heresy? Or would they?

Sir Colin Lucas RoomCarnarvon’s “collection” bears no comparison with Rosebery’s or Curzon’s but has unknowingly been seen by millions more people. Every time Robert Crawley, Lord Downton of Downton Abbey (which in real life is Highclere Castle, home of the Earls of Carnarvon) avoids a family confrontation by claiming that he has “letters to write” the desk and chair to which he retreats may once have been the property of Napoleon. 

The desk and chair were acquired by the Carnarvons in 1821, when Henry Herbert (who became the third Earl in 1833) bought them at auction in Paris while on the Grand Tour. Experts are still haggling over the provenance of these pieces. The chair may quite possibly once have belonged to Napoleon, the desk (below right) less certainly. It is certain that the chair was made by Napoleon’s cabinet maker, Jacob Freres, and it is possible that he made the desk too. 

What is absolutely certain is that neither of them (although still positively stated by Highclere’s promotional material) was taken to St Helena. The only item of furniture Napoleon took with him to St Helena was his military camp bed. One imagines that the 22 year old Henry may have been the victim of a mild scam. However, more interesting would be to know why he should have wanted a piece of Napoleana in the first place. Were Napoleonic “trophies” already fashionable among young English aristocrats? Once again, we are unsure of the answer.

HighclereIt was Henry, incidentally, who commissioned Sir Charles Barry (architect of the Houses of Parliament) to transform Highclere Castle into the mansion so beloved of Downton Abbey fans today. His son, Henry, in spite of a highly strung disposition and an array of nervous tics which earned him the nickname “Twitters”, became Secretary of State for the Colonies and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His eldest son, George, is even better known as the financier of the expedition which discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. 

The third Earl was only tapping into a contemporary fascination with Napoleon. As early as 1815-6, there had been a highly successful exhibition of Napoleonic artefacts at the Egyptian Hall in Picadilly, the centrepiece of which had been Napoleon’s bullet proof carriage, later bought by Madame Tussauds. In the 1820’s, a mysterious London businessman named John Sainsbury (no relation of the grocer) began to collect “everything worth notice in a portable form relating to Napoleon”. By 1843 it is no surprise that he was in financial difficulties. He put his collection on exhibition for an admission of one shilling. The exhibition catalogue alone ran to 700 pages. The Duke of Wellington visited it twice. But it did not solve Sainsbury’s problems. When the exhibition closed, its entire contents were put up for auction, and Sainsbury himself literally disappeared on a visit to France in 1861, never to be seen again.  

Our next Oxonian collector of Napoleana was Archibald Primrose, like Carnarvon, an alumnus of Christ Church.  His formidable intellect might have taken the fifth Earl of Rosebery anywhere, but in 1868 in defiance of a rule banning undergraduates from owning horses, he bought a horse named Ladas. When he was found out, he was offered a choice: either sell the horse or be sent down from Oxford. He didn’t hesitate. The decision to be a race horse owner seems not to have harmed his career. He is famously said to have had three ambitions  -  to win the Derby, to marry an heiress, and to become Prime Minister. By the age of 46 (too soon, perhaps) he had achieved all three. However, the long term grind of politics bored him. He lost the 1895 elections and resigned his office in 1896, free to pursue his other many interests.

One of them was to restore the castle of Barnbougle, which had been the great house on the family estate before his grandfather commissioned the Tudor revival villa of Dalmeny. There Rosebery created  a storage space for his library and collection of Napoleana.

The fifth earl of Rosebery gathered a remarkable trove of Napoleonic treasures

Why Lord Rosebery became infected by the Napoleonic legend we do not know. Apparently he was attracted by “the strong fibre” of Cromwell, and of the Pitts, father and son, the “massive power” of Bismarck and Cavour, and “the soaring energy” of Cecil Rhodes. Rosebery saw Napoleon as a supreme combination of all three.

With typical obsessiveness Rosebery began to accumulate a remarkable collection of Napoleonic artifacts, books and autographs. He made some major coups, including David’s portrait of Napoleon (now in the Smithsonian in Washington) and Napoleon’s superb travelling library. To them he added the cushion on which Napoleon’s head had rested on his death bed, a desk and chair and even the shutters of his bedroom from Longwood on St Helena, his throne as First Consul, a magnificent shaving stand from the Palace of Compiègne, and some outstanding portraits of Napoleon and members of his family by Appiani, Lefebvre, Girodet and Wicar, By way of contrast, it also contains the ingenious collapsible campaign chair of the Emperor's most redoubtable opponent, the Duke of Wellington. The collection gathered its own momentum. It became a subject of banter that friends, searching for an appropriate gift, filled his rooms with relics of “genuine and dubious authenticity”.

Rosebery now set to work on a study of the phase of Napoleon’s life in which he felt Britain’s honour was especially at stake  -  his exile on St Helena (the start of whose bicentenary we commemorate this year). Rosebery justified the study as “an attempt to penetrate the darkness” which then surrounded the last act of the Napoleonic drama. He concluded that it was “not a bright page for either Great Britain or Napoleon. It consorts with the dignity of neither”. 

Typically, he could not help asking “Why collate these morbid, sordid, insincere chronicles? Does not history tell us that there is nothing so melancholy as the aspect of great men in retirement?” Neither he nor we are surprised that the book makes disconsolate reading. If, as he said in a speech at Bodmin (of all places) in 1905, he seemed to have taken the French side, it “was because the facts as he saw them, led him there”.

These are part of Rosebery's collection of Napoleana at Dalmeny House, including the shutters from Napoleon's bedroom at Longwood House on St Helena
Part of Rosebery's collection of Napoleana at Dalmeny House, including the shutters from Napoleon's bedroom at Longwood on St Helena

The third of our trio of Oxonian collectors of Napoleana is George Curzon, the eldest son of Baron Scarsdale of Kedleston. He went from Eton to Balliol College, and from there was fast-tracked into a parliamentary seat and ministerial office. From boyhood he seems to have charmed and repelled in equal measure. For all his achievements his most lasting legacy is the doggerel about “a most superior person” (1). He was fully aware of its toxicity. “Never has more harm been done to one single individual than that accursed doggerel has done to me.”  It did not prevent his appointment as the youngest ever Viceroy of India. What might have been the stepping stone to a glittering career turned out to be its apogee.

Like Rosebery, Curzon thought constantly and increasingly about great men. Biographies of Caesar, Napoleon, Wellington, Lincoln and others were almost his sole recreational reading. As Viceroy “he felt himself to be living the very life of all the great men of whom he had read”.  

His first wife, Mary Leiter, the daughter of an American Mennonite millionaire, encouraged Curzon’s megalomaniac tendencies. She too read biographies of great men copiously and discovered, as Gilmour observes, that George resembled all of them. In Rosebery’s account of Napoleon’s last years, she found “George described exactly  -  the same memory, the same intellect, the same mastery of detail, and (especially) the same independence of ineffectual ministers”, men, in George’s case, like Lord George Hamilton whom she described (one of her kinder put-downs) as “a small minded, ferret faced, roving eyed mediocrity”.  

Incidentally, just to illustrate the circularity of this topic, George and his American wife Mary’s household of three daughters is often said to be the inspiration for Lord Downton’s family in the Carnarvon’s castle at Highclere.

Paramount among the great men studied by Curzon was Napoleon. At the age of 17, suggesting a boyhood infatuation, Curzon had visited Les Invalides and pronounced that “it was something that the French had duly appreciated the genius of that marvellous man”. 

In 1908, at a time when he was out of office, Curzon sailed to South Africa, supposedly for health reasons  -   but then Curzon had never needed any excuse to travel. Typically he prepared for his visit by intensive reading. By the time he reached St Helena on the return journey, he was already an expert on every aspect of Napoleon’s life there. He was as familiar with Longwood as if he had lived there himself. He corrected the French Consul so authoritatively on a matter of detail that he was invited to act as guide to a house he had never seen. Curzon smugly reported that the Consul offered to vacate his post permanently in Curzon’s favour. 

Napoleon's billiard table, now reunited with other effects at Longwood after a temporary exile in Plantation House
Napoleon's billiard table, now reunited with other effects at Longwood after a temporary exile in Plantation House

In a back room in Plantation House, the Governor’s residence, he unearthed the billiard table (made by Thurston’s of London, with a base of dove-tailed oak rather than slate) on which Napoleon had moodily passed time. A resolve to write a book about Napoleon’s last years may have been a cause or a result of his visit. I do not know if this meant that he felt Rosebery’s work had not corrected “popular misconceptions about the subject”.

However, the collection of Napoleana which he now acquired seems to have been in the interests of supporting his research into his new project. It only reflected Curzon’s specialist interests at one remove. The bulk of it he bought en bloc in 1916 from the estate of A.M.Broadley, who is the unsung hero of this part of the story.

Broadley was the son of the vicar of Bradpole, in Dorset, who spent most of his working life as a barrister in North Africa. He must have flourished because he became the defence lawyer for the two most celebrated rebels of their time, Arabi Pasha of Egypt, and the Bey of Tunis.  In 1902 he returned to Dorset and began assiduously to collect memorabilia. However, Broadley died unmarried, and his heirs put his collection up for sale, enabling Curzon to emerge as a great Napoleonist.

Curzon never put his purchase to the use he had intended. Instead he bequeathed his collection to Oxford University, of which he was Chancellor from 1907 until 1925. He asked that if possible a small room or annexe should be set aside together with the furniture of the room in which it had been housed.  They eventually found their way to the room in the Bodleian used for de-robing after degree ceremonies, open to viewing only by determined negotiation.  Some might find its contents disappointing. There are 332 books, many of them “Grangerised”, a process named after yet another Christ Church alumnus, the “most complete (collection) in existence relating to Napoleon’s exile” Curzon believed.  There are some second rate portraits. There is a table and four chairs, two settees and three cupboards in the Empire style that is unfashionable today. The  collection is a curious postscript to one of the great political careers of the day. 

Carnarvon, Rosebery, Curzon  -  all seem unlikely converts to one of the most enduring cults of modern times. The distinction of these collectors sheds lustre on the Napoleonic legend. Napoleon certainly exerts as much fascination on succeeding ages as on his contemporaries, and it would seem, as much on his enemies as on his friends.

  1. My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,

I am a most superior person.

My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,

I dine at Blenheim twice a week.

Christopher Danziger is a Napoleonista himself, teaching the subject within Oxford’s Continuing Education programme and recently leading trips to Waterloo within the 2015 Bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo.

Images: Highclere Castle, Bodleian Library, Di Camillo Companion, John Tyrrell

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By -richard marson

St Peters |College was given some of Napoleon's memorabilia by an old member whose grt grt grandfather ws the doctor on St Helena when Napoleon died.I beleive the College still has them.

By Selby Brock

To my mind it is Napoleon III who is the more fascinating character -- and so surprising that there isn't a proper scholarly biography of him in English!

By Matthew Scott

Brief mention of Cecil Rhodes in here, who of course was another prominent fawner of Napoleon. I believe he also owned the Bracket Clock that was previously resident at Napoleon's home when he was in exile in St. Helena. They all evidently saw themselves, or what they wanted to be, in Napoleon. Fascinating article, thank you!

By jennifer burke

I don't think John Sainsbury disappeared to France In 1861. He died at Grove Hall, Bow in November 1869 of senile dementia. His son William Noel Sainsbury was Assistant Keeper of the Records until 1896 and his nephew was Professor George Saintsbury. John Sainsbury was born John Davis Saintsbury and was transported to Australia in 1813 for uttering forged bank notes returning to England in 1819 with an Absolute Pardon.