Napoleon at the British Library

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 just 3 iconic items. Here is the selection of Sophie Defrance, Curator of the Romance Collections, and Anthony Chapman-Joy, Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Student, from the British Library.

La version française est disponible ici.

Images © The British Library 2021.

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom. Holding more than 170 million items from across the world, the BL attracts 1.6m visitors every year over two sites: the primary location near King’s Cross Station and a second site in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, where the majority of the materials belonging to the library are held. Aside from the Napoleonic era, the French collection also hold two sets of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 50,000 Revolutionary tracts published between 1780 and 1820, and a set of around 5,000 pamphlets relating to the Fronde (1648-1653).

Description de l’Égypte

The Library holds the series of publications which were compiled in the aftermath of Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt between 1798 and 1801. The 20 volumes comprising illustrations and texts combine to vividly illuminate what the scholars of the French expedition encountered, while the military wing of Napoleon’s forces waged campaigns. The works catalogue the landscape of Egypt, marvelling at the still-preserved colours of the ruins, and reflect on the contemporary state of the country. Their comprehensive details are elucidated by both their richness of detail and their meticulous recollections; detailing anything from statues on the exterior of ancient temples to the number of trees in any given area. Nonetheless, the texts can be read with surprising ease, and are a must-read for anyone wanting to see first-hand the cultural by-products of European colonialism in this moment so crucial to the Napoleonic legend.

Book annotated by Napoleon on Saint-Helena

Following Waterloo, Napoleon’s second and final forced removal from power left him on the island of Saint-Helena – still so remote that its first airport was completed in 2016. There, Napoleon set about not only learning English, but also working on his memoirs. In Correspondance inédite officielle et confidentielle de Napoléon Buonaparte avec les cours étrangères, en Italie, en Allemagne et en Egypte, the British Library holds an invaluable object which contains some of the Emperor’s own annotations on his earlier correspondences. The second volume is of particular interest, with nearly every letter included being marked with a note outlining the chapter each letter relates to for his own memoirs. Though the pen markings are from Napoleon’s companion in exile, the comte de Montholon, the faint pencil markings – best seen on p. 141 – are handwritten by the Emperor himself, presumably in the year before his illness and death.

Caricatures of 1870/1871

Napoleon’s legacy loomed over French political culture beyond his death. In December 1851 his nephew Louis-Napoleon, styling himself as Napoleon III, launched a coup d’état and began the Second Empire’s reign which lasted nearly two decades. The nephew borrowed heavily from the myth of the uncle to lend himself and his regime legitimacy, something which was not lost on the public. Upon his fall following the Battle of Sedan in September 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War, the Second Empire crumbled and a deluge of hostile political caricatures took their vengeance on the fallen government and the man that was at its centre. They repeat Louis-Napoleon’s own penchant for invoking his uncle, though here with grim irony. The volumes, collected by a German bookseller in London, cover the entirety of the Franco-Prussian War and Commune period, throughout which the first Napoleon’s ghost haunts the second Emperor – sometimes literally, as seen here, taken from volume one of the collection at 14001.g.41.

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