The Objects

1st May 1815

Source: © Trustees of the British Museum; reproduced with permission.

Napoleon’s gift to Anne Seymour Damer

Contributed by: Sheila O’Connell

Anne Seymour Damer’s visit to the Emperor on 1 May 1815, to present a bust of one of Napoleon’s most high profile British admirers, draws attention to the continued esteem he enjoyed within certain circles in Britain in 1815.

Diplomatic gifts were as important for Napoleon as any other ruler and during his first year as Consul he directed that ‘the customary present from the French government to foreign ministers will be a gold box … decorated with diamonds’.

This box, which retains its original diamonds, is inset with a miniature of Napoleon by Jean Baptiste Joseph Duchesne de Gisors (1770–1856) after Robert Lefèvre (1755-1830). An engraved gold oval plaque inside the box (possibly a snuffbox) records how it came to be given to the English sculptor, Mrs Damer:

This box was given by the Emperor Napoleon of France to the Honorable Anne Seymour Damer as a ‘souvenir’ (the word he used) in consequence of her having presented him with a bust of Mr. [Charles James] Fox executed in Marble by herself. The bust had been promised at the Peace of Amiens, was finished 1812 and sent to France where it remained but was not presented till May 1st 1815 when by command of His Imperial Majesty Anne Seymour Damer had an audience for that purpose at the Palais Elysée where the Emperor then resided.

For a longer version of this entry, including John Cam Hobhouse’s account of Damer’s encounter with Napoleon, see ‘Further Information’.

Geolocation

Diplomatic gifts were as important for Napoleon as for any other ruler and during his first year as Consul he directed that ‘the customary present from the French government to foreign ministers will be a gold box … decorated with diamonds’ (Directive of 7 Thermidor, Year VIII).

Prices for different levels of recipients were originally capped at sums between 5,000 and 15,000 francs (about £200 and £600 respectively), but during the Empire more than 30,000 francs were spent on the most important gifts. Diamonds were a potentially valuable cash gift, as it was assumed that they would often be replaced with paste: the fact that the diamonds on this box were not replaced is significant.

An engraved gold oval plaque inside this box records how it came to be given to the English sculptor, Mrs Damer: This box was given by the Emperor Napoleon of France to the Honorable Anne Seymour Damer as a ‘souvenir’ (the word he used) in consequence of her having presented him with a bust of Mr. [Charles James] Fox executed in Marble by herself. The bust had been promised at the Peace of Amiens, was finished 1812 and sent to France where it remained but was not presented till May 1st 1815 when by command of His Imperial Majesty Anne Seymour Damer had an audience for that purpose at the Palais Elysée where the Emperor then resided.

This was not Mrs Damer’s first meeting with Napoleon. She had met the then Consul and Josephine when she had gone to Paris in 1802 with the chief intention of presenting the Consul with a terracotta bust of Charles James Fox. Joseph Farington recorded in his diary on 11 September of that year that he had seen that bust of Napoleon’s famous British supporter, together with one of Nelson, one of his greatest adversaries, when he had visited the private apartments at the Tuileries.

John Cam Hobhouse described Mrs Damer’s second meeting with Napoleon and the presentation of the marble bust of Fox (now at the Château of Malmaison) in his diary on Tuesday 2 May 1815: [I] called on Mrs Damer, who gave an account of an interview she had yesterday with Napoleon. Three years ago she sent a bust of Mr Fox by herself to Paris for the Emperor. The man who brought it got into disgrace – the bust was not delivered.

She comes to Paris just as Napoleon comes, and contrives to find her bust, which is unaltered except that the inscription, Napoleon Empereur et Roi, is scratched out. She contrives to get it presented through Denon – she is at first mistaken for an artist who wants to sell it – the appointment was for the Elysée Napoleon at ten – she goes there, and waits till twelve, when she is shown through a dark passage into a room in which she finds Napoleon standing at a table, on which stood the bust.

The Queen of Holland [Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepdaughter] was standing at a little distance. Napoleon received her very graciously; he said the bust not only showed the face of Mr Fox, but the mind: ‘It was the man’. He praised the original, said had he lived much blood would have been saved. He talked of his own pictures – Mrs Damer told him she had seen none like him. He asked if she had seen Canova's naked statue – she said yes, but did not think it resembling, nor good – ‘You are right,’ he said.

He asked her opinion of David – they talked ten minutes – he asked her to what family she belonged – she said the chief of her father and mother's were the Dukes of Argyle and Somerset. This, she said, he contrived to ask to do away the mistake respecting her trade in marble. He asked about the story of the Duke of Bedford – knew his name was Russell. The Queen Hortense spoke not at all. She (Mrs Damer) curtsied backwards out of the room. Napoleon asked her when she came to Paris. She answered, ‘About the same time as your Majesty’. He smiled, and added, ‘N'avez-vous pas peur de moi?’ [Are you not afraid of me?] to which she answered, ‘Non, Sire – les grands hommes n'effrayent pas’ [No, Sire, great men are not frightening], an answer with which he was satisfied …

Further reading: Karine Huguenaud, "The Emperor's Presentation Boxes", in Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2012, pp.202-03.

For Hobhouse’s account, see petercochran.files.wordpress.com.


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