Famous Londoners – Napoleon?

We know, we know – Napoleon Bonaparte never visited London. But given this month marks the bicentenary of his death on 5th May, 1821, we thought we’d mention a couple of places where you can find traces of the French Emperor in the British capital…

Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker. PICTURE: Jörg Bittner Unna (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0;image cropped)

1. Napoleon As Mars The Peacemaker. This larger than life statue – it stands 11 feet tall – is the work of Italian artist Antonio Canova and depicts Napoleon as the Roman God. Napoleon didn’t like the almost naked statue – when he saw it in 1811, he declared it “too athletic” and as a result, it was never displayed in public. Following the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the British Government purchased the statue and presented it to the Duke of Wellington as a gift. Recently cleaned, it is now on display in the Iron Duke’s former home, Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (and can be seen there when it reopens to the public this week). The house also counts a recently restored bronze death mask of Napoleon among its treasures. The bronze is a copy of a plaster mask modelled on Napoleon’s corpse. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/apsley-house/.

2. Napoleon’s horse Marengo. A small grey Arab, Marengo was named after Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo in Italy in 1800 and apparently served the Emperor between 1800 and 1815. Marengo was captured on the battlefield after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and transported to England. After its death, the horse’s skeleton was preserved and initially displayed at the Royal United Services Institute, moving to the National Army Museum in Chelsea in the 1960s. The skeleton is currently undergoing conservation work at the Natural History Museum before returning to the National Army Museum where it will be displayed in the Battle gallery. For more on the National Army Museum, see www.nam.ac.uk.

3. Portrait of Napoleon. A small image of a young Napoleon, this portrait – which arrived in England in 1797 – was the first many British people had seen of the Emperor (it was copied in engravings which were published across Britain). It was painted in a campaign tent on the road from Verona to Vienna in March, 1797, by Venetian artist named Francesco Cossia. Cossia had been commissioned by Francophile Maria Cosway, an artist then living in Oxford Street, London, to paint likenesses of several French Revolutionary generals including Napoleon. It is believed to have entered the collection of Sir John Soane somewhere between 1827 and 1830 and can now be seen in the Breakfast Room at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (reopening on 19th May). For more, see www.soane.org.