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Relics of Napoleon I, 1821
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Relics of Napoleon I, 1821

Measurements: Locket: 38mm x 28mm

£5500

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Provenance:
Elizabeth Lady Holland (1770-1845)

Gold locket with glazed compartments containing a fragment of black fabric (to the left), and fragments of Napoleon’s hair (to the right under cracked glass), with integral loop and ring, together with a folded manuscript note in which the locket was once stored, inscribed in ink in the hand of Lady Holland, ‘Lock of the Emperor Napoleon’s hair cut off by Comte Bertrand, Longwood House May 1821, given to me EVH’, / ‘October 17th 1821, Holland House’.

Lady Elizabeth Vassal Holland (1770-1845) was one of the Emperor Napoleon I’s staunchest supporters. She was the daughter of a planter in Jamaica, first married Sir Godfrey Webster, 4th Baronet (1719-1800), but left him to become the mistress - and later wife - of Henry Richard Vassal-Fox, 3rd Baron Holland of Holland and 3rd Baron Holland of Foxley, in 1793. In 1802 the Hollands joined thousands of curious British tourists who took advantage of the temporary Peace of Amiens to visit Paris. During the course of a visit to Paris where they were presented to the ‘Consul and Madame’. The encounter was described by Princess Marie Liechtenstein in her history, Holland House (1874).

‘It was about this time that Lord and Lady Holland were introduced to the great man. Lord Holland says that Napoleon had but little conversation either with himself or with Lady Holland; but he was aware of the immense admiration the latter entertained for his genius. The admiration was reciprocal, and Napoleon evinced his gratitude by ordering that Lord and Lady Holland should be treated with every civility during their stay in France.’

The admiration was indeed reciprocal, Lord and Lady Holland becoming stalwart supporters of Napoleon during his exile in Elba and St. Helena, his Lordship addressing the House of Lords with a strongly worded protest over the terms of the Emperor’s captivity, and her Ladyship sending him books, clothing and food. One of her letters, sent from Holland House to Lieutenant-General Sir Hudson Lowe, the Governor of St. Helena, in July 1820, survives in the British Library’s collection:

‘Dear Sir Hudson - I have this day closed my accustomed packages for Your Island, and by Lord Bathurst’s permission have sent them to his office; there are two cases only chiefly of books, one contains a glass locket in which there is a portrait of the late Empress Josephine. It came from the Duchess of St. Leu. The list of books I enclose, some are the suite of sets I sent upon former occasions. The whole was packed in my own room, and I can vouch on my honour that there is nothing contraband ... ’

Napoleon died on 5 May 1821, his head being shaved on the following day in order to make an impression for a death mask, at which events the Comte de Bertrand was present, having been the late Emperor’s constant companion from the day he arrived on the island - moreover, in common with other witnesses, he is known to have obtained cuttings from the Emperor’s hair on the same occasion. Interestingly, too, in terms of the strength of Lady Holland’s friendship with Napoleon, he bequeathed to her ‘the antique Cameo which Pope Pius VI gave me at Tolentino’ (the Emperor’s last Will and Testament refers).

Moreover, as confirmed by Princess Marie Liechenstein in Holland House, Lady Holland did indeed once own ‘a locket containing Napoleon’s hair and a piece of paper with some more hair in it’, although the locket seen by the Princess in the 1870s was actually ‘in crystal, surmounted by the eagle and the crown of laurels due to the hero’; and the ‘piece of paper with some more hair in it’ accompanied by a letter from Dr. O’Meara, who gifted her said hair on 22 August 1822: nonetheless, the mention of a piece of paper illustrates Lady Holland’s chosen method of storage.

The Princess also describes additional relics on display in a cabinet in Holland House, one of which may account for the fragment of black fabric contained in the left hand side of the above described locket - namely a piece of fabric taken from a sock Napoleon was wearing at the time of his death:

‘Further on we find a ring, a very narrow gold ring with an emerald and two poor diamonds; a cross of the Legion of Honour, and a sock. The ring seems to have been brought from St. Helena for Elizabeth, Lady Holland, in whose hand-writing we find the ring: “Sent by Countess Bertrand, by Major Poppleton.” The cross was the one worn by Napoleon, and given to Lady Holland by General Flahault, and the sock Napoleon wore at the moment of death. There is also some snuff which was found in his snuff-box at Longwood after he died, and given to Lady Holland by Count Montholon on 1 October 1821. Some people sneer at the triviality of such relics, or recoil at the associations they suggest; but as things worthless in themselves are infinitely precious to the lover, if his beloved has worn and touched them, so it is to the hero-worshipper with what has been in contact with his or her hero.’

Both Bertrand and Montholon visited Holland House on several occasions in late 1821, the latter gifting the sock to Lady Holland on just such an occasion on 10 September, when he also presented her with the bequest of Naploeon; equally important was Bertrand’s visit to Holland House that October, his date of departure being the 17th (as recorded by Lady Holland the following day in her journal), the very day of the date written by Lady Holland on the above described section of folded paper.

 

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