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Killer Wallpaper? A Strip of Napoleon's Bathroom Wallpaper Revives Debate about Napoleon's Being Poisoned, Ex-Nicholson Napoleon Collection

A scrapbook album page displaying two relics related to French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), almost certainly dating from his exile on St. Helena. Provenance information is included. From the Nicholson Napoleon Collection.

The relics include an oblong strip of wallpaper removed from Napoleon's bathroom, as well as strands of heath retrieved from his grave. The wallpaper sample is not explicitly associated with any of Napoleon's residences, though its appearing side by side with tomb vegetation strongly suggests that the two relics both come from Saint Helena--the first relic from Longwood House, Napoleon's final residence on St. Helena; and the second relic from the Valley of the Tomb, the site of Napoleon's first burial (1821-1840).

The wallpaper swatch, which has dark green and yellow stripes, measures 3.125" x .375." It is mounted on an album page above a handwritten label: "The Coloured Paper in the Room where Bonaparte Bathed in and the Heath which grew over his Grave." The aforementioned heath is threaded around the perimeter of the label. Expected wear including isolated loss and soiling, else very good. The page also includes "A Small Peice [sic] of Prince Charless [sic] Plaid worn by him before Culloden in 45," comprised of a red and green tartan swatch measuring 1.75" x .375." A landscape print, two printed cherubs, and the fragment of an unknown poem also appear on the page. The album page overall measures 6.5" x 4.875."

“My death is premature. I have been assassinated by the English oligopoly and their hired murderer…" Napoleon dictated in his will recorded in April 1821, just a month before his death on May 5, 1821. Speculation that Napoleon was done away began immediately after his death, and continues to this day. The general living conditions at Longwood House, the one-story farmhouse which had been converted into his private residence on St. Helena, were less than salubrious. The place was damp, constantly barraged by ocean winds, often exposed to rain, and infested with rats. But was Napoleon killed by being poisoned, maybe by degrees, by exposure to arsenic-laden wallpaper?

Most doctors and scientists have dismissed the poisoning theory, maintaining that Napoleon died of stomach cancer. Nevertheless, modern day testing reveals that Napoleon was chronically exposed to large amounts of arsenic throughout his lifetime, as in fact were many of his contemporaries. One of the sources of this gradual "poisoning" was wallpaper, but arsenic-containing fabrics, paper products, food dyes, soap, candles, children's toys, flypaper, rat killer, and weed killers were also ubiquitous.

Vibrantly colored wallpapers containing arsenic-based pigments became extremely popular in the first decades of the nineteenth century as sources of illumination changed. Green wallpapers--like this swatch--were especially fashionable. Yellowish-green Scheele's Green (also known as Schloss Green) and Paris Green (also known as Vienna Green, Emerald Green, and Schweinfurt Green), which ranged in color from blue-green to deep green, were arsenical compounds (copper arsenite and copper acetate triarsenite respectively.) It is also documented that blue, yellow, brown, pink, gray, and white wallpapers also contained arsenic. A sample of wallpaper taken from Longwood House in the 1820s was uncovered in Norfolk, England and revealed trace amounts of arsenic in the 1990s. Arsenical vapor was released from wallpaper in hot and damp conditions, like those found in the bathroom.

Napoleon famously loved hot baths. His First Valet Louis-Joseph Marchand recalled Napoleon's delight in taking daily baths. "The Emperor changed nothing in my arrangement of the furniture…This change [the substitution of a field bed] was made while he was in his bath into which he had jumped with childish joy. The bathtub was a tremendous oak chest lined with lead. It required an exceptional quantity of water, and one had to go a half mile away and transport it in a barrel…" Did this wallpaper release some of the arsenic which was later found in Napoleon's hair samples?

Napoleon never desired to be buried on St. Helena, but he had planned for this contingency. He requested that his island resting place be a place where he often walked and liked to drink the spring water, a lush depression alternately called the Valley of the Tomb, Willow Valley, Geranium Valley, or Sane Valley. The fenced-in tomb site can still be visited today though Napoleon's remains are no longer present; they were transferred to Les Invalides in Paris in 1840.

Provenance

The lot is accompanied by an invoice dated December 17, 2001 showing that this scrapbook page was purchased by Donald Heald Rare Books (New York, New York.)

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.

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