Soane’s Life & Times 1812-13. Part V: Trouble Abroad

2013 marks a significant date for Sir John Soane’s Museum, as it heralds the 200th anniversary since Sir John and his family took up residence at No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  Over the coming months we are looking forward to celebrating this important milestone in the Museum’s history by exploring aspects of Soane’s life during 1812-13.  A fascinating and glittering period, the year that Soane established his now world famous house museum was also one of political, economic and social turmoil both in Britain and abroad.  We are grateful to Gisela Gledhill, author of Soane’s Life & Times 1812-13 (and edited by Philippa Stockley), to allow us to feature her work in this way.  The complete book is available to buy in the Museum shop.


Oil on panel painting of Napoleon Bonaparte in his 29th year, painted at Verona by Francesco Cossia, 1797
Napoleon Bonaparte in his 29th year painted at Verona by Francesco Cossia, 1797, oil on panel.  Soane was fascinated by Napoleon and collected related memorabilia. He hung this portrait in his Breakfast Room at No.13


Trouble Abroad

England had been under threat of invasion since the French Revolutionary government declared war in February 1793 and pursued relentless campaigns in Europe for the next 20 years, invading Portugal in 1807.  In 1808 Napoleon’s army captured Madrid and Napoleon made his brother Joseph King of Spain. Spanish resistance continued with English support, led by Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington, who finally achieved a decisive victory over the French at Salamanca on 22 July 1812.

Wellington entered Madrid on 12 August to an extraordinary welcome. The city celebrated its liberation with illuminations for three nights. News reached London on Sunday 16 August 1812 and was greeted with widespread celebrations. Soane gave 20 shillings to the workmen at number 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields ‘to drink the health of L[or]d Wellington and his brave Army’.  Public buildings and private houses were lit up from 17 to 19 August. Soane was responsible for the illuminations at the Bank of England, using a relatively modest display for two nights of 1,373 bucket lamps, supplied by Fossick & Matthews, at a cost of £57.4.2. He walked through the city on 19 August to look at the illuminations.


Watercolour of an example of Soane’s design for illuminating the Threadneedle façade of the Bank of England
An example of Soane’s design for illuminating the Threadneedle façade of the Bank of England, in this case to celebrate King George III’s Jubilee, 1809, watercolour


Napoleon Defeated

War in Spain went on until Wellington defeated Joseph Bonaparte in the battle of Vittoria, south of Bilbao, on 21 July 1813, and French rule collapsed. Once more, celebrations were ecstatic. Vauxhall Gardens had fireworks in the presence of the Royal Family, attended by 1,200 people. The traffic was so bad that the Duchess of York’s carriage was stranded for two hours outside the gardens. Public buildings were illuminated for three nights from 5 to 7 July 1813, with Somerset House and Carlton House exhibiting a blaze of light with the word Wellington in the centre. The Bank of England was lit by Fossick & Matthews with 16, 361 bucket lamps costing £477.3.11.

Napoleon invaded Russia in June 1812. The battle of Borodino on 7 September 1812 was the bloodiest in the Napoleonic wars. The Russians were forced to retreat, but when the French army reached Moscow it found that the inhabitants had been evacuated and all supplies removed. Fires broke out, depriving the French of shelter. Napoleon’s army retreated as winter closed in. This defeat marked a turning point in Napoleon’s pan-European ambitions and would lead to his eventual abdication in 1814.


Hand-coloured etching of political satire by Thomas Rowlandson depicting Napoleon's defeat, abdication and retirement to Elba, 1814
A Friendly Visit, political satire by Thomas Rowlandson depicting Napoleon's defeat, abdication and retirement to Elba, 1814, hand-coloured etching. Courtesy of the British Museum


America Declared War on Britain

America had developed a thriving trade after 1783 in shipping produce from the French, Dutch and Spanish West Indies to Europe, in competition with British shipping.  Meanwhile Britain was intent on maintaining naval superiority, blockading French ports and restricting trade by seizing ships and cargoes. Matters came to a head over the Orders in Council, which stressed the British right of retaliation against the French and also restricted neutral trade, affecting American shipping. America objected to the seizure of its ships and to the Royal Navy ‘impressing’ British-born seamen serving on American ships. Twenty-nine years after the end of the American War of Independence, on 18 June 1812, America declared war on Britain.
In August 1814 British forces entered Washington, where they burned public buildings including the Capitol and the White House. The war was eventually concluded by the Treaty of Ghent on 24 December 1814.

Posted on 10 October 2013 in Soane's Life and Times: 1812-1813
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