Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A portrait drawing of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), 1815 

Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Edward Bunbury 

A portrait drawing of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), 1815, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Edward Bunbury
Zoom
Pencil
19th Century
10.8 x 7 1/4 in (27.4 x 18.4 cm)
 
Provenance:
An album assembled by Vice Admiral Lord Mark Robert Kerr (1776-1840), third son of the Marquis of Lothian and by his daughter Lady Louisa Kerr.
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This previously unrecorded portrait drawing, illustrates a critical and well-known episode in Napoleon's life, when he was informed of the British Government''s decision to exile him to St. Helena. Its iconographic and historical importance is that it is apparently the only portrait to have been produced at this time, by someone who had first-hand contact with Napoleon.

During a distinguished career in the army, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Bunbury (son of the eighteenth century artist H.W.Bunbury), Under-Secretary of State for War, was appointed the War Department's Special Commissioner along with Admiral Lord Keith to communicate to the ex-Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte the terms of his impending exile.

Napoleon was at this time being held in strict quarantine aboard H.M.S.Bellerophon, which was moored off Plymouth. The subsequent interview between Napoleon, Bunbury and Keith took place on the Bellerophon on 31 July 1815 between eleven and twelve o''clock.

Since Bunbury was far more fluent in French than Keith, it was left to him to translate the letter from Lord Melville, which contained the exile order and listen to Napoleon''s response. Immediately the interview was over, Bunbury wrote down a meticulous account of the meeting in the form of a report, for the benefit of Keith and the British Government. At the same time he noted down an extremely detailed description of Napoleon's appearance and it was almost certainly at the same time that he executed the portrait-drawing of him. It as such the only accurate, true record of the Emperor's appearance, immediately prior to his exile.
Bunbury's account of the interview highlights the state of Napoleon's mind and the situation in which he found himself trapped, in circumstances beyond his control:
...I am come here voluntarily...! am not even a prisoner of war...I demand to be received as an English citizen. In St.Helena I should not live three months: with my habits and lifestyle and constitution it would be immediate death.

As well as reiterating that he had come on board the Bellerophon as a guest of England and strongly protesting against the decision to exile him to St.Helena which he likened to a sentence of death, Napoleon argued about his status and the way he should be treated. To begin with he insisted,
I am no longer a sovereign, I am a simple citizen but later insisting that, your Government have not the right to style me General Buonaparte. I am at least as much a sovereign as when I was on the throne of France.
Bunbury as well as transcribing an account of the interview, made notes on Naploeon''s appearance:
Napoleon appears to be about five feet six inches high. His make is very stout and muscular. His neck is rather short, and his head is rather large; it is particularly square and full about the temples, and the temples, and the hair on the upper part of his head is very thin, but long and ragged, looking as if it were seldom brushed. In the management of his limbs Napoleon is ungraceful; but he used very little gesture, and the carriage of his head is dignified. He is fat, and his belly projects; but this is rendered more apparent by the cut of his coat, which has very sort lappels turned back, and it is hooked tight over the breast to the pit of the stomach, and is there cut away suddenly, leaving a great display of white waistcoat. He wore a green uniform with scarlet collar and scarlet edging to the lappels, but without lace or embroidery; small gilt buttons and epaulettes, he wore a white neckcloth, white waistcoat and the Legion of Honour over his waistcoat, and the star, in silver embroidery, on his coat. There were also three very small orders hanging together at one of his button holes...
He spoke in a low, soft voice, and like one who could command his feelings. Nothing could be more mild and blind than the countenance he wore, and there was something particularly agreeable in its expression. Yet in the course of his long talking I observed changes both in his tone and look, which made me suspect that there was a good deal of the fox as well as of the lion in the composition of the great conqueror.
The closeness of the portrait sketch to this description suggests that the drawing was executed at the same time as a personal visual record or aide-memoire. Bunbury also produced privately an engraving from the drawing, copies of which were circulated to his friends. The engraving depicts Napoleon, head and shoulders in a bust-length composition. A copy of this print came from the same album as the portrait drawing, and has been finished in pencil. It is also signed twice by the artist, firstly, HE Bunbury delt Aug. 1815 and again Octr.22d.1816 HEB. The first date clearly refers to the execution of the original drawing and the second probably to the date that Bunbury gave the drawing and print to Lady Louisa Kerr.

Lady Louisa Kerr was the daughter of Charlotte, Countess of Antrim and Vice-Admiral Mark Kerr (1776-1840), third son of the Marquis of Lothian. The latter pursued a fairly successful but undistinguished career in the Royal Navy, serving during the French Wars. It is probably in this way that Lady Louisa came into contact with General Bunbury. Lady Louisa was an able watercolourist, who became a skilled and fashionable cutter of silhouettes. The Kerrs were habitues of many of England''s grandest houses and her silhouettes can still be found in some of them. Amongst the Kerrs'' friends was General Henry Bunbury. Some eleven drawings and watercolours by Bunbury and several by his wife were included in the albums put together by Lady Louisa and her father.

The two other items from the same sketchbooks are both topographical views of Napoleon''s residence on St.Helena, Longwood. The first, a watercolour by Lady Louisa Kerr is apparently based on a sketch by Major Thomas Poppleton of 53rd Regiment of Foot, who was the first Orderly Officer attached to the exiled Emperor when he arrived on St.Helena. He accompanied Napoleon wherever he went and reported daily to the Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, who was also a close friend of Bunbury. The second sketch by P.R.Skinner was executed in 1826 shortly after Napoleon''s death.
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