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Post Lot Text
Napoleon and Elizabeth Balcombe
When Napoleon Bonaparte arrived at the island of St Helena on 15th October 1815 he was initially quartered at a boarding house. The accommodation that was intended for him, 'Longwood' had not been completed and still needed furnishing. In the meantime Napoleon was invited to stay at the family home of William Balcombe known as 'The Briars'. William Balcombe was a British Naval agent purveyor of the East India Company and a distinctive figure on the island.
Napoleon became a welcome guest of the Balcombes and struck up an immediate friendship with them and in particular the youngest daughter Elizabeth, known affectionately as 'Betsty'. When the Balcombes prepared to leave the island in 1818 Napoleon, according to Betsy's memoirs, gave her a lock of his hair as a final farewell gift.
The Balcombe family returned to England and remained there until 1823 when William accepted a government post in Australia. It was during her spell in England that Betsy must have met the eminent antiquarian and collector Sir John Soane (he was actually knighted in 1831). Soane had a particular fascination for Napoleon and all objects related to him. Betsy presented Soane with a sample of the hair and he must have decided to have a gold locket ring made to preserve it. A note and envelope recording his acquisition of the hair is housed in the archives of the Soane Museum, London, the note reads 'knowing how much Mr Soane esteems the reliques of great men Miss Betsy Balcombe presents him with a lock of Bonaparte's hair, received by her from the hands of the great personage, the envelope is headed 'For John Soane esqr'.
In 1822 Soane had the ring engraved with the present inscription in French, explaining the history. Soane obviously treasured the ring as it is mentioned in his will as 'my gold ring with the hair of Napoleon'.
(ref. Soane Museum Archive)
Sir John Soane (1753-1837)
Sir John Soane was born on the 10th September 1753 at Whitechurch Oxfordshire. The son of a mason, Soane was apprenticed to the architect Henry Holland and in 1772 gained the Royal Accademy gold medal for design. In 1777 he travelled to Italy where he spent three years studying antiquarian architecture. On his return he designed several country houses and in 1791 he was appointed clerk of works at St. James's Palace and the Houses of Parliament. He became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1795 and was knighted in 1831. He was later appointed Professor of architecture at the academy. It was at this time that he began to form collections of antiquities and in 1824 he purchased the celebrated alabaster sarcophagas brought from Egypt by Belzoni. He was continuously adding to his collections and aquasitions included ivory chairs seized from Tipu Saltan Maharahah of Mysore and miniatures of Napoleon commissioned by Empress Josephine. Soane transformed his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields into a museum which is open to the public today.
He sadly fell out with his second son, the eldest having died young, who was subsequently disinherited. When Soane died in January 1837 he left his personal items to his grandson who had no heirs and the house and collection to the nation.