Napoleon’s Desk – St Helena to Sydney, a Story worth a Smile


Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte as 1st Consul of France by Jean-Antoine Gros

That someone in the Antipodes would end up sitting at, and using the same desk as he did would have surely given deposed French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte great cause to smile.

Napoleon’s desk came to Australia by descent through the Balcombe family. Their destiny was to be by way of practical assistance to this most notorious man near the end of his life, and it would turn out to be an encounter of the very best kind.

There points the Muse to stranger’s eye,
The graves of those that cannot die*

A Corsican by birth and 5’6” tall, the average height of a Frenchman of his day, Napoleon was a second son, unselfconscious, a good mixer, took easily to the company of all sorts of people, and was considered a good soldier.

He lived in a masculine society, which valued friendship above everything else. He was especially attracted to strong men of courage, who spoke their minds and came from all backgrounds; the trust he shared with the intimate friends who supported him, was built on honesty. In this way he retained their loyalty.

When I was in Sydney in 2013 I found tucked away in a corner of Martyn Cook’s elegant Sydney antiques emporium at the time a historically, socially and culturally significant piece of furniture.

It was a fall front bureau, or writing desk that was used by none other than the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, when he was a prisoner of the English on St Helena Island, following the failure of his final campaign to regain the throne.

A good example of Dutch Portuguese floral marquetry  furniture, the bureau had a fall front concealing interior drawers and a small cupboard, as well as a ‘secret’ drawer.

The base was ‘bombe’ shape, with three spacious drawers. The desk Napoleon used was of a type in vogue from about 1780 – 1800. The top, bureau fall front, the sides and front of the drawers of the desk were all inlaid with flowers, urns of flowers and foliate forms. The interior was similarly embellished.

The unusual canted corners had scrolled sides that rest on fabulous paw feet. Techniques of wood marquetry were developed early in the sixteenth century at Antwerp, and other Flemish centres of luxury cabinetmaking.

Marquetry is all about applying tiny pieces of different wood veneers to a structure to form decorative patterns, designs or pictures and it was fashionable for a century or more.

Musing on what correspondence Napoleon might have written from the bureau was an interesting notion, because everything that he wrote while he was on St Helena was subject to censorship. Just how the desk came to be in Sydney Australia is a long story.

Throughout his lifetime Napoleon was a great letter writer. During his term as Emperor he would often keep many secretaries taking dictation all night, jumping from one subject to another with the greatest of ease.

Trying to stop his correspondence with important people in Europe, during both periods of his detainment for his captors was indeed difficult. On St Helena it fell to the Governor Sir Hudson Lowe KCB, GCMG (1769 – 1844), who had to adhere to strict guidelines and rules.

However, there is no doubt some of Napoleon’s correspondence was delivered clandestinely. Napoleon had many supporters and admirers, as well as loyal soldiers all wanting and waiting for his return to power in France.

Napoleon Bonaparte – On the Bridge at Arcola by Jean-Antoine Gros

The French revolution in 1796 and the death of so many aristocrats had rocked upper class foundations in England and Europe. A directory then ruled France and Napoleon Bonaparte was appointed commander in chief.

The resultant Napoleonic wars dominated the first half of the era, having a great bearing on all activities both political and artistic.

Courage in those days encompassed the feelings whereby men were blood brothers who marched shoulder to shoulder into battle, each confident and willing to shed blood for the other.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Court Painter Jacques Louis David

The Directors of France hoped Napoleon Bonaparte would lead them against England, the only country at that time still at war with them.

The style we now know as Empire was a natural progression of a preference for neoclassical art, born in preceding decades and climaxing during the reign of France’s Emperor Napoleon 1 (1769 – 1821).

It was an era that was both heroic and tragic due to the victories of this most remarkable of military strategists

Napoleon became First Consul in 1800 and he and his wife Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de Beauharnais (1763-1814), whom he called Josephine, moved into the old Tuilleries palace.

They lived in the former King Louis XVI’s old suite of eight rooms on the first floor, waited on by servants in pale blue livery decorated with silver lace.

For the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century France became obsessed with the now god-like figure of Napoleon. Every painting, every object was intended to celebrate his glory.

The society of the Empire period was quite different from that of the first feverish post-Revolutionary years.

The new establishment wanted extravagant decoration, triumphal furnishings and gold, bronze, mahogany and silk became the materials of the Empire Style.

His victories on the battlefield shaped chair styles, no less than the themes of Grand Opera.

Chairs during his reign were robust and strong, as they were meant for straight-backed soldiers to sit on.

Napoleon’s Desk from St Helena at Sydney in March 2012

Napoleon erected in the Great Gallery statues of many of the great heroes of history whom he admired, which among others included Alexander, Hannibal, Brutus, Caesar, John Duke of Marlborough, George Washington and Frederick, the Great.

When he became First Consul, Napoleon found only 167,000 francs in cash in the French treasury with debts amounting to 474 million.

Under his thrifty management industry in France prospered and within a year for the first time in 130 years, he had unified France. This worried his enemies, especially the English.

Napoleon particularly liked pictures of men achieving things, disliking intensely the current neo-classic trend for depicting his contemporaries nude, or in antique dress and allegory.

He most especially liked colour, movement and above all, historical exactitude.

He influenced the arts like no other ruler before him, not only through his own personal taste, but also through his deeds on the battlefield. He befriended writers, painters and musicians spending generously on theatre and ballet.

The use of military devices in interiors as decoration became increasingly popular including sabres, campaign chests, ropes, anchors, dolphins and other appropriate nautical paraphernalia. Tenting became the absolute rage and his campaign room at the Chateau Malmaison, where he met with his Generals, was styled accordingly.

The Empire style was named for his rule as Emperor and epitomized he and Josephine both; the style believed in rules, putting society first before the individual. Across all the arts, architecture, decoration, opera, drama and literature there is a discernible mood of honour, patriotism, courage, self-denial, friendship and family.

The style reflected his military genius, passion for Rome and its ideals, as well as Josephine’s love of gaiety and beauty. Napoleon saw love in the same context as tragedy not as romanticism, which he disliked. This was a paradox as his spectacular rise from provincial second lieutenant to Emperor was to inspire the later Romantics; their central belief that nothing is impossible to man, which he had provided living proof of.

Waterloo, the final battle Napoleon lost to England’s ‘Iron’ Duke of Wellington may not have been the most important battle in British history, but it is still its most famous.

The battle ended a confused 100 days for Napoleon as he made a despairing bid to regain power after escaping from the island of Elba in the Tyrrhenian Sea, which was only 30 miles from his birthplace on the island of Corsica. He landed back on French soil and put in place a chain of events that would bring about his final downfall.

I used to say of him that his presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men’ said the Duke of Wellington.

Captured, by the British after the Battle of Waterloo on Sunday, 18 June 1815 meant that they could, and did take him as far away from Europe as possible.

St. Helena Island was sited in the South Atlantic Ocean and despite his protests concerning the legality of the English decision, Napoleon was removed in the Northumberland, commanded by Admiral George Cockburn.

They set sail on August 7th arriving on October 15th at St. Helena, which lies approximately 1200 miles off the African coast and some 700 miles from the nearest land – Ascension Island.

A principal provisioning stop on the homeward-bound trip from India and the Cape, St Helena was at the time governed by the English East India Company under charter from the Crown since 1661. Control returned to the Crown during Napoleon’s exile there.

At the time of Napoleon’s capture William Balcombe (1779 – 1829) was Superintendent of Public Sales under the East India Company. When Napoleon arrived he was appointed purveyor to Napoleon and his household. He offered the Emperor sanctuary in a pavilion in the garden of their house The Briars on St Helena. Napoleon lived there for some months following his arrival, while waiting for Longwood, the residence the British were providing for him to live out the rest of his life, to be ready.

Respectful hosts to this their most famous, or should we say most infamous guest, the Balcombe family provided Napoleon with many happy and memorable moments, in what was to be an otherwise bleak incarceration once he left the haven that they had provided.

The deposed Emperor became particularly fond of William Balcombe’s thirteen-year old daughter Betsy (Lucia Elizabeth) whose as yet, naïve unaffected manner both delighted and intrigued him. Her Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon During the first Three Years of his Captivity on the Island of St Helena (published 1844) is powerful reading.

It is warm and affectionate, providing a view of the Emperor many would perhaps not want others to either understand, or embrace. Betsy noted that many people who have a preconceived view of Napoleon are likely to be surprised by her friendship with Napoleon, just as she herself was surprised when he failed to live up to advance billing.

She said ‘The name of Bonaparte was still associated, in my mind, with every thing that was bad and horrible. I had heard the most atrocious crimes imputed to him; and if I had learned to consider him as a human being, I yet still believed him to be the worst that had ever existed. Nor was I singular in these feelings; they were participated by many much older and wiser than myself; I might say, perhaps, by a majority of the English nation. Most of the newspapers of the day described him as a demon; and all those of his own country who lived in England were of course his bitter enemies; and from these two sources alone we formed our opinion of him’.**

Over a quarter of a century later she also reflected;

‘I think his love of children, and the delight he felt in their society, and that, too, at the most calamitous period of his life, when a cold and unattachable nature would have been abandoned to the indulgence of selfish misery, in itself, speaks volumes for his goodness of heart. After hours of laborious occupation, he would often permit us to join him, and that which would have fatigued and exhausted the spirits of others, seemed only to recruit and renovate him. His gaiety was often exuberant at these moments; he entered into all the feelings of young people, and when with them was a mere child, and, I may add, a most amusing one’**.

Napoleon’s friendly association with the Balcombe family ended abruptly in March 1818.

On suspicion of acting as an intermediary by passing correspondence to Paris and negotiating bills drawn by Napoleon, William Balcombe, although never formally charged, was dismissed from his post on St Helena.

In appreciation for he and his family’s hospitality and for the friendship with Betsy Napoleon gave the family mementos, which included ‘some china and a carpet and the desk’, bequeathed to Betsy in Napoleon’s will ***

Amazing, as it may seem, after returning to England for a while, the Balcombe family came to Australia in 1824. Governor Thomas Brisbane had informed the people of the Colony of Balcombe’s appointment as first Colonial Treasurer on the 28th October 1823.

At the time Sydney town was growing rapidly.

Napoleon and Betsy Balcombe

Napoleon’s favourite, Betsy Balcombe, had married Edward Abell in London on 28 May 1822, but had been deserted by her husband.

She came to Australia as well, but soon returned with her daughter to England. From then onward the desk passed down via Betsy’s brother Alexander Beatson Balcombe (1811-1877), the youngest of the five children of William Balcombe.

As First Consul of France Napoleon Bonaparte had sent the Nicolas-Thomas Baudin (1754-1803) expedition to Australia.

It set out from Le Havre in October 1800 on a journey that was part of Napoleon’s bold vision to conquer and establish a new scientific empire in the Antipodes.

He was not alone, at the time the Russians, Spanish and Americans all appraised the colony strategically.

Empress Josephine cultivated acacias, boronias, casuarinas, grevilleas, eucalypts and melalueucas brought back to France by the Baudin expedition in 1804, in her garden at Malmaison.

As well she acquired two black swans Baudin brought back from Tasmania. He left behind a vast visual record of, what was at that time, the greatest journey of scientific exploration the world had yet seen, including his historic meeting with the British navigator Matthew Flinders when he was sailing east and Baudin west in ‘Encounter Bay’.

The desk’s current owner remembers her own mother enjoying using the desk, because like Napoleon, she was a prolific letter writer.

During her lifetime it was given a thorough cleaning and some conservation, by revered antiques dealer Stanley Lipscombe (1918-1980) in August 1975. Other than that is still in the condition it was when used last by the former Emperor of France when he was a prisoner of the English.

Napoleon Bonaparte was a warrior whose men would follow him to the ends of the earth, and they did. He was a consummate politician with a great capacity for civil affairs and intelligent debate. He would have found William Balcombe’s posting and his desk ending up in Australia, ironic to say the least I am sure.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2014

Napoleon’s Desk from St Helena

Provenance: By direct descent, the family of William Balcombe, Colonial Treasurer Australia  28.4.1824 – 19.3.1829, left to his daughter Betsy, who left it in Australia with her brother, and William’s youngest son, Alexander Beatson Balcombe.

Napoleon’s Desk – St Helena to Sydney, a Story worth a Smile

Source Acknowledgments:

With special thanks to Martyn Cook and to Di Hudson for her kind assistance, access to her family papers and permission to write this story. Mrs Hudson is the great, great, great grandaughter of William Balcombe.

*Quote from The Giaour by Baron George Gordon, Lord Byron

#Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, spoken statement (2 November 1831), as quoted in Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington (1886) by Philip Henry Stanhope


***History of Napoleon’s Desk – Notations and information gleaned from a Collection of Family pictures and papers some of which were written at Coradgery, Goonumbla, Parkes, NSW – OCTOBER 1944 and 1956


  • Caroline Gaden says:

    You may be interested to read an article entitled “Napoleon in Exile, the houses and furniture supplied by the British Government for the Emperor and his Entourage on St Helena” by Martin Levy, in Furniture History, 1998, Volume XXXIV, pages 2-211. It gives an extensive list of what was provided and remarks that Napoleon only took imperial plate and an “admiral library” on board ship. It also lists all the articles sold following Napoleon’s death.

  • Thank you for the suggestion

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