The Briars St. Helena
Trees line the foreground of this image and follow a pavement to a house, The Briars, in the distance. The Briars sits at the middle of the image: it is a fair-sized house with two floors. In the background, a calm Mount Helena looms over the house and is surrounded by more mountains.
Copyright 2009, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin, Madison
From Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon. 2nd edn. (1845)
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"The Briars St. Helena" was engraved by Charles Graf for “her majesty,” though it is never clear to whom Graf is referring. According to Elizabeth Abell, this image was drawn the day Napoleon reached St. Helena; however, the artist’s name is not given. Copies of this drawing were then published in Abell’s Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon decades later. The delay in publication was to protect Abell’s reputation, as she would have been shunned by the British public for befriending Napoleon. A copy of this book entered the private collection of Chester H. Thordarson before arriving in Special Collections at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.
Battle of Waterloo: In the modern-day country of Belgium, the Battle of Waterloo was fought in what is now Belgium between Napoleon’s French forces and the British Seventh Coalition. The battle was waged as part of the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. A French loss meant the exile of Napoleon to St. Helena, where he spent the remainder of his life (C. Summerville, Who Was at Waterloo 411-417).
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte
Trained as an artillery officer, Napoleon rose to power after several successful campaigns, culminating in his being crowned Emperor of France. His rule lasted about eight years until he was defeated by British forces at the Battle of Waterloo. He was then banished to St. Helena where he died six years later (A. Guerard, Napoleon I 157-165).
Elizabeth Abell (formerly Elizabeth Balcombe)
The daughter of two wealthy English parents, Elizabeth Abell befriended Napoleon during his stay at The Briars. Napoleon taught her French, geography, and history before moving to the Longwood House. Elizabeth kept in contact with Napoleon even after his move. She later wrote a book, entitled Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, about her encounters with Napoleon. The release of this book, containing The Briars St. Helena, was delayed for some time, as Abell did not want to be shunned by the British public for befriending Napoleon (B. Weider, Murder of Napoleon 89).
Napoleon Bonaparte and his entourage—composed of persons hailing from multiple countries, including the artist C. Graf Lith—resided at Longwood House from 1815 until Napoleon’s death in 1821. The house had formally been the residence of the Lieutenant Governor, but was renovated by the British to house Napoleon during his exile. Napoleon resided at The Briars during the two-month renovation (B. Weider, Murder of Napoleon 91-95).
Named after Saint Helen of Constantinople, Saint Helena is Britain’s second oldest colony, colonized in 1502. The British used this island as a place of exile for thousands of prisoners, its most notable inhabitant being Napoleon Bonaparte. The island consists of two major volcanoes and several smaller ones. All volcanoes on the island, however, have been extinct for over a thousand years (G. Martineau Napoleon’s St. Helena 66-77).
This estate housed Napoleon Bonaparte and his entourage, including C. Graf Lith, during his first two months of exile at St. Helena. The house was owned by the Balcombe family. During his time at this estate, Napoleon formed a friendship with Elizabeth Abell (at the time a young girl). Napoleon would later move out of The Briars and into the newly renovated Longwood House (B. Weider, Murder of Napoleon 83-90).
This image depicts The Briars, temporary residence of Napoleon during his exile to St. Helena. The calmness of the image, including the faint, peaceful rendering of the extinct volcano, Mount Helena, perhaps represents Napoleon's own "extinct" power. Unlike earlier Romantic depictions of volcanoes then, this image utilizes a portrayal of Mt. Helena that represents an absence of potency.
This image of Mount Helena marks a turning point for volcanic depictions in Romantic culture. The fear and awe once evoked by images of rampant volcanoes is little more; instead, Mt. Helena is seen as powerless and at rest. One could draw a political parallel to Napoleon as he is also “at rest,” lacking the power he once possessed. The volcano is distant and appears as an afterthought in the image. Because scientists knew that the volcano had become extinct, the image does not give any sense of anxiety that it will erupt. Instead, the knowledge gained by volcanologists of the time has contributed to a scenic—not fear-inducing—view of Mt. Helena.
Charles Graf signed his drawing “to her majesty.” It can therefore be concluded that the image was intended to be viewed by royalty—though to which royalty Graf was referring is still unknown. Whether or not the drawing was ever viewed by “her majesty” is also unknown. However, the drawing was transformed into an aquatint and published in Elizabeth Abell's Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon in order to show the reading audience what The Briars looked like upon Napoleon’s arrival. The image’s powerless volcano functions as a reflection of Napoleon’s own powerlessness on the volcanic island.
Guerard, Albert. Napoleon I; A Great Life in Brief. New York: Knopf, 1956.
Martineau, Gilbert. Napoleon's St. Helena. London: Murray, 1968.
Mayer, Ralph. HarperCollins Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques. New York, N.Y: HarperPerennial, 1991.
Russell, Ronald. Discovering Antique Prints. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2001.
Summerville, Christopher. Who was Who at Waterloo: A Biography of the Battle. New York: Longman, 2007.
Weider, Ben. Murder of Napoleon. New York: Congdon & Lattes, Distributed by St. Martin's P, 1982.
Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the first three years of his captivity on the island of St. Helena: including the time of his residence at her father’s house, "The Briars," / by Mrs. Abell (late Miss Elizabeth Balcombe)