LONDON.- Sir John Soanes 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 Napoleons hair, one of Sir John Soanes 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 familys 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 Christies in June this year - marking the first time the Museum had had news of its whereabouts since Soanes death in 1837. One of only two pieces of jewelery specifically bequeathed to Sir John Soanes family, the ring was recognized as a significant, personal, item to be returned to Sir Johns 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 Museums 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 Johns complex and enthusiastic personality.
Tim Knox, Director of Sir John Soanes Museum said: Soane had a horrible fascination with Napoleon and this ring, with its plait of the vanquished Emperors hair, was the ultimate trophy. We are thrilled to get it back to its old home.
Andrew Macdonald, Acting Director of The Art Fund, said: This unique relic offers an insight into the cult status of Napoleon at Sir John Soanes time, as well as the tastes and obsessions of Soane himself. The Art Fund is delighted to help bring home this forgotten treasure to the Sir John Soanes Museum where visitors will be able to see it in its true context.
Frank Dobson, MP for Holborn & St Pancras, said: The Sir John Soanes Museum is one of Holborns hidden gems, and it is wonderful news its fantastic collections have been enriched with this curious and very special acquisition. We extend a big thank you to The Art Fund and Soane enthusiasts for making the acquisition possible.
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 Soanes 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 Bonapartes 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 Napoleons 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 Soanes 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.
Visitors to the Museum will be able to view this distinctive jewel when it goes on display later in November.