Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Rev Boys, Napoleon and the Death Mask at Bonhams

I have generally tried to steer clear of the claims and counter claims made over the various death masks of Napoleon, at least until Bonhams kindly sent me a listing of such a mask to be sold on June 19th on behalf of the family of Rev Boys. It is claimed that two such masks were acquired by Rev Boys, apparently from the painter Rubidge who was on St Helena when Napoleon died. One mask, the Sankey mask, named after Rev Boys' daughter, is currently on deposit in Oxford, the other is now being auctioned.

The provenance of the Boys' masks is based on analysis of two handwritten notes apparently both by Rev Boys but written at different times. No other evidence supports the claims made in those notes. Rubidge, credited with taking the casts, died in 1827, before the existence of the two masks came to light. (1)

Given this lack of supporting evidence a few nagging doubts come into my mind.

I wonder why the Rev Boys did not write both notes at the same time?

It seems strange that no word about the masks' existence came out at the time, amidst so much controversy between Dr Burton and the Bertrands over the disappearance of the front part of Burton's original mould. Surely the Rev Boys would have heard about the court case in London and would have provided any evidence in his possession to see that justice was done?

It is also strange that both masks appear to have been made of plaster superior to any known to be available on St Helena at the time.

Finally I wonder how Dr Boys managed to secure two masks, a little greedy for a man of the cloth, when others with stronger claims got none? The implicit suggestion in the Bonhams' catalogue of Boys' closeness to Longwood because of a mutual hostility to Hudson Lowe, set the alarm bells ringing.

Rev Mr Boys and Napoleon

Kent Cottage, former home of the Boys family on St Helena

The existence of various Boys family mementoes from St Helena has been known for well over a century, but the claims made about these artifacts are not supported by historical evidence.(2) It is disappointing therefore to find the claims repeated in the Bonhams catalogue to give an impression that Boys was close to Napoleon.

Thus we read that Rev Boys " is said to have been the first Englishman granted an audience with the exiled Emperor on his arrival on the island as well as being invited to play chess with him afterwards " and that Boys took the "armchair in which Napoleon is said to have used on his visits (and absent-mindedly scarred with his penknife while absorbed in conversation), as well as two walking sticks .. ". Elsewhere the catalogue suggests, in a rather circular argument, that in view of the mementoes that Boys took back with him it is unlikely that the two met only once! (3)

In fact there is no evidence that Napoleon ever met Rev Boys, and even Chaplin, the source cited by Bonhams and others, actually says that "Mr Boys was brought into contact with Napoleon on one occasion only", the well known case of the snuff box given for officiating at Cipriani's funeral. In fact Napoleon probably never saw either the snuff box or Rev Boys. The snuff box was purchased in Jamestown and O'Meara acted as intermediary between Longwood and Rev Boys. Chaplin's careful choice of words, "brought into contact with" does not indicate that the two actually met, and indeed there is no evidence that they ever did.(4)

So once again we fall back on the evidence of the two Boys' notes accompanying the two masks. That is all we have. I am no more qualified to judge the claims or counter claims than I was when I last touched on the subject in a previous blog in October 2009. I am though a little alarmed at a circular argument which seems to imply that because Boys got all those mementoes he must have been close to Longwood, and because he was close to Longwood then he was well positioned to get the death masks with the connivance of members of the household. I also wonder what was in it for Rubidge.


1. The first note accompanying the Sankey mask, dated in 1862, affirms that the mask was "taken from the Face of Napoleon Buonaparte as he lay dead at Longwod (sic) St Helena, by Mr Rubidge .. ". The mask currently up for auction has a note apparently written earlier, maybe in the 1820's: "This Cast was taken from the Face of Napoleon Buonaparte as he lay dead at Longwood St Helena 7th May 1821 which I do hereby certify/ R. Boys M.A. Sen.r Chaplain/ By Rubidge".

2. Michel Martineau recounts how in 1929 Dr Leonard Boys of Aldeburgh wrote to The Times, mentioning the two death masks, and also claimed that Boys acquired a silver tea and coffee service belonging to Napoleon, a cane Napoleon used, an armchair, a lock of his hair and some tunic buttons. Michel Martineau pointed out that all the Emperor's personal effects were carefully packed in suitcases and left the island with the French party. "Doctor Boys ignored, or feigned to ignore, that after the death of Napoleon there was no sale of relics nor of silver belonging to the Emperor. All that was sold was that part of the furniture that belonged to the East India Company." Michel Martineau, Chroniques de Sainte-Hélène Atlantique Sud pp 136-7

3. The Bonhams catalogue quotes J.&J.A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigenses (1922-54) on Boys, "Said to have been the first man Napoleon spoke to on landing there, and with whom he played chess and who left him an armchair and a walking stick - still cherished possessions of the family."

4. Arnold Chaplin, A St Helena Who's Who (London 1919). The 1914 edition doesn't even mention Napoleon in connection with Boys, it simply says: "Mr. Boys was brought into contact with Longwood on one occasion only."

* Bonhams Napoleon Death Mask * Bonhams Napoleon Death Mask * Bonhams Napoleon Death Mask * Bonhams *