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La Collection Napoléon

When Jean Bour, dean of the Universitv of Alberta's, Faculité Saint-Jean, invites a guest into his bureau, the visitor is welcomed into a cumfortable room with a lively informility. A friendly clutter begins on the dean's desk and overflows onto the walls and shelves, consurning in the process an oak table with matching chairs, the set seemingly intended for a country kitchen but not Out Of place in its present setting. Equally at home in this room is a cl uster uf prints hung on the wall opposite the entry door. While their II ramfng is eclectic, the assemblage is not without a unitv: the man whose military genius and passion for power briefly United almost all of continental Europe dominates the dozen or so prints, a tiny sampling of the Faculté's curious Collection Napoleon.

As a youngster growing up in Paris, the Faculté Saint-Jean cuuldn't escape the shadow of the titanic figure of French history. Not only is the French capital trill of monuments (many of which were self-commissioned) exalting the man who assumed the hereditary title Emperor of France in 1804, but through his legal, administrative, educational and military reforms Napoleon left a long-lasting imprint on French society. And as a scholar specializing in 19th century French literature, where the romantic figure of Napoleon is impossiblc to avoid, Bour is well aware of the impact of the legend of the man who first came to prominence almost exactly 200 years ago, when he commanded the artillery at the siege of Toulon (1793) and was promoted to brigadier-general. A half-dozen years later the hero of the battlefield would assume power as first consul, instituting a military dictatorship and beginning his eventual rise to European dominance.

Bour, however, admits no partictilar preoccupation with the legendary French emperor. For him the attraction of the grouping of prints has less to do with the man they portray — or whatever artistic merit might be found in them, for that matter — than the touch of mystery surrounding their origins.

Many a fictional mystery begins with a discovery made amid the cobwebs of a dark and dusty attic. In the case of the Collection Napoleou, the "attic" was actually the cluttered basement of the Faculté's aging student residence. It was early 1987 and Bour, who had joined the Faculte as dean 18 months before, was poking around the hodgepodge that had accumulated — the usual assortment of objects deemed too valuable to discard, but unlikely ever to be used again — when he received his introduction to what has become known as "la Collection Napoléon."

In a back room nearly hidden from view by the jumble of stored items, were picture frames stacked literally from floor to ceiling. Visions of commissioning some much-needed building repairs and strengthening programs, maybe even funding new programs and new buildings — En fin assez d'espace pour notre bibliotheque! — flickered through the dean's mind as his imagination painted a fine-art mother lode in the residence bowels. "I thought I had discovered a wonderful collection worth millions of dollars that was going to float the Faculté for ever and ever," recalls Bour.

The reality, of course, has proven to be something else. There is still a severe shortage of library space at the Faculté, and the need for building repairs and new construction is a continuing headache at the University's francophone faculty, located east of the main University campus at 8406 Rue Marie-Anne Gaboury (91 Street). What the Faculte isn't in need of is prints of Napoleon and his life and times: for that is what the frames Bour discovered would yield — hundreds of such prints, and with them, the mystery of who collected them and how they came to be in the Faculté basement.

"From all evidence, they had been stored there for a number of years — certainly as long as the Faculté had been a faculty, and that happened in the late '70s — and nobody seemed to know how they got there," says Bour.

Being a real life —not to mention real(ly) busy — dean and not a character from the pages of fiction, Bour has only found time to chip away at the mystery of the prints' origin. However, the direction indicated by his inquiries is one beloved by the chroniclers of detective fiction: it appears that the collection has a connection with that desert mecca of gambling and glitter, Las Vegas.

The Collection Napoléon was apparently donated in the late 1950s or early 1960s to the Facuité's precursor Collège Saint-Jean, which was operated by the Oblate Fathers and offered French-language high school and university level courses in affiliation with the University of Ottawa. The link between the collector and Edmonton seems to have been an alumnus of the Collège named Leo Toupin, who was then living in Las Vegas but later moved to Indiana. Toupin apparently knew of the collection and arranged to have it donated to the Collège or else aquired it himself and passed it on to the Collège.

There is some evidence that the collection was damaged in transit to Edmonton — which is not surprising, considering the picture that has emerged of the trip north. Apparently, one of the priests associated with the Collège and another individual, either a friend or graduate of the Collège, headed to the U.S. to take posession of the prints. Somewhere across theborder, likely someplace in Montana - it doesn't seem that they went as far as Las Vegas — they received the collection, loaded it into the back of their pickup truck and then headed home, choosing backroads to avoid bothersome questions from customs officials.

Unfortunately, time and mortality have sealed the memories of those involved in receiving the collection on behalf of the Collège, and Bour has not been able to turn up any reliable record of the identity of the individual (or individuals) who assembled the Collection. (Some second- or third-hand recollections — now understandably fuzzy — suggest that the collection may have originally come from California, and there is even suggestion that the Faculté's prints are only a portion of the original collection.)

Whoever the collector was, he assembled his tribute to Napoleon with a single-mindedness that would have befitted the French emperor himself; Bour only wishes that his art judgement might have matched his zeal. "It seems that the collection was guided by the theme and not the worth of the art," says the dean. "I would say that the people involved were not great arriatcurs and experts in art. Whatever looked like Napoleon or had some Napoleonic theme they just grabbed.... There obviously was a passion."

When he unearthed the Napoleon prints, Bour turned to the experts responsible for the University's collections for help. Having been stored in the dark and damp basement for some time, many of the prints were in a bad state of repair, and the immediate advice of the experts was to remove the prints from their frames to prevent further deterioration because of the acidic nature of the backing material.

"As we took the prints apart, some of the backs — the cardboard or whatever — were almost more interesting than the prints," recalls Bour. "There were pictures, there were other works of art, and in the papers there was a whole set of menus from the French trans-Atlantic line running between New York and France. We may assume, probably accurately, that whoever got the collection going made regular trips to Europe and certainly to France - maybe to the bonquinistes of Paris to collect these things."

Today, except for those that hang in the dean's office, the prints of the Collection Napoléon lie sandwiched between sheets of acid-free tissue on two tables in an oversized closet in an unoccupied wing of the Faculté and constitute something of a dilemma: it's difficult to know what should be done with them. While cursory efforts have been made to preserve them — the acid-free tissue and a light brushing to remove some of the mold spores — the conservation measures required to properly restore them or at least halt further deterioration would be more expensive than seems prudent given the actual value of the prints.

And if the prints were restored, what then? Should a display be organized? In a March 1988 memo to Bour, the University's special collections librarian, John Charles, who examined the prints and found them to be largely "cheap reproductions issued in vast quantities" points out that attempting to exhibit the prints might not be wise. Writes C harles: "It is this examiner's opinion that Faculté Saint-Jean faces a dilenuna in mounting a high-prutile touring exhibition from these materials. To wit: in 'fixing up,' mounting and framing these works, which will be costly, a value is imparted to the collection which, in fact, it lacks. Depending upon who sponsors the exhibition and where it tours knowledgeable viewers might conclude the Faculte and University are deluded about the collection's importance."

It once appeared that a solution to the dean's dilemma might be in the offing. The apparent deliverance came in 1988 in the form of a Corsican delegation touring western Canada to promote trade with their area of France. As he met with the visitors from France and sampled their wine, the Saint-Jean dean mentioned the Collection Napoléon. The Corsicans were immediately interested, surprised and excited that their Mediterranean island's most famous son should be so immortalized in this distant partof the world, and in the bonhomie of the moment they talked of the possibility of their sponsoring the conservation and exhibition of the prints.

The moment passed, however, and the Corsicans departed Edmonton without having made a commitment to the project. And so, like Napoleon on St. Helena, the prints languish. Bour would prefer a kinder fate for them: surely, the passion with which they must have been collected demands something better. But what that could be, the Faculté Saint-Jean dean really doesn't know.

Published Winter 1993.

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