Friday, 8 July 2011

Napoleon's Death Mask

This is the death mask of Napoleon I, taken from the mould made by Dr Burton on 7th May 1821 (Napoleon having died on 5th May). The front of the mask was stolen by Napoleon's housekeeper, Madame Bertrand and, later, she gave copies to another of Napoleon's doctors (Dr Antomarchi) and the whole thing has generated enough controversy and mystery to generate a book called Les Masques Mortuaire de Napoleon by E de Veaux.

Looking at the mask, it is not difficult to understand Heine's dictum: "Napoleon was not the stuff that kings are made of - he was the marble from which gods are hewn." Every time that I cross Brunel's Tamar railway bridge and look down into the harbour of Plymouth I think of Napoleon out there, pacing up and down on HMS Bellerophon, awaiting the British government's answer to his asylum request, before he was refused and shipped off to St Helena.

I once had the privilege to see many mementos of Napoleon in (of all strange places), a house in a Cornish town. My father had started chatting to some new neighbours; a charming elderly couple. It turned out that their name was Bonaparte-Wyse and that William Charles was the four times great nephew of Napoleon I, through his niece Laetitia (Letitzia). I went to see them and recall that William Charles' favourite sundowner was British naval rum; it also turned out that he had been ADC to General Charles de Gaulle in the Second World War.

They showed me quite a display and archive of memorabilia; including silhouettes of Napoleon; locks of his hair; papers; pictures and a jet and gold mourning cross which Napoleon's mother had given to Laetitia on Napoleon's death.

I remember the evening that I spent with them very clearly. They are both dead now and the archive is in the Waterford Museum in Ireland (the Wyse family having Waterford connexions).

Now I shall never know how or why a Bonaparte ended up in a Sleepy Hollow in Cornwall but I recall a splendid evening spent with two delightful people.


  1. Interestingly enough, there is a copy of Napoleon's death mask near where I live, in the Dadiani family palace in Zugdidi, in Georgia on the Black Sea Coast. Princess Salome Dadiani of the Mingrelian royal family had married a great-nephew of Napolean Bonaparte, and many items of Napoleonic interest are in the family collection. The mask is made of bronze and is one of three bronze versions in existence. The French-raised descendants of this union still live in Zugdidi, and run a French school in western Georgia.

  2. Yes, there are several of these masks and even Boodles Club has one! The matter is surrounded by controversy, owing to the theft of the face part of Dr Burton's mask (and the separation of it from the ears and the back of the head). The head was shaved and the hair sent to the family to be made into locks.