The Myth of the Napoleon Guitar

Recently I’ve been doing some research upon the introduction of the guitar to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Compara­tively little scholarly (or other) work has appeared on the subject and what has been done treats the early colonial period in a fairly desul­tory manner.1The most recent research is Angelina Ellis, ‘The Classical Guitar in Australia: Foundations’, MA Thesis, Queensland University of Technology, 2000; however, this largely is concerned with the mid-to-late twentieth century. A surviving Romantic-era guitar that possibly was brought to New South Wales c. 1824–33 has received periodic media attention over the years as it supposedly was owned by Napoleon Bonaparte. As claimed in the video above published by the Museum of Sydney, the guitar purport­edly was given to Napoleon by his sister Pauline Borghese and then, during his final exile on St Helena, by Napoleon to Lucia (Betsy) Balcombe (after marriage Abell), who later lived in Sydney for some years.2In addition to the large body of Napoleonic historiography, a substantial biography upon Betsy Abell was published in 2015: Anne White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, Sydney, 2015. Betsy’s relationship with Napoleon also has been dealt with in historical fiction including Thomas Keneally’s 2015 novel Napoleon’s last island, North Sydney, 2015. As we’ll see, this story is almost certainly apocryphal but, nonetheless, the instrument does have some interesting history which tends to be ignored in the cred­u­lous attempts to link it to Napoleon.

Napoleon And The Balcombe Family

The guitar is now part of the Dame Mabel Brookes Family Records of Napoleon collection held at a National Trust property named The Briars at Mount Martha, Victoria. Mabel Brookes (1890–1975) was Betsy Balcombe’s great niece and purchased the instru­ment in 1953 as part of her substantial Napoleonic collection. Formerly a  pastoral property, The Briars was occu­pied in the mid 1840s by Betsy’s brother Alexander Balcombe and owned by descend­ants until acquisition by the National Trust in the mid 1970s.3Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, The Briars Master Plan, 2020, pp. 9–10.

Following defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and surrender to the British, Napoleon arrived at the isolated South Atlantic island of St Helena in October 1815. Betsy Balcombe (born c. 1802, died 1871) was the daughter of an East India Company official and merchant resident on St Helena named William Balcombe who—to his surprise—was asked to host Napoleon at his residence, The Briars, while another building, Longwood, was readied for the erstwhile Emperor and his retinue. During Napoleon’s two-month stay in a pavilion at The Briars he struck up a particular friendship with an impudent 13-year-old Betsy who, unlike her parents, could speak French reasonably well. In a striking coincidence, a decade earlier Napoleon’s nemesis at Waterloo, Edward Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, had lodged in the same pavilion.4White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, chs 3–9. For Wellington see Christopher Hibbert, Wellington: a personal history, London, 1998.

Napoleon at St Helena. The two girls are believed to be Jane and Betsy Balcombe. Source: State Library of New South Wales.

William Balcombe became provedore to Napoleon’s establishment and his family continued to have social contact with them after Napoleon moved to Longwood House.5White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, ch. 19. Napoleon likely was aware that Balcombe was ru­mour­ed to be a natural son of the Prince Regent (later George IV).6White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, pp. 90–94. However, in early 1818 the Balcombes had to leave St Helena, William being suspected by the Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, of aiding Napoleon’s ongoing intrigues to escape his island prison; Betsy and her elder sister Jane even seem to have been under suspicion of facilitating clandestine correspondence following their final meeting with Napoleon in 1818.7William Forsyth, History of the captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, Vol. 1, New York, 1853, p. 602.

William Balcombe. Source: National Library of Australia.
William Balcombe. Source: National Library of Australia.

Despite Balcombe’s possible treachery—which was subject to high-level scrutiny at the Home Office—he managed to avoid legal repercussions. In fact, Balcombe had a history of escaping punishment for serious matters: in 1803, he was court martialled for mutiny at sea without any seeming consequences; later, he appears to have smuggled contraband with impunity.8White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, pp. 192-93, As Ann White­head argues, it’s very unlikely that Balcombe was the son of the Prince Regent; nonetheless, he was a protégé of Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, an adviser to both George III and the Prince, and this perhaps explains the political protection Balcombe seemingly enjoyed.9White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, pp. 90–94. After five years of social, legal and financial limbo—including a period of residence in France—Balcombe regained enough favour to be appointed inaugural Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales.10Sydney Gazette, 29 April 1824, p. 3; see generally White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, part 2.

Things had not gone well for Betsy after she left St Helena: in 1822 she married Edward Abell but he soon left and Betsy and her infant daughter Elizabeth accom­panied the rest of the family to Sydney in 1823–24 (Betsy’s sister Jane died during the voyage).11White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, pp. 285, 310. Supposedly, the guitar given to Betsy by Napoleon arrived in Australia with the Balcombes although there does not seem to be any contemp­or­aneous evidence to this effect. That said, it’s possible that a family member acquired the instrument during their stay in France (Betsy did not always live with her parents but Elizabeth was born at Saint-Omer in late 1822).12White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, pp. 291–92. While William continued to attract controv­ersy in Sydney,13In the mid 1820s Balcombe was accused of impropriety in dealings with the Bank of New South Wales leading to a rebuke from Governor Ralph Darling and, eventually, his superiors in London. See White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, pp. 363–70. the Balcombes lived at a newly-built Treasury house situated on the corner of O’Connell and Bent Streets, where they moved among the local elite.14Old Times, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1903, pp. 289–90; White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, chs. 30–32.Among their contemporaries were Frederick Hely, the recently appointed Principal Superintendent of Convicts. Hely’s eldest daughter Mary (c. 1819–1901) is said to have been tutored by Betsy, who supposedly also gave Mary the guitar at some point. As we’ll see below, the instrument certainly was owned by some of Mary’s Hely’s descendants although the purported link with Betsy Balcombe and Napoleon is much less clear.

Despite accumulating a substantial amount of land in New South Wales, William Balcombe lived beyond his means and was heavily indebted when he died in March 1829.15By 1829, William Balcombe had been granted or purchased a total of about 6,500 acres of pastoral land at Bungonia and Molonglo; Betsy Abell was also granted 1,280 acres at Bungonia. White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, pp. 384–85. When the family’s household goods hastily were sold off the following month no musical instruments were mentioned in the quite detailed advertised inventory.16Sydney Gazette, 18 April 1829, p. 1. The Balcombes had vacated the O’Connell Street residence by early June 1829. See Sydney Gazette, 4 June 1829, p. 2. If Betsy did tutor Mary Hely it may have been undertaken c. 1829–30 in order to gain some desperately needed income. Of course, the present of a guitar supposedly owned by Napoleon Bonaparte would seem rather generous in these circumstances. Initially, William’s widow Jane reportedly was awarded a pension by the local colonial administration but this appears to have ceased by September 1829.17Australian, 9 September 1829, p. 2. In early 1831 Jane, Betsy and Elizabeth returned to England to plead for the reinstatement of a pension and/or further colonial land grants. After surviving a nightmarish voyage, Jane Balcombe only managed to secure a gratuity of £250 and she, Betsy and Elizabeth returned to Sydney in 1833.18White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, p. 391; Viscount Goderich to Governor Bourke, 1 May 1833, Historical records of Australia, Series I, Vol. 16, Sydney, 1923, pp. 714–15. They appear to have lived briefly at Erskine Villa (now Erskineville). Sydney Gazette, 30 March 1833, p. 2; Currency Lad, 30 March 1833, p. 1; 6 April 1833, p. 2; New South Wales Government Gazette, 3 July 1833, p. 247. However, soon after arrival, Jane and Betsy were victims of a highway robbery (two men held them up, took some cash and their rings ‘and bade them a polite good morning’).19Sydney Herald, 30 May 1833, p. 3; Sydney Monitor, 1 June 1833, p. 2; White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, p. 393. Perhaps influenced by this experience, in March 1834 Jane, Betsy and Elizabeth returned to England for good (Jane Balcombe’s three sons remained in Australia).20White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, p. 394; Sydney Gazette, 25 March 1834, p. 2; Times, 1 September 1834, p. 1.

Origins and Provenance

I wasn’t aware of the instrument when it was exhibited in Sydney in 2019 and, unfortunately, I haven’t yet had a chance to visit The Briars due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, published descriptions indicate that it was made by Flanbau l’Âiné of Paris (meaning Flanbau senior’s eldest son).21Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October 1953, p. 14. Somewhat confusingly, surviving instruments with this explicit signature have been attributed to a Parisian violin maker named Pierre Flambau or Flambeau (presumably construed as spelling variations of Flanbau). In an early nineteenth-century French guitar-making context, Flanbau was not a noted luthier and little appears to be known about him.22Albert Jacquot, La lutherie lorraine et française depuis ses origines jusqu’à nos jours, Paris, 1912, p. 96. However, in terms of external design and decorative features, the guitar seems typical of French spruce-topped and maple-bodied instruments built c. 1815–30.

One of the mysteries surrounding Flanbau is the approximate period he built guitars and, unfortunately, he doesn’t appear to have recorded the year of construction upon the instrument. Of course, a pre-1818 origin needs to be asserted in order to fit the Napoleon and Betsy Balcombe story. However, as will be discussed further below, one ostensibly anachronistic element of the instrument’s extant fabric suggests that it may have been built after Napoleon’s death in 1821.

When attempting to establish this guitar’s history it should be noted that various accounts published over the years typically contain obvious factual errors—and not just in relation to the rather fanciful notion that it was owned by Napoleon. In addition to errors in news­paper reports, a scholarly catalogue of the Brookes Family Napoleonic Collection reiterates mis­lead­ing assertions made by Mabel Brookes (erroneously stating, for example, that the Flanbau guitar was made in Italy).23Astrid Britt Krautschneider, ‘An examination and assessment of the Dame Mabel Brookes Family Records of Napoleon’, MA Thesis, University of Melbourne, 2004, Vol. II, Collection Catalogue Numbers 267 (Guitar) and 268 (Guitar Case) (pp. 153–54); Mabel Brookes, St Helena story, London, 1960, p. 178. Lastly, it’s not clear whether the instrument has been subject to expert examination or analysis as part of its ongoing conservation (which would obviously be desirable given its supposed association with Napoleon).

Evidence for the Flanbau guitar’s nineteenth-century ownership relies upon Hely-Mann family lore seemingly first made public in Australia in 1917, when the instrument was donated by the Mann family of Greenwich, Sydney, for war fund raising efforts. The Sydney Evening News noted:

Mrs. John Fell, of Northwood, has been presented to her, on behalf of the ‘War Chest Day,’ an absolutely authenticated Napoleon guitar, presented by the French Emperor to Mrs. Abel, who afterwards gave it to her favourite pupil, Mary Hely, who became later the wife of the late Captain Gother Kerr Mann. Mrs. Abel was formerly a Miss Balcomb, and lived while a child with her father on St. Helena, where Napoleon made a great pet of her, and gave her this special guitar, which had been presented to him by his sister Pauline, and on which he himself always played. It was taken to Europe by the Stricklands, and came into possession of Mrs. Swann, who recently returned it to the Misses Gother Kerr Mann, who have now kindly presented it to the ‘War Chest Day.’ … The instrument is of satin wood, inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, made by the celebrated maker, Flamreau L’Aine, Paris, and dates back to the early part of the 17th century.24Evening News, 13 September 1917, p. 2.

Apart from the problem that there’s no credible evidence that Napoleon played the guitar, it should be noted that it’s undoubtedly a Romantic-era instrument (rather than being built two centuries earlier, as wildly claimed in this and similar reports published in 1917!).

Gother and Mary Mann (née Hely) on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary in 1898. Source: State Library of New South Wales.

If we give more credence to the post-c. 1835 ownership chain outlined in the report (this information presumably was supplied by Mary Mann’s surviving daughters), the guitar appears to have remained in the extended Hely/Mann family until the Great War—but not always in Australia. Indeed, it may have travelled quite widely in the mid nineteenth century. The two additional surnames mentioned in the newspaper excerpt are not difficult to trace: Mary Hely’s younger sister Georgina in 1841 married an Irish-born army officer Edward Strickland and their daughter Fanny in 1868 at Man­chester married Percival Swann, rector of the Yorkshire parish of Brandsby from 1873 to his death in 1903.25Sydney Herald, 19 November 1841, p. 3; Pall Mall Gazette, 24 February 1868. Apart from active service in Crimea, after leaving Australia in the mid 1840s Edward Strickland served and resided in Malta, Turkey, Greece, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland before returning to Sydney in retirement and it’s possible that the guitar accom­panied his family on some of his earlier Mediterranean postings (their living arrangements aren’t yet clear although Georgina Strickland died in Malta in 1876).26Evening News, 19 July 1889, p. 8; Freeman’s Journal, 20 July 1889, p. 15; Telegraph, 2 September 1876, p. 2. On this account, then, the Flanbau guitar supposedly passed from Betsy Abell to Mary Hely, then to Mary’s sister Georgina, and then to her daughter Fanny Swann—who returned the instrument to her cousins the Manns in Sydney.

I’ve only found one prior published reference to the instrument—a note in the Times in January 1910 stating that it was to be sold by the London auction house Puttick and Simpson.27Times, 24 January 1910, p. 14. More generally see James Coover, ‘Puttick’s Auctions: Windows on the Retail Music Trade’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 114, No. 1, 1989, pp. 56–68. We can be reasonably certain that this referred to the same instrument as the maker (‘Flanreau l’Aine, Paris’) was identified, as was the ‘claimed’ connection to Napoleon Bonaparte; a history of the guitar also ‘was attached to it’.28Times, 24 January 1910, p. 14. Unfortunately, the vendor wasn’t named and I haven’t yet located a record of sale (presumably, it was offered by Fanny Swann but not sold). When the guitar surfaced in Sydney in 1917 a local press report claimed that ‘the deposed Emperor … accom­panied the gift with an autograph letter, which is still in the possession of the Misses Mann’.29Australasian, 15 September 1917, p. 498. The same account wrongly identified Mary Hely (not Betsy Balcombe, who was unrelated) as ‘the daughter of an English officer who was on duty on St. Helena while Napoleon was imprisoned there’; this supposed documentary evidence from Napoleon himself—if it ever actually existed—likely was a fabrication.30Australasian, 15 September 1917, p. 498. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem to be among the catalogued documents now held in the Brookes Family Records of Napoleon collection.

Margaret Fell was the wife of John Fell who established the Clyde Oil Refinery in Sydney.31Former Shell Site at Camelia’, City of Parramatta Research and Collections (Archives), accessed 1 November 2021. In passing, it’s worth noting that the instrument wasn’t mentioned in an illustrated 1924 article upon the Fells’ Northwood home and notable contents.32Australian Builder, April 1924, pp. 31-32, 47. Their son John had been an Assistant War Chest Commissioner (or fund administrator) during the early years of the Great War and this connection may explain (at least partly) his mother’s interest in War Chest Day fund raising; however, John junior died from the effects of an explosion at the Clyde works in 1927.33Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 1927, p. 16. Reportedly, that same year the guitar was acquired by a North Sydney doctor named John Cappie Shand (senior).34Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September 1953, p. 4.  For Shand see also Grace Karskens, ‘Nah Doongh’s Song’, Australian Book Review, No. 413, 2019. Dr Shand died in 1939 and in 1953 the instrument was advertised for sale on behalf of his estate along with its ‘polished cedar case’ and ‘documents … that traced its history from the time it was given to Napoleon by his sister Pauline’.35Nepean Times, 9 February 1939, p. 1; Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 1939, p. 17; 29 September 1953, p. 4; 3 October 1953, p. 14.

Dame Mabel Brookes’s Ownership
Mabel and Norman Brookes in 1931. Source: National Library of Australia.

At auction the guitar was purchased for 100 guineas36In 2021 terms, about A$3,700 adjusted for inflation, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s online calculator. by Mabel Brookes.37Sun, 7 October 1953, p. 7. A Melbourne establishment social doyenne and wife of champion tennis player, Sir Norman Brookes, Dame Mabel Brookes was fascinated by her family connection to Napoleon: in addition to accumu­lating the substantial collection now housed at The Briars; she even purch­ased the original Briars property at St Helena in order to gift it to the French state in 1959 (the main house had been demol­ished but the pavilion where Bonaparte and Wellesley lodged had survived relatively intact, as it does today).38Canberra Times, 28 May 1959, p. 13; 5 June 1959, p. 5. Soon after, Mabel Brookes published a book upon Napoleon’s exile on St Helena which reiterated earlier claims that the Flanbau guitar had been acquired by Pauline Borghese, sent to Napoleon at St Helena, and then given to Betsy Balcombe.39Brookes, St Helena story, p. 178.

In 1959 Mabel and Norman Brookes also let one of their Melbourne homes (‘Kurneh‘, in South Yarra) to actor Gregory Peck and his wife Véronique (pictured below) while Peck was filming Stanley Kubrick’s On the Beach. French-born Véronique Peck reportedly was ‘intrigued’ by the ‘Napoleonic bric-a-brac’ on display at ‘Kurneh’ but the guitar had to be put away for safekeeping after Peck’s son Cary picked it up ‘and was about to strum it like a banjo’.40Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 February 1959, p. 7. Mabel Brookes later recalled that she

put a note in the case asking them not to touch the guitar because it belonged to Napoleon. Well, they didn’t hurt it, but later I saw some pictures in a Hollywood magazine. And you know what? The pictures were of young Mr Peck playing Napoleon’s guitar.41Bulletin, 13 July 1963, p. 15.

It’s not really clear what condition the instrument was in at this time. However, its 1953 auction sale had been noted by Wilfred Appleby in Guitar News. A reasonably influential figure in the burgeoning English classical guitar scene, Appleby (1892–1987) stated ‘that some vandal had put steel strings on it so that the guitar is now quite unplayable—warped neck, top caved in and several of the ivory frets missing’.42Guitar News, No. 16, December 1953–January 1954, p. 1. His source for this infor­mation is not revealed but Appleby’s claim that the ‘maker was probably Francois Fleury of Paris’ plainly was incorrect.43Guitar News, No. 16, December 1953–January 1954, p. 1. The Museum of Sydney video indicates that upper frets were still missing in 2019; the instrument also seems to have been subject to a rather crude repair at some point: the bridge, which may not be original, appears to be screwed rather than glued to the top (see footage from 1:02–1:06). However, the Flanbau guitar is now playable.

Problems With The Napoleon Story

One of the main sources that Mabel Brookes and Betsy Abell’s biographer Anne White­head draw upon is Betsy’s memoir of her friendship with Napoleon which was first published in England in serial form in 1843 (and then as a book in 1844).44Mrs (Lucia Elizabeth) Abell, Recollections of Napoleon at St Helena, London, 1844. The third (1873) edition of Betsy’s memoirs, with some additional content written by her daughter Elizabeth, is included below and it will come as no surprise that Betsy doesn’t mention Napoleon giving her a guitar (or either of them playing a guitar).

The latter issue (in general terms) has been touched upon in a couple of press reports published over the years (most of which tend to treat the Napoleon story rather uncritically).45See, for example, Evening News, 9 October 1917, p. 4; Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August 2019. On Betsy’s account, on the first occasion that she met Napoleon in 1815 she sang for him and told him that she could play an unspecified instrument; at their final meeting in 1818 Napoleon gave Betsy a handkerchief and a lock of his hair.46Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon [1844 ed.], pp. 25, 229–31. On White­head’s account, after Betsy’s final return to England in 1834 she survived in genteel but straitened circumstances by giving piano lessons.47White­head, Betsy and the Emperor, pp. 394–95. The basic problem raised by Betsy’s quite detailed memoir is that had Napoleon presented her with a guitar she almost certainly would have mentioned it (like she did the handkerchief and hair). Similarly, White­head’s well-researched biography makes no mention of Betsy or her family owning or playing a guitar at any point, ringing alarm bells for anyone interested in the veracity of the Napoleon story. In my view, three additional issues suggest that it is fictitious.

Firstly, we can reject the notion that Napoleon played the guitar—there doesn’t seem to be any primary source (or other credible) evidence to this effect, and we have a good deal of information about his private life as First Consul, Emperor and exile. Napoleon certainly had an interest in music and sponsored various forms (particularly opera) after his ascent to French rule by coup d’état in late 1799.48For a rather dated discussion see J. -G. Prod’homme (Trans. Frederick H. Martens), ‘Napoleon, music and musicians’, Musical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. No. 4, 1921, pp. 579–605. Although Betsy Abell was a lifelong Bonapartist, she recalled that Napoleon was a very poor singer and this seems to have been the sum of his musical accom­plish­ments.49Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, p. 37. The guitar had been quite a popular instrument in France since the mid eighteenth century,50See Andrew Britton, ‘The guitar in the Romantic period: its musical and social development, with special reference to Bristol and Bath’, PhD thesis, University of London, 2010, ch. 1. and it should be noted that both Napoleon’s wives, Joséphine (1763–1814) and Marie-Louise (1791–1847) did play the instrument (at least for a period); however, Marie-Louise appears to have commenced tuition quite a few months after her final personal contact with Napoleon in early 1814.51Ernest Knapton, Empress Josephine, Cambridge MA, 1982, pp. 30, 32; Erik Pierre Hofmann, ‘Un dono regale – Maria Luigia e la chitarra’, Il Fronimo, No. 177, 2017 (a translated version by the author can be found here: ‘A Royal Gift—Marie-Louise and the Guitar,‘ accessed, 1 November 2021). While Napoleon’s inability to play the guitar obviously does not preclude him receiving or making a gift of one, the extant fabric of the Flanbau guitar casts doubt upon whether it was built during his lifetime.

As can clearly be seen in the Museum of Sydney video, this instrument is equipped with tuning machines. During the Romantic era tuning machines gradually replaced the wooden friction tuning pegs traditionally used on guitars; however, instruments equipped with tuning machines were very rare before the early 1820s.52James Westbrook, ‘Louis Panormo: The only maker of guitars in the Spanish style’, Early Music, Vol. 41, No. 4, 2013, p. 576; Christopher Page, ‘Being a guitarist in late Georgian England’, Early Music, Vol. 46, No. 1, 2018, p. 10. During that decade, they also tended to be English-made tuners fitted to English-made guitars rather than those of Continental Europe, where pegs continued to be used for many years (some Flamenco guitars are still equipped with tuning pegs).53Westbrook, ‘Louis Panormo’, p. 576. A surviving early instrument made in London with original Rance tuning machines is the 1822 Panormo guitar now held in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney.

Of course, the Flanbau guitar’s tuning machines may have been retrofitted at some point—this modification was being performed in England by members of the Panormo family by about 1830.54Westbrook, ‘Louis Panormo’, p. 578. However, retrofitting the guitar’s extant tuners would necessarily have required the replacement of the original ‘Figure 8’ headstock (which, traditionally, mirrored the shape of the body and would not have been able to physically accommodate worm gear and roller tuners). It’s also difficult to imagine a relatively complex modification of this nature being undertaken in Sydney c. 1825–45 due to a lack of local instrument-making expertise. Even in a European context, we know little about the builder of this instrument—including basics such as when/where Flanbau was born and died, the approximate period he was active, or whether he was Pierre Flambau (or Flambeau). While further research hopefully will provide some answers in these respects, expert inspection of the instrument may be able to determine whether the headstock and tuning machines are original fabric or replace­ments. If they are original, the Flanbau guitar very likely was built after Betsy Balcombe’s last meeting with Napoleon in 1818.

Lastly, this particular instrument is an unlikely candidate to have found its way into Napoleon’s hands (in his pomp, or in either of his island prisons). While it happily has survived, the Flanbau guitar is in truth a fairly nonde­script instrument built by an obscure Parisian luthier. His likely intended market was bourgeois women—not Emperors or their families. While the guitar’s mother of pearl purfling and rosette might seem relatively ornate when compared to a modern classical guitar, this type of decoration was typical of French guitars of the era (many of which were built at Mirecourt, where the Flanbau family appears to have originated).55Jacquot, La lutherie lorraine et française, p. 96. It’s certainly not clear why Pauline Borghese—who resided in Rome from late 1815—would have acquired a journeyman instrument built some 1,500 kilometres away.56See generally Flora Fraser, Venus of empire: the life of Pauline Bonaparte, London 2009. Similarly, her supposed gift of the guitar to Napoleon doesn’t really make sense in political or cultural terms: we’re talking about an exceed­ingly autocratic sphere where unquestioning loyalty, fawning indulgence and gross extravagance were the order of the day. In a Napoleonic context, the Flanbau guitar should be compared to the much more intricately decorated and, frankly, unique Stauffer guitar made for Marie-Louise when she married Napoleon in 1810 (the instrument seemingly was presented to her father, Austrian Emperor Francis II).57Hofmann, ‘Maria Luigia e la chitarra’. For another guitar that possibly had an association with Marie-Louise see Paul Pleijsier, ‘Found: A Giuliani Guitar kept in a London bank since 1816‘, Soundboard, Vol. 28, No. 2, 2001. Ultimately, it’s unlikely that Pauline Borghese would have acquired the relatively modest Flanbau guitar—and it’s even more unlikely that she (or anyone else) would have presented it as a gift to Napoleon.

Another Supposed ‘Napoleon’ Guitar

Before concluding, another guitar supposedly owned by Napoleon came to public notice in the late 1930s. This instrument, said to have been made by the noted French guitar maker René Lacôte (1785–1855), was among a substantial collection of guitars owned by Ferdinand Pelzer (1801–60) and his daughters Catharina (1821–95) and Giulia (1837–1938). All were prom­in­ent teachers of the instrument in England (and Catharina [after marriage known as Madame Sidney Pratten] a leading Victorian-era guitarist).58Frank Mott Harrison, Reminisces of Madame Sidney Pratten, Bournemouth, 1899; Sarah Clarke, ‘An instrument in comparative oblivion? Women and the guitar in Victorian London’, PhD thesis, The Open University, 2021, pp. 23–25. According to Giulia Pelzer, her father was given this guitar by a student named Bachville, a former officer under Napoleon, who ‘recovered’ the instrument after Napoleon’s fall.59See Anon, ‘Memoirs of Madame Giulia Pelzer‘, typescript in Appleby Collection, Guildhall School of Music, transcribed by Robert Coldwell, May 2019. Once again, however, the notion that Napoleon used the guitar to ‘play … his accompaniments when he sang to Josephine, in the hours snatched from war’ is ludicrous.60Anon., ‘Memoirs of Madame Giulia Pelzer’.

For a start, Lacôte did not begin selling his own guitars until about 1819–20—a number of years after Josephine’s death and Napoleon’s exile to St Helena. Giulia Pelzer’s collection was sold at Sotheby’s in 1938 and the instrument supposedly owned by Napoleon was purchased for £6 by the music shop proprietor, musician and instrument maker Emile Grimshaw (1888–1943).61Stewart William Button, ‘The Guitar in England 1800–1924’, PhD thesis, University of Surrey, 1984, pp. 308–09. A few years later, Wilfred Appleby considered buying this guitar, for which Grimshaw was then asking £30.62Button, ‘The Guitar in England’, p. 309; Guitar News, No. 16, December 1953–January 1954, p. 1. Interestingly, Appleby’s published recollection—the ‘body was fairly wide but the waist was sharply pinched-in’— suggests that it was a distinctive ‘Legnani’ model built by Lacôte in the later 1820s (again, well after Napoleon’s death).63Guitar News, No. 16, December 1953–January 1954, p. 1. Both Lacôte and members of the Stauffer family built narrow-waisted instruments specified by the Italian singer and guitarist Luigi Legnani (1790–1877). Apart from the issues raised by this instrument’s alleged history, its where­abouts after about 1940 are unclear.

Concluding Remarks

Despite its relatively humble origins, there’s little doubt that the Flanbau guitar has had brushes with the rich and famous: however, these likely occurred during Mabel Brookes’s ownership rather than its decidedly murky early history. Brookes appears to have been heavily invested in the Napoleonic myth surrounding the instrument, which was well established by the time she bought it in 1953, and is plainly evident in her subsequent claims in St Helena story. Apart from Hely-Mann family lore, there doesn’t seem to be any contemp­oran­eous evidence that even Betsy Abell owned the instrument, let alone Napoleon or his sister. In political, geographical and material terms, and in the absence of any contemp­oran­eous evidence, the supposed link to Napoleon is very unlikely to be true. That said, if a Balcombe family member did bring this guitar to New South Wales in 1824 (which is not completely out of the question), it would have been one of the first recorded six-string ‘Spanish’ instruments in the colony (to date, I’ve only identified one earlier example, which was offered for sale in Sydney in late 1823).64Sydney Gazette, 24 December 1823, p. 4; 1 January 1824, p. 4. Unfortunately, the early history of the 1822 Panormo guitar now held in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney is not known, although a guitar by this noted maker was offered for sale in Sydney in 1828 (Australian, 15 August 1828, p. 2). Further research might uncover more of the Flanbau guitar’s real history—as opposed to its rather colourful imagined past.

© 2018–2021, Andrew Messner. All rights reserved.