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Object of the Week : N is for Napoleon Death Mask

Tuesday 6 April 2021

Whilst the Museum is closed and our collections unable to be seen by visitors, we have created a weekly virtual museum with an Object of the Week feature from our collections.

Object of the Week : N is for Napoleon Death Mask

This extraordinary object is part of the Museum’s collection and was, until recently, on display, intriguing visitors.

After his final defeat at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled to the British controlled island of St Helena, a remote windswept rock in the South Atlantic. He died there, probably of stomach cancer, in 1821 at the age of just 51. He was attended in his final days by both French and British physicians. During the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, it was customary to cast a death mask of a great leader who had recently died. Although there is some debate as to who took the original death mask, it was very probably Dr Francis Burton of Britain's 66th Regiment who also presided at the Emperor's autopsy.

A mixture of wax or plaster was carefully placed over Napoleon's face and removed after the form had hardened. From this impression, subsequent copies were cast. Much mystery and controversy surrounds the origins and whereabouts of the original cast moulds. There are only four genuine death masks known to exist. The death mask is important because it is a direct mould of his face and is more representative of what he looked like than a painting.

All very interesting you may say, but where is the connection to our area? For the answer to this question we must look at Barham House (later Hillside) in Allum Lane, Elstree, where in the early 1800s lived a wealthy merchant, Richard Baker and his daughter Martha.  Martha married Lt Colonel Joseph Burton, brother of the aforementioned Dr Francis Burton, physician to Napoleon on St Helena and probable originator of his death mask.

Martha and Joseph Burton had a son, Richard Burton, who became a famous explorer and whose remarkable journeys to the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina, astounded Victorian society and made him famous. He spent many months trying to find the source of the Nile (the Holy Grail for explorers of the time) but despite braving hostile tribes and tropical diseases, was unsuccessful. In his later years he translated the Indian Kama Sutra into English (anonymously) and then produced a 16 volume, no holds barred, translation of the Arabian Nights (somewhat more adult than Sinbad the Sailor would suggest) which he published under his own name. When he died in Trieste in 1890 his wife burned all his diaries and manuscripts and 40 years of work, written by this extraordinary man, went up in smoke. Sir Richard Burton (he was knighted in 1886) must surely be the most interesting and colourful of the prominent people we can associate with our area.




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