T his remarkable collection of letters and documents, assembled by a discerning connoisseur over a period of some twenty years, provides a myriad of insights into four centuries of history, from an important document signed by Ferdinand and Isabella on the aftermath of the Reconquista of Granada, to Lawrence of Arabia on the Arab Revolt.
It expresses the collector’s passion for the Napoleonic period: there are multiple letters by Napoleon himself at different stages of his life, but also members of his family, his Marshals, and his enemies – pre-eminently Nelson, who is represented by exceptional letters and other items including the sumptuous grant of the Dukedom of Bronte.
There are letters by key monarchs of European history, ranging from Mary, Queen of Scots, writing to give safe passage to a rebel Highland laird; to Frederick the Great, writing to his former tutor on his belief that he deserved no congratulations for a military victory that had been bought with so much blood; to Queen Victoria, writing to Tennyson about the death of John Brown. This is a sale that reveals the potency of the autograph letter to convey history in manuscript form.
A key strength of the collection is its assemblage of letters by key European monarchs from the 16th to the 20th century. These range from Ferdinand and Isabella, the joint monarchs who established the kingdom of Spain, to Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, and include some of the most fascinating figures in European history such as Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, and Frederick the Great.
The bankrupt French King, Louis XVI, calls a meeting of the Estates-General amidst increasing popular unrest. The Storming of the Bastille on 14 July marks the symbolic collapse of the Ancien Regime: the Revolution has begun.
Document signed, listing tax liabilities of the nobility of Auch, 1789
France is at war with her neighbours and convulsed by the Jacobin Terror, led by Robespierre “the incorruptible” and the Committee of Public Safety. Amongst the victims of the Terror was Alexandre de Beauharnais, husband of Napoleon’s future great love, Josephine. Robespierre falls in July, marking the end of the most radical phase of the revolution.
Document signed, also signed by two other members of the Committee for Public Safety, 1794
Napoleon Bonaparte emerges as France’s greatest general. He had shown his brilliance at the Siege of Toulon in 1793 but emerged as a national hero two years later when he quelled a royalist rebellion by clearing the streets of Paris with "a whiff of grapeshot". This secured the rule of the Directoire and the grateful government placed Bonaparte in command of the Army of Italy. Bonaparte commences an offensive campaign against Austria and her allies, winning a series of victories against numerically superior forces.
Letter signed, to the Minister of War, 1796
Napoleon appears unbeatable, and begins to assume political supremacy within France. He is blessed with a superlative group of fellow generals such as Michel Ney, who won important victories in western Germany and was to become one of Napoleon’s most trusted Marshals.
Letter signed, to General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, 10 September 1797
Napoleon invades Egypt, soon defeating the Mameluks and seizing Cairo. However, the French fleet is resoundingly defeated by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, leaving Napoleon stranded in Egypt.
Autograph letter signed, to Captains of Egyptian Club
3 August 1798
Warfare continues in Italy, with Nelson providing vital naval support to the southern kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Autograph letter signed, to Lt General Stuart, 19 January 1799
Napoleon, now unchallenged leader of France as First Consul, makes peace with Britain. The Peace of Amiens, which lasted for some 15 months, allows Napoleon to consolidate power and bring about extensive reforms throughout the huge swathes of territory that he now controls.
Document signed, confirming a diplomatic appointment to Napoleon, 1802
War resumed in 1803, and in 1804 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. Seemingly unstoppable, he makes plans to invade England. These plans are thwarted with Nelson’s overwhelming victory at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.
Autograph letter signed, to Alexander Davison, 13 October 1805
The French rule over much of Europe, including Italy and the former Venetian regions of modern-day Croatia, whilst the Treaty of Tilsit, agreed by Napoleon and the Russian Tsar Alexander I, extends French rule through much of Central Europe.
Letter signed, to Eugène de Beauharnais, about troop reinforcements in Dalmatia, 1807
Russian tenacity and “General Winter” destroyed Napoleon’s Grand Armee, which had invaded Russia in June 1812, and by 1813 Napoleon was on the defensive. He assembles new armies as war rages in Germany, culminating in French defeat at the Battle of the Nations towards the end of the year.
Letter signed ("Nap"), to Marshal Berthier ("Mon Cousin"), 27 March 1813
Napoleon abdicated in 1814 and was exiled to Elba, but in March 1815 he escaped back to France. He assembles a formidable new army at his customary lightning pace and quickly advances north into Belgium. On 18 June he faces an allied army commanded by the Duke of Wellington just outside a village called Waterloo. Following the decisive allied victory, the French retreat back towards Paris and Napoleon abdicates (again) on 24 June.
autograph letter signed, to Sir Charles Stuart, 1815
Napoleon lives out his final years in exile at Longwood House on St Helena, one of the most remote corners of the British Empire. He died there on 5 May 1821.
Warrant, appointing Sir Hudson Lowe jailer to Napoleon
The sale features a selection of signed and inscribed photographs of some of the greatest minds of the last two centuries, including a signed photograph of Charles Darwin by collaborator and father of art photography, Gustave Rejlander.
BRITISH LEGION ALBUM, Fund-raising album with c.527 autograph manuscript contributions, 1922-23. Estimate £30,000-50,000.
This magnificent album includes contributions from writers, artists, composers, politicians, royalty, veterans, explorers, and many others. It was assembled in the early 1920s to raise money for British veterans of the First World War, and was described at the time as “the world’s most notable collection of autographs”. A number of the contributors make moving reference to their gratitude to the generation that was sacrificed in the trenches – whether that be Lloyd George’s acknowledgement of the suffering of the war, William Orpen’s harrowing drawing of a soldier facing death, or Holst’s transcription of the opening of ‘I vow to thee, my country’.