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Mourning ring containing a lock of the Emperor Napoleon’s hair, gold, English, hallmarked 1822

Gold with lock of human hair

Inscription: Inscribed on the inside: Cette boucle de cheveux de Napoleon Bonaparte a été presenteé àJohn Soane Ecuyet par Mademoiselle Eliz. Balcombe [this lock of hair of Napoleon Bonaparte was presented to John Soane Esquire by Miss Eliz. Balcombe] and Prier Pour Moi [Pray for me]

Museum number: X1310

Curatorial note

The lock of Napoleon's hair preserved in this ring was given to Soane by Elizabeth ('Betsy') Balcombe, the daughter of an official on St Helena who befriended the exiled Emperor.

The lock of hair seems to have been sent to Soane by Betsy with a very short, undated note. The wrapper is inscribed in the same hand and the wax seal may represent the Napoleonic bee. Betsy Balcombe was in London c.1818-23 and must have sent Soane the hair either after meeting him or having heard of his interest in the Emperor.

The ring may be the one supplied to Soane by Rundell, Bridge and Rundell in April 1815 (perhaps intended for the use of his wife, Eliza: it is far too small for a man's finger) which was very similar judging from the description in the bill; the later hallmark was perhaps added with the inscriptions.

This mourning ring expresses Soane's personal feelings about Napoleon's death. It must have been a treasured but very private possession. It was not listed in the early draft inventories of his museum drawn up in the last two years of his life but instead featured in his Will as one of a small group of items to be kept as heir looms in my family. It was therefore inherited by his family on his death in 1837. It re-surfaced in 2009 when it was sold at Christie's, South Kensington. The Museum purchased it from Hume Shawcross Esq, August 2009 with the assistance of a grant from The Art Fund and Soane patrons.

Literature

Peace Breaks Out! London and Paris in the Summer of 1814, Sir John Soane's Museum, exhibition catalogue, 2014, p.65 (cat. 6.1)
Tim Clayton and Sheila O'Connell, Bonaparte and the British: prints and propoganda in the age of Napoleon, British Museum (exhibition catalogue), 2015, p.240 (cat.163)
Jane Wildgoose, "Ways of Making with Human Hair and Knowing How to 'Listen' to the Dead", in West 86th, the Bard Graduate Center/University of Chicago Press Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History & Material Culture, Vol 23, No 1 [2016], p.84


If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk