Napoleon death mask on display at Scottish museum

A PIECE of Napoleonic history that has divided scholars for two centuries has gone on display at a museum in Montrose

The death mask goes on display today at the Montrose Museuum. Picture: TSPL

As the world prepares to mark 200 years since the era-defining Battle of Waterloo today, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death masks is being exhibited at Montrose Museum.

The French emperor-general’s forces were defeated by the Duke of Wellington’s British Army and continental allies on June 18 1815.

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He died in exile on St Helena in 1821, whereupon doctors vied to take casts of his face for death masks, a fad of the day.

Montrose Museum curator Rachel Benvie explained that the provenance of such masks remains controversial, but she believes the Montrose impression, obtained by an Angus noble, has historical gravity.

She said, “It came into the museum in 1839, three years after the museum opened and 18 years after he died.

“There is a big debate about who made the first mask, and also a big debate about masks like ours, as to which one is a first, second or third generation mask.

“Ours actually has a signature by Dr Francois Antommarchi, one of Napoleon’s surgeons. It was an early donation by Lord Panmure, who was the first president of Montrose Natural History and Antiquarian Society, so it is likely to be as authentic as these can be.

“We also have a hat that could have belonged to Napoleon, which also has good provenance, as it came with the mask.”

Among the other artefacts on display is a medallion commemorating Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, a book from the museum library called Napoleon in Exile containing a letter from Dr Antommarchi describing Napoleon’s poor health before his death, medals from British soldiers, a Legion of Honour grand cross taken from a French soldier’s body after the battle, and a plaque commemorating Napoleon as emperor and king, complete with laurel wreath in the Roman style.