About the artwork
The Napoleon Room was originally twice the size it is today and large enough to accommodate the sprawling 22-piece acanthus-tailed griffin suite of furniture designed by Dionisio and Lorenzo Santi for the Emperor's uncle, Cardinal Fesch, which is now to be found at the north end of the Main Hall. All the furniture and artefacts remaining in the room were bought by Lever because of their Napoleonic associations, although many of these associations have subsequently been proved spurious. Several pieces were said to have come from the Chateau de Malmaison, home of the Empress Josephine. However, even were this so, it is unlikely that they furnished the Chateau during the Empress's lifetime. The mismatched pair of arch-pedimented chairs against the left wall are variously believed to have belonged to Cardinal Fesch, to Napoleon's brother, King Jerome of Westphalia, and, least likely of all, to the Emperor himself during his first exile on Elba.
Lever was not alone in collecting such things. The 'Portrait of Napoleon I' by Rene Theodore Berthon, (upper left of the wall facing the door) was purchased from the Sotheby's auction of 'an important collection of Napoleon Relics, Portraits, Documents, Books, Medals, Engravings, etc' amassed by two brothers, J. Oakley, and Edward Arthur Maund. The plaster death mask on a velvet cushion (in the case outside the door) was acquired from the same source. The arch-pedimented chairs, already mentioned, and the carved gilt arm chair (towards the left corner of the room) were bought from the collection of the artist William Quiller Orchardson who had used them frequently as sitters' chairs and to 'furnish' the atmospheric period interiors he specialised in painting.
The success of Orchardson's 'St. Helena 1816 - Napoleon dictating to Count Las Cases the Account of his campaigns' (centre of the wall facing) at the Royal Academy of 1892, shows that, after 70 years, the charismatic figure still caught the imagination of painter and public alike. Critics remarked on the artist's fondness for empty spaces and the subtlety of his palette - 'practically a study in whites' - but called into question the Emperor's appearance: 'was he not fatter, heavier, less fit for locomotion in 1816 than he looks here?' When George Richmond set about painting Napoleon Reading his letter of Abdication (left wall) a mere 40 years after his subject's death, he claimed to have captured a true likeness from precise descriptions given him by the man who had made the Emperor's breeches.
For political and military balance, Napoleon's nemesis, The Duke of Wellington hangs opposite the Richmond painting. It is one of at least fifteen versions, painted by John Lucas, of the 'Iron Duke' in his seventieth year. To the right of Orchardson's picture is a portrait of Horatio, Lord Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott. Himself something of a one-man Nelson factory, Abbott is said to have produced over forty copies from an original sketch painted in 1798 while the naval hero was convalescing following the loss of his right arm.
A month after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was a prisoner on board the British warship Bellerophon. Anchored off the Devon port of Brixham, and later off Plymouth, news that the former Emperor of France was aboard brought thousands of sightseers alongside in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their country's greatest enemy. Napoleon came on deck and surveyed the vast flotilla of tiny boats surrounding the ship. He took off his hat and bowed. The crowd in turn took off their hats and cheered him as they would a national hero. 'How curious these English are', he remarked to one of his aides.
That English crowd was applauding the most famous man in the world, one whose very celebrity transcended distinctions between nation states, between friend and foe. The allure lasted long after his death in 1821 and it is confidently asserted that more has been written about Napoleon Bonaparte and his era than about any other figure who has ever lived. Lord Rosebery's book, The Last Phase, published in 1900, dealing with Napoleon's exile on St Helena, concluded that the reason he has exerted such an enduring fascination on 'men of aspiration' is that 'he enlarged indefinitely the limits of human conception and human possibility.' It is not perhaps surprising therefore that William Hesketh Lever should have shared that 'enduring fascination'.