The Junot-Wellington Watch

Image of a the front and back of a pocket watch, gold on one side, platinum on the other

Contributor: Jorge Bastos da Silva

Location: Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida, Lisbon

Description: This state-of-the-art pocket watch was commissioned by General Jean-Andoche Junot, the commander of the first invasion of Portugal by Napoleon’s armies, from the famous Swiss clockmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. After Junot’s death, the watch was sold back to Breguet and eventually came into possession of Junot’s enemy, the Duke of Wellington, as a gift from a comrade-in-arms. The watch thus suffered radical repurposing by a roundabout way, becoming a virtual war trophy. Its story points to the relevance of tracing the transit of objects to understanding the social and material culture of the Romantic period.

Junot was the commander of the first invasion of Portugal by Napoleon’s armies in November 1807. The campaign was successful insofar as the invading army found little resistance and swiftly conquered most of the country, including the capital. However, Junot saw the Portuguese royal family and the Court slip through his fingers, as upon his arrival in Lisbon the departing fleet was still visible on the horizon on its way to Brazil (Rio de Janeiro was to remain the de facto capital of the Portuguese Empire for a decade and a half). Junot would nevertheless be created Duke of Abrantes (a town in Central Portugal) before being beaten by Arthur Wellesley at the Battle of Vimeiro in August the following year and forced to retreat. He would return with the third and last invasion (under Marshal André Masséna) and was wounded by a bullet in the head, likely to have been the cause of his later madness. It is possible that he committed suicide in 1813.

In August 1807, Junot commissioned this watch from the famous Swiss clockmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, who had been settled in Paris for thirty years. It was a sophisticated affair. It was encased in gold on one side and platinum on the other. It showed the phases of the moon, the months and days of the week, the signs of the zodiac, the equation of time, and how much time remained before the watch would need winding up again. It could be fitted into a metal box with a handle on top so that it became a standing table clock. The metal box could in turn be fitted into a mahogany box with a slot at the bottom. It might thus be fixed onto a carriage. After more than two centuries, the watch, presently on display at Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida in Lisbon, is still in working order (see Mayer).

Junot’s wife, Laure, like her husband, was fond of luxury, and she eventually ran into financial difficulties which caused her to sell the watch back to the Maison Breguet in 1813. Three years later the piece was purchased by Lord Berwick (Sir William Noel-Hill, 3rd Baron Berwick of Attingham), who gave it to his cousin, General Rowland Hill, 1st Viscount Hill of Almaraz. General Hill had been a comrade-in-arms of Arthur Wellesley in the Peninsular War, and in 1818 presented the Junot watch to his old friend, by now the Duke of Wellington.

Both generals had faced Junot in the field of battle. A remarkable reversal of fortune meant that they gained possession of one of their enemy’s personal belongings. By means of a succession of commercial exchanges culminating in an act of gift-giving, the watch was radically repurposed from a personal gadget to a war trophy while maintaining its status as a luxury item and an example of state-of-the-art technology. The main interest of the Junot-Wellington watch lies in the intersection of history with the personal story of individuals, and in the ways in which it points to the relevance of objects in transit for an understanding of the social and material culture of the Romantic period. Just as texts circulated across borders subject to the contingencies of translation, comprising cuts, modulations and accretions, material objects were produced and circulated across borders through commissions, trade, and the giving of gifts. This circulation of commodities opened up the possibility of their reconfiguration in terms of utility as well as meaning (or, to put it differently, in terms of both everyday function and monumentalization), and the modalities according to which this happened were integral to the process by which local attainments achieved transnational, at times even European, resonance.

Date: 1808

Creator: Breguet et Fils, Paris

Subject: Abraham-Louis Breguet; Jean-Andoche Junot; Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington; General Rowland Hill

Media rights: Image kindly provided by Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida in Lisbon.

Object type: watch

Format: gold and platinum

Publisher: Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida, Lisbon

Digital collection record: http://www.casa-museumedeirosealmeida.pt/pecas/relogio-de-bolso-junotwellington-1808/

References

Cardoso, Rui, Invasões Francesas – 200 Anos. Mitos, Histórias e Protagonistas, 2nd ed., Lisboa, Imprensa Nacional – Casa da Moeda, 2011, pp. 197-198.

Mayer, Maria de Lima, “Relógio de Bolso – Junot/Wellington, 1808”, http://www.casa-museumedeirosealmeida.pt/pecas/relogio-de-bolso-junotwellington-1808/

 

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