Staring Into The Face of Death

It’s not on display any more, but one of my favourite objects in The British Museum is Napoleon’s death mask.

Napoleom’s death mask – well, one of them at least, Held in The British Museum’s collection.

Death masks were often used in an era before photography was widespread and captured likenesses which were used in sculpting busts of the decased post mortem. John Constable’s is on display at the Royal Academy and Oliver Cromwell’s is at the Museum of London.

Mummy of an infant who died during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius. Excavated in 1889 by William Matthew Flinders Petrie, not on display but held at The British Museum.

The practice stretches all the way back to ancient times. Sculpted (and sometimes painted) masks were often placed on Egyptian mummies after mummifaction. It is said this strenghtened the spirit of the deceased as they journeyed into the afterlife, as well as giving visual representation as to what the deceased.

The death of Napoleon Bonaparte at St Helena in 1821. Lithograph after Baron Steuben. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Napoleon’s death mask was made after he died in exile on the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic ocean on the 5th May 1821. The French military leader was descended from minor Corsican nobility and had conquered significant swathes of Europe. He had proclaimed himself emperor in 1804 and from career gains made during the French Revolution. By the early 19th century, he had expanded his empire by successfully waging war against various coalitions of European nations. But it all went balls-up in 1812 after a disastrous invasion of Russia. After an initial ousting to the island of Elba, he briefly returned to power before getting the final boot from Wellington in 1815, which led to his exile to Saint Helena.

A bronze version which is on display at Apsley House – the home of the Duke of Wellington.

Capturing his deathly likeness wasn’t straightforward. It wasn’t started until forty hours after he died and plaster of paris (the preferred material to make such things) wasn’t immediately to hand. So crude gypsum was used instead, with surgeon Francis burton taking the likeness. The process went wrong and the moulds were damaged. After mishap after mishap, it was left for the surgeon to use drawings made of the now decaying leader on his deathbed by Joseph Rubidge.

Napoleon’s death cult exploded after he conked out. In 1825, 1,400 people flock to the island to gawp and reflect at his grave, showing interest in Le Petit Caporal continued well after his death. John Bull Magazine in November 1895 commented that “not a tree, a shrub or even a stone in the neighbourhood might not have been turned to profit”, such as the thirst for Napoleon relics from the island where he died.

Coupled alongside stories about how his Little Napoleon was chopped off and smuggled off the island as a souvenir after his autopsy (and was subjected to a DNA test for a Channel 4 documentary in 2014 where it was remarked to be ‘very small‘ – talk about the Napoleon complex), his grave, his body parts – are all part of a long tradition of fascination society has long had with the remains of famous people.

Napoleon I on Saint Helena by Oscar Rex (1857-1929), oil on canvas.
Courtesy of Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau.

Napoleon did not desire to be buried on Saint Helena. His original wish was to be be buried on the banks of the River Seine, “among the French people I have loved so much”. He died on a British-owned island and we sure as hell weren’t going to honour that request, until 1840 when his remains were returned to France to lie in a crypt at Les Invalides in Paris amongst other French military leaders.

The copy of the mask held at The British Museum is either the second or the third copy of this yes-it-probably-is-a-fair-resemblance-of-Napoleon-but-there-is-probably-a-bit-of-artisitic-license-going-on death mask. A number of other masks have turned up over the years all claiming to be the original, each with subtle differences in the face presented.

Isn’t it cool to peer into the face of such a historic dead person?

If you liked this story, why not join me this Saturday for a walking tour around The British Museum, exploring other deathly objects in its collection! Tickets are £20 and the tour starts at 1:30pm.

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