LONDON.- Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and independent charity The Art Fund today announce the return of a lost treasure to the Museum – a gold mourning ring containing a lock of Napoleon’s hair, one of Sir John Soane’s prized possessions. This acquisition is a triumph for the Museum, which was unable to acquire the ring at auction earlier this year. The mourning ring originally belonged to Sir John Soane, celebrated architect and founder of the eponymous Museum, founded in 1833. It was one of his most treasured private possessions, but was not left to his Museum, featuring on his will among other items to be kept “as heir looms in my family”. However, it eventually passed out of the family’s ownership and was deemed ‘lost’. This autumn, thanks to a £30,000 grant from The Art Fund and support from Soane enthusiasts, the museum reclaimed this lost treasure for a total of £41,000 and returned it to its original home.
The ring first went on sale at Christie’s in June this year - marking the first time the Museum had had news of its whereabouts since Soane’s death in 1837. One of only two pieces of jewelery specifically bequeathed to Sir John Soane’s family, the ring was recognized as a significant, personal, item to be returned to Sir John’s extraordinary collection.
On the day of the June sale, the Museum was the under-bidder. Frustration turned to delight, however, when the buyer learned of the Museum’s interest and felt that the ring should return to its original home. With the generous support of The Art Fund and private donors, The Soane was finally able to purchase the ring as it had hoped, enabling the Museum to enhance its presentation of another aspect of Sir John’s complex and enthusiastic personality.
Tim Knox, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum said: “Soane had a horrible fascination with Napoleon and this ring, with its plait of the vanquished Emperor’s hair, was the ultimate trophy. We are thrilled to get it back to its old home.”
Like many fashionable, literary and aristocratic people of his time, Soane was fascinated by Napoleon. The lock of hair contained in the ring was presented to Sir John by Elizabeth (Betsy) Balcombe who was the daughter of an official on St Helena where Napoleon was imprisoned. As a child, Betsy became a favorite of the Emperor and she later wrote memoirs of their friendship.
Sir John Soane’s Museum Archive contains the following brief letter of presentation from Miss Balcombe: “Knowing how much Mr. Soane esteems the reliques of great men Miss E. Balcombe presents him with a lock of Bonaparte’s hair received by her from the hands of that great Personage.” Soane must have commissioned the ring to contain this ‘relique’.
Hallmarked London 1822, the year after Napoleon’s death on St Helena , the ring contains a lock of plaited brown hair. A French inscription on the inside reads (in English): “This lock of hair of Napoleon Buonaparte was presented to John Soane Esquire by Miss Elizabeth Balcombe.” It also includes the words Prier Pour Moi (pray for me). The French inscription is something Soane might well have chosen, particularly in the context of Napoleon, as he had a passion for all things French.
The creation of a commemorative mourning ring adds an additional dimension to Soane’s fascination with the Emperor, something clearly expressed in a number of places in his museum, but in particular in an arrangement of items on the south wall of the Breakfast Room displaying two contrasting portraits of Napoleon – one as a young and idealistic soldier, the other as the bloated Emperor on the eve of his downfall.