What I didn’t know and didn’t mention in that post was that there was a connection between Napoleon Bonaparte, St Helena Island and Melbourne. His intended prison home, Longwood, was not finished by the time he arrived on the island in December 1815. So Bonaparte had to stay with the merchant and Purveyor for the East India Company William Balcombe (1779-1929). The prisoner lived in a garden pavilion on the family estate, The Briars, and according to all reports, Napoleon became particular friends with the family's youngest teenage daughter Betsy.
Betsy’s friendship with the “enemy” did not endear the Balcombes to the governor of St Helena. But it seems more likely that William was suspected of being an intermediary in clandestine correspondence with Paris. In either case, William Balcombe decided to return to Britain in 1818 with all his family. Napoleon, as it happened, died soon after.
An excellent blog called Reflections on A Journey to St Helena was very useful. It discussed why the Balcombe family lived in very straitened circumstances back in England and why the governor of St Helena might have eventually removed his objections to Balcombe's juicy new preferment, a government post as Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales in 1823.
The Briars 1842, Balcombe homestead near Melbourne
William’s son Alexander Balcombe (1811-77) took up lots of land at Mt Martha just outside Melbourne in 1840. He and his wife were creating a large family, so they quickly built a rough-hewn slab house, and called it The Briars. The 1842 Briars homestead, one of the oldest pastoral properties on the peninsula outside Melbourne, recalled The Briars home on St Helena Island.
The family prospered and Mrs Balcombe moved to East Melbourne sometime in the 1850s, first into a prefabricated house that used British materials and an Indian design. Then the Balcombes built a new and large house in East Melbourne c1857 which they called East Court. Alexander Balcombe must have been dividing his time between town and country. He settled down to pastoral pursuits and the life of a country squire, was appointed a magistrate in 1855 and was first chairman of the Mount Eliza Road Board from 1860 on.
Napoleon's own furniture, in The Briars museum near Melbourne
But it was Dame Mabel’s connection with Napoleon that most interests me here. In her older age, she wrote St Helena Story and had the book published in 1960. She wrote of her family's substantial collections of furniture, objets d'art, books and relics of Napoleon. She even purchased the freehold of the pavilion that Napoleon had occupied on her great-grandfather's estate on St Helena, and presented it to a grateful French nation in 1960.
Dame Mabel Brookes’ city home, East Court, had some of the furniture used by Napoleon on St Helena, a teak table used by both Wellington and Napoleon, a writing desk bearing Napoleon's kick marks on the lower panels and the Frenchman’s death mask. The Briars homestead near Melbourne is now a museum where visitors can see the Dame Mabel Brookes Napoleonic Collection. It includes furniture that Bonaparte shared upon his stay with the Balcombes, plus some of his hair, papers, letters, a legion d'honneur medal and artworks.
The St Helena Story 1960, a book written by William Balcombe's great grand daughter
The link between Napoleon Bonaparte, The Briars on St Helena Island, William Betsy and Alexander Balcombe, The Briars in Melbourne and Dame Mabel Brookes' Napoleonic Collection is irresistible. The Briars homestead-museum is open daily.
The connection between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Australian politician Michael Kroger is less persuasive, but the timing (for my blog post) is sublime. My Napoleon Obsession noted that Kroger collected a vast array of Napoleonic objets d'art in his Melbourne home, taking decades to amass imperial eagles, candelabras, clocks, vases, paintings, furniture and military paraphernalia. In October 2011, all these precious Napoleonic objects went up for auction in Paris. And left Melbourne for good.
Buyers of Napoleonic artefacts at the Paris auction did not seem to have been deterred by the Euro’s recent difficulties. A clock in Levanto marble, with rich gilt and bronze decoration, sold for €22,000. A watercolour pennant design for Napoleon's 2nd Artillery sold for €39,000. A post-abdication portrait of Napoleon, by the school of Delaroche, made €39,000.
Portrait of Napoleon, by the school of Delaroche, painted 1845 or after
Other collectors of Napoleonic artefacts existed, of course, including collectors I had written up in this blog. The Napoleon Room in Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, for example, was large enough to accommodate the sprawling 22-piece acanthus-tailed griffin suite of furniture designed for the Emperor's uncle, Cardinal Fesch. All the furniture and artefacts in the Napoleon Room were bought by Lord Lever specifically because of their associations with the French Emperor, although many of these associations have subsequently been brought into question. Recently important relics of Napoleon Bonaparte's last years have been analysed in New Zealand, including a daily diary kept by an officer on the island. The most interesting was a lithograph taken from a drawing of the former French emperor, made the morning after his death in 1821. The precious objects reached New Zealand via the son of Capt Denzil Ibbetson, one of only four British officers to remain on St Helena island with the deposed Napoleon. It was Capt Ibbetson who recorded Napoleon's features soon after his death... and wrote the diary.