Napoleon at Abbotsford

Napoleon Bonaparte is everywhere in the collections of many British cultural institutions. In the Napoleon section of this website, you can find some Napoleon Trails in a few of these institutions: the Royal Collection, the Wallace Collection, Westminster Abbey. They propose dozens of works of art, archives, and items showing the legacy of the Emperor in the British identity.
Some other institutions agreed to be involved in this Year Napoleon through Curator’s Choices, with 3 iconic items. Here is the selection of Kirsty Archer-Thompson, Collections and Interpretation Manager, at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott.

The French version is available here.

Abbotsford, the beloved home of the nineteenth-century writer and cultural icon, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), lies just a stone’s throw from the banks of the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders. It is often referred to as the jewel of ‘Scott country.’ Scott personally superintended the design and development of his home and estate from 1812 until his death in 1832. It was no coincidence that this labour of love coincided with his years of fame and unprecedented success as a novelist with record-breaking titles such as Waverley, Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. Part fantasy castle and part creative muse, Scott filled Abbotsford with the historical collections he had amassed during a lifelong love affair with the past.

Scott and Napoleon

Scott was both fascinated and appalled by Napoleon Bonaparte in equal measure, drawn towards documenting the life of this extraordinary individual with whom he shared a birthday and the experience of a meteoric rise to fame, though their respective mechanisms of achieving celebrity were worlds apart.
The Napoleonic Wars were undoubtedly the major event of Scott’s age, and they had a huge impact on all spheres of life, particularly in art, literature, and politics. As a novelist and historian Scott had devoted a lot of energy to considering historical process and he understood that Napoleon’s influence, reign, and eventual defeat at Waterloo were seismic events that would occupy the historians of the future. He collected Napoleonic artefacts with enthusiasm, though we often forget that such items would have been contemporary to his house guests. Such modern items, prominently displayed in his home within the wider context of the history and cultural geographies represented there, were intended to stimulate conversation and debate.   

Napoleon’s Blotter and Pen Case

Courtesy of The Abbotsford Trust

Given his own interests, Scott was particularly intrigued by Bonaparte’s reading and writing habits and elements of his Abbotsford Study echo one of the emperor’s favourite cabinets at the Elysée Palace, particularly in the addition of its book-lined gallery. This interest also manifests itself in two stationery items made of silk velvet and elaborate wirework in the Abbotsford collections: Napoleon’s pen case and a blotter, bearing the imperial monogram and the emblems of the First Empire. The ink blotter contains just a single watermarked leaf of paper, a visual metaphor of time and good fortune running out for its infamous owner. The pen case was taken from Napoleon’s abandoned writing table at the Elysée Palace after he fled in 1815 and was subsequently preserved by Marie Joséphine Louise, Duchesse de Gontaut, afterwards passing to Viscountess Hampden, who presented it to Scott in July 1829. The blotter, clearly from the same imperial set, is said to have been taken from Napoleon’s carriage after the battle of Waterloo, though the specifics of its acquisition have proved enduringly elusive.

Sir Walter Scott’s copy of
An account of the last illness, decease,
and post mortem appearances of Napoleon Bonaparte (1822) 

Courtesy of the Faculty of Advocates Abbotsford Collection Trust

Arnott was Napoleon’s last and most trusted doctor during his detention on Saint Helena and subsequently attended his post-mortem examination.  In February 1826 Arnott sent Scott his medical account of the emperor’s final days and it is still preserved in the Abbotsford library alongside significant volumes of Napoleonic material. This was a period of intensive research for what would perhaps become Scott’s greatest gift to scholarship: his nine volume Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, stretching to more than one million words. Scott was deeply affected by the detailed description of the emperor’s demise, and writing in his journal, he confessed to having experienced fitful dreams about Napoleon’s final moments: “Horrible death – a cancer on the pylorus…”

Manuscript Collection of French Songs from the Field of Waterloo

Courtesy of The Abbotsford Trust

Scott considered this little songbook to be more precious than anything else in his Napoleonic collections and of ‘great moral interest’. In Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk (1816), his proto-journalistic account of visiting the field of Waterloo in August 1815, Scott contrasts the cheerful songs it contains with the sad fate of the book’s former owner, trampled in the mud and blood of the field. On closer examination he concluded that the collection probably belonged to a former officer and recorded that the manuscript, a gift from an associate’s father, had been found on the area of ground where the famous cavalry charge of the Scots Greys had taken place. It remains heavily stained with both blood and clay. Ever the keen collector of ballads and songs, Scott set about attempting to transcribe and translate the songs in this manuscript. Two of these songs were published in Paul’s Letters as the ‘Romance of Dunois’ and ‘The Troubadour’.

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