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The wallpaper that killed Napoleon?
The four fragments of wallpaper shown above here are from the Drawing Room at Longwood on St Helena, where Napoleon died. They were preserved in a folder, upon which is written (in a contemporary hand) 'Paper from Napoleon's Drawing Room in the old House, at Longwood/ May 25th 1826'. Each piece is stamped with five-pointed starlike florets in Scheele's Green, pale red and brown (probably discoloured gold), against a flecked background, and there are traces of wallpaper paste on the versos. Each of the three larger fragments comprises a complete floret, the smaller one part of a floret - the three larger pieces each c. 2 inches square, the smaller 2 x 1 inches.
Napoleon was removed from his cramped bedroom to the drawing room at Longwood during his last illness, and died there at 5.49 pm on 5 May 1821. Not surprisingly, given the circumstances of his exile, it has often been suggested that he was poisoned by the English. Most recently Dr Paul Fornes and Dr Pascal Kintz, at a meeting of the International Napoleonic Society held in Paris on 1 June 2001, under the presidency of Ben Weider, co-author of The Murder of Napoleon (1982), announced that they had discovered quite exceptionally high traces of arsenic in samples that have been preserved of Napoleon's hair [...]. However it might be argued by those with a natural disinclination for such theories that the character of his 'gaoler', the Governor Sir Hudson Lowe, an impeccably upright, humourless, unimaginative man, a stickler for rules round whom Napoleon ran and continues to run rings, makes for an improbable poisoner; even if he was working, as is suggested, in concert with Napoleon's aide General de Montholon. But there remains a possibility that Napoleon might have been poisoned without the intervention of Lowe or de Montholon. The drawing room at Longwood was lined with wallpaper stamped with a pattern incorporating the colour green. This was analysed in 1980 by Dr David Jones of the University of Newcastle and identified as Scheele's Green, a cheap colouring pigment of copper arsenite widely used from about 1770. In 1893 the Italian biochemist Gosio had discovered that if wallpaper containing Scheele's Green became damp and thus mouldy then the copper arsenite would vaporise into arsenic; normally a mixture of arsine, dimethyl and trimethyl arsine (New Scientist magazine, 14 October 1982, pp.101-104; Nature, 14 October 1982, vol.299, no.5884, pp.626-627. A version of this article can be read on the web). The most general consensus is that Napoleon died of cancer of the stomach, as had other members of his family (see P. Hillemand, Pathologie de Napoleon, 1970, pp.119-181). But it is just possible, given the mouldy damp atmosphere of Longwood, so vividly evoked in recent books by Julia Blackburn and Jean-Paul Kauffman, that - to invoke [Oscar] Wilde's dying quip - the wallpaper helped him on his way.
The wallpaper is lot 470 of a sale Books, Maps, Photographs & Manuscripts to be held in London at the sale rooms of Philips Auctioneers, 101 New Bond Street, London, Greater London, W1S 1SR, UK on 9 November 2001. Lot 470 can be viewed on Phillips's website. For futher details and information please contact: Elizabeth Merry ext. 357, Simon Roberts, ext. 351, Amanda Sutcliffe, ext. 351, Melanie Way, ext. 357, Joanna Lynch, Ext. 351, Susanne Bedson, Ext. 351 of Phillips Auctioneers Books Department
Tel: +44 20 7468 8351
Fax: +44 20 7491 1609
Text and images copyright Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg and used with permission - alterations and rewriting by Peter Hicks.