Napoleon’s travel nécessaire

Artist(s) : BIENNAIS Martin-Guillaume
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© Fondation Napoléon - Patrice Maurin-Berthier

Brass plate bearing the inscription: “Please take this, I used it on the very morning of the Battle of Austerlitz. Words of NAPOLEON to Comte de LAS CASES when he gave him this small campaign nécessaire at THE BRIARS (the island of Saint Helena in October 1815)”

Smaller than the ‘large nécessaires’ in vermeil or silver, the travel nécessaires or ‘nécessaires de portemanteau’ were easier to transport and provided everything needed for personal hygiene and writing. Napoleon had several, and he was frequently replacing them, particularly after the significant losses in Russia. He bought more than twelve, each one costing 400 francs, most of which were rather plain. The one here was taken to Saint Helena, and offered to Las Cases in October 1815, as Las Cases himself notes in his Mémorial (25-27 October): ‘One of these evenings, he had one of his campaign nécessaires brought in. He examined all the different parts carefully and gave it me saying: ‘I have had this one a long time, I used it the morning of the Battle of Austerlitz. It will be handed down to little Emmanuel’, he went on, looking at my son. ‘When he is thirty or forty, we will no longer be here, my dear fellow. The object will be even more remarkable. He will show it and say: it was the emperor Napoleon who gave it to my father on Saint Helena’. I received the precious gift and almost venerate it; for me it is sort of holy relic”. Marchand, whoses testimony no-one doubts, confirmed the anecdote; when Napoleon was at The Briars, on an evening when the weather was bad, he had Marchand bring the emperor’s box of snuff boxes in so that he could show them to Las Cases and his son: “When we had seen these objects, he asked me for one of his small campaign nécessaires; he examined all the parts of it in front of the Comte de Las Cases and after having closed it, he gave it to him saying: “I used it the morning of Austerlitz, it will be handed down to Emmanuel when he is thirty or forty”.

This nécessaire comprises twenty-two pieces, two pairs of scissors and two rasors having disappeared; a paper manuscript written by Las Cases’s son gives the following details: “Whe  the emperor gave this small né[cessaire] to papa, the two rasors were not present. Marchand [said] that they had to go back up to town and promised papa to give them to him later. They were frequently [asked for] but we never managed to get them”. Three other nécessaires of this type are known, one in the Musée de Malmaison, monogrammed B for Bonaparte and two others at the Musée de Fontainebleau, the first of which came from the imperial family, and the second of which was donated in 1988 by the family of Jacques Dailly, to whose ancestor Napoleon gave the nécessaire in Fontainebleau in 1814.

Bernard Chevallier (tr. P.H.)
Conservateur général du patrimoine (emeritus)

January 2005

Date :
before 1805
Technique :
silver, gilt silver, copper, teak, steel, ivory, nacre, tortoise shell, glass
Dimensions :
H = 8.3 feet, L = 21 feet, P = 11 feet
Place held :
Paris, Fondation Napoléon, acquisition 2001
Photo credit :
© Fondation Napoléon - Patrice Maurin-Berthier
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