Madame Tussaud’s Napoleon Relics

Napoleon Bonaparte. Author’s Collection.

Madame Tussaud’s Napoleon relics were displayed in her exhibition hall in one of two rooms that first opened in 1843. The rooms were dedicated to the Emperor and those associated with him. They contained all sorts of interesting items, and, according to Madame Tussaud, the rooms were “fitted up exactly in the style of the period, with splendid ceilings, and picture-frames made expressly to show the peculiar fashion of Napoleon’s time, without regard to expense.”[1] Visitors to these rooms paid an extra 6d. and were also allowed admittance into the Chamber of Horrors.

Among the many relics perhaps the most popular was Napoleon’s military carriage that he had used on many of his military campaigns and while he was exiled on Elba. It ended up in England, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. A Major von Keller confiscated it as “his own booty,” and the carriage was either bought by the British government or given to the Prince Regent. A William Bullock then purchased it from the Prince Regent. He displayed the carriage at the London Museum and took it on tour throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland. It was then sold at an auction to a gentleman who planned to tour with it in America, but when that fell through, the carriage was used to satisfy a debt and became the property of a coach maker, who in turn sold it in 1842 to Madame Tussaud.

Thomas Rowlandson’s “Exhibition at Bullock’s Museum of Bonaparte’s Carriage taken at Waterloo.” Courtesy of Royal Trust Collection.

Supposedly, Madame Tussaud’s oldest son Joseph was the person who discovered the carriage. It occurred one day as he was leaning over London Bridge watching a carriage being hoisted from a barge. He began a conversation with a gentleman, who revealed, “I can take you to a place where you can see Napoleon’s carriage which he used at Waterloo.”[2] Of course, Joseph was interested and accompanied the man to a carriage shop in Gray’s Inn Road. There he discovered the carriage, complete with “a sleeping bunk, a writing-desk, and stowage for a quantity of baggage.”[3]

Bullock who had originally displayed Napoleon’s carriage wrote a letter of attestation for Madame Tussaud dated 12 November (with no year) stating that the carriage “exhibited by me at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London as well as the principal cities in Great Britain and Ireland, by the authority of the Government, … is the identical Carriage I have just seen in your possession.”[4]

The carriage was not the only interesting thing on display in the Napoleon Rooms. A tricolored silk flag initially presented by Napoleon to the National Guard of Elba was also on display. The Emperor later used the flag when he escaped Elba. It had elaborately embroidered ornaments in silver and an inscription that read “‘Champ de Mai,’ as it was again presented by the Emperor to his Guards at that celebrated meeting of the army, held by the Emperor after his return to Paris in 1815, a short time before they marched for Waterloo.”[5] The Prussians took the flag at Waterloo and then sold it to an English gentleman. It then came into the possession of Bernard Brocas, Esq., and when he died, it was sold to a Mr. Robins, before it became part of Madame Tussaud’s collection.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Benjamin Robert Haydon in 1839. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

Several pieces of clothing were also included in the exhibit. There was a coat and waistcoat worn by the Duke of Wellington, that he himself presented to Benjamin Robert Haydon, who painted his picture, “Wellington musing on the Field of Waterloo” as a companion piece to Haydon’s “Napoleon musing at St Helena.” There was also a waistcoat belonging to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph. Several pieces of clothing belonging to Napoleon were also on display and included his stockings, a pocket handkerchief, and an under neckerchief, along with a glass case that contained his “waistcoat, small clothes, morning-gown, and sword-belt.”[6]

While exiled on St. Helena, Napoleon would sit under a willow tree and reflect on his life. He loved the tree so much that he asked to be buried under it. After his death, it was common for ships to stop at St. Helena and for sailors to visit his grave and take cuttings from his beloved willow tree. Because there were so many relic hunters, a guard was stationed at the willow tree to limit what relic hunters took. Interestingly, Napoleon was not buried for long under the willow tree because in May of 1840, the French government passed a law ordering the return of his remains to France. His body was put aboard La Belle Poule in October and returned to Paris where it was eventually reinterred in the Hôtel des Invalids in a tomb. Madame Tussaud obtained and displayed a relic of the celebrated willow tree that Napoleon loved, along with a chair made from the willow tree.

The willow tree on St. Helena. Author’s Collection.

The willow tree relic was not the only interesting relic related to Napoleon. A diamond had been discovered in Napoleon’s carriage that Bullock made into a pin and wore for many years. Madame Tussaud also acquired Napoleon’s toothbrush from Napoleon’s brother Lucien. Perhaps, Napoleon didn’t use the toothbrush much because one the most unusual things on display was a tooth belonging to him. It was one of three teeth extracted by Dr. Barry O’Meara, an Irish surgeon who accompanied Napoleon to St. Helena and became his physician. After pulling each tooth, O’Meara did not return them to Napoleon. According to one of Madame Tussaud’s catalogs, he disposed of them in the following fashion: he kept one, gave one to Napoleon’s mother when he visited Italy, and the other went to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph. Exactly which tooth Madame Tussaud had on display is unclear, although the tool Dr. O’Meara used to extract the teeth could be viewed.

Napoleon’s bedstead. Courtesy of ClipArt.

When not viewing Napoleon’s tooth or the tool used to pull it, visitors could see other items related to Napoleon’s time on St. Helena. There was his treasured garden chair, a favorite coffee cup, and a model of Longwood House, the residence Napoleon used while living on the island from 10 December 1815 until his death on 5 May 1821. While living there, Napoleon also slept in his camp bedstead, which Madame Tussaud displayed, along with the mattress covered in silk and the pillow on which he died. She also showed Napoleon “lying in state in his Chasseur uniform covered with the cloak he wore at Maregno, left expressly by will to his son. … ‘In it he lay in a soldier’s glory, and it served as his pall to the grave.’”[7] The bedstead, mattress, and pillow became the property of Lucien after Napoleon’s death. When Lucien died, Madame Tussaud’s sons acquired them from Lucien’s solicitor, who disposed of them. The bed alone cost the sons £450 to obtain.

A fire broke out at Madame Tussaud’s on 18 March 1925. Shortly, after the fire, newspapers reported that “the whole of the Napoleonic relics have been destroyed.”[8] Reporters also noted that it was too soon to estimate the damage, but the roof and the top floor of the building were destroyed and what was left was described an “ash-heap,” or as one newspaper stated an “imperial calamity.”

References:

  • [1] Madame Tussaud and Sons, Biographical and Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose the Unrivalled Exhibition and Historical Gallery of Madame Tussaud and Sons: Patronised by His Royal Highness Prince Albert and the Royal Family … [etc.] (London: G. Cole, 1862), p. 22.
  • [2] New Zealand Herald, “Relics of Buonaparte,” May 9, 1925, p. 5.
  • [3] ibid.
  • [4] Madame Tussaud and Sons, p. 22.
  • [5] Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, Biographical and Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose the Unrivalled Exhibition and Historical Gallery of Madame Tussaud and Sons (London: G. Cole, 1866), p. 34.
  • [6] Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, Biographical and Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose the Unrivalled Exhibition and Historical Gallery of Madame Tussaud and Sons (London: G. Cole, 1865), p. 34.
  • [7] Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, Exhibition Catalogue: Containing Biographical & Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose Their Exhibition and Historical Gallery (London: B. George, 1880), p. 32.
  • [8] The Scotsman, “Madame Tussaud’s,” 19 March 1925, p. 7.

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