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My visit to the National Gallery of Victoria’s Napoleon: Revolution to Empire exhibition was enjoyable.  Spectacular artwork – often propagandist* – beautiful women, heroic fighters, jewellery, French clocks, furniture, clothing – a great experience.  It provides an artistic account of life in post-revolutionary France. The excesses in the early Republic gave Napoleon the basis for making himself emperor and for establishing an empire.  A brilliant, flawed man  whose last days on St Helena seemed almost tragic given his ambitions.

The account given in the exhibition of Napoleon and his wife Josephine’s interest in Australia is fascinating.  Napoleon as a young man read the accounts of James Cook’s voyages to Australia and they remained an interest all his life.  Josephine collected Australia flora and fauna.  The French explorers in the period 1780-1820 mapped most of the Australian coastline and recorded their encounters with aborigines.    The art work at the exhibition records these interactions.

The exhibition is beautifully presented and the gallery guides were knowledgeable. They made my visit a pleasure.   I am currently reading Georges Lefebvre’s Napoleon and the exhibition’s Napoleon: Revolution to Empire.  The exhibition has stimulated a new interest for me.

BTW: Does anyone know the origin of the Napoleon-linked place names in the north of Melbourne? Briar Hill? St Helena? There is even a Napoleon St, Eltham! I’d be interested to know the French connection in my own backyard.

* Look at Napoleon here.  Conquering all and pointing to the future with Napoleon himself (of course!) at the centre.

Update:  The question posed is answered in the comments below.  A fascinating incident in the book prepared for this exhibition is a discussion between the mathematician Laplace and Napoleon himself on the characteristics of the Australian platypus.  It was an astonishing creature to Europeans and it astonished Napoleon.

3 comments to Napoleon

  • davidp

    I didn’t know Briar Hill had a connection to Napoleon – having them right near each other seems like something is going on. Montmorency (right next to Briar Hill) is also French

  • hc

    (updated) Briar was the place that Napoleon first stayed at when exiled to St Helena.

    The idea of the connections with northern Melbourne is now clear. Anthony Beale was a resident of St Helena Island when Napoleon was exiled there. He eventually immigrated to Australia and settled in the area now known as St Helena in Melbourne – I assume he named his house St Helena and this became the name of the district – it was wild bushland in those days. I assume that this is connected to the various French names in the district – Montmorency etc. Beale built an Anglican Church next to where he lived and I believe it still stands. See:

    The rest of the Beale family I understand settled around Port Phillip.

  • davidp

    Thanks Harry – I didn’t know the connection to Briar Hill but it seems pretty likely that Beale might have named it as it is just nearby.

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