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Jean De Laporte: Napoleonic War Prisoner and Straw Artist

Worldwide thousands and thousands of straw work pieces have been produced anonymously for centuries.  The Straw Shop has endeavored to identify some of today’s artisans via our Artist’s page. For the most part a specific person creating specific straw work is seldom identified, even today.  In the field of straw work described as “Napoleonic Prisoner of War Work” it is nearly impossible to identify any pieces with relative certainty to a named artist.

There are a few names that have been cited or viewed by The Straw Shop when it comes to signed straw decorated articles attributed to prisoner work produced at Norman Cross Depot. The names include:  Corn,  M. Grieg, Giordano, Gruselt, Ribout, Jacques Gourny, and Godfrov who variously signed in ink or pencil. Having a name associated with a straw item produced two centuries ago is astounding by itself really.  But how can these names be validated as prisoners and this is their work?  For this article, without any documentation of incarceration between 1797 and 1814 through any British Military Records or French Military Records matching prisoner and prison names themselves it is nearly impossible to substantiate the straw work’s origin. It is entirely possible all the signatures listed above are on genuine prisoners’ work it simply has yet to be proven.

Despite the lack of proof through military records, there does appear to be one believable exception.  He is cited in several published references. There are examples of his signed work in existence. This man was named Jean De Laporte. Interestingly, his last name appears in various citations in several ways: De LaPorte, De la Porte,  De Laporte, Delaporte, Laporte, and De La Porte.

Unlike any of the other names listed above, prisoner Jean De Laporte is specifically recognized as a fine straw artist.  According to Prisoners of War Work 1756-1815, published in 1965, by author Jane Toller, she states, “The names of some of the craftsmen in straw-work are known to us: that of Corporal Jean De LaPorte for instance, who was confined at Norman Cross for nearly nine years.”

Based on the work of Thomas J. Walker, The Depot for Prisoners of War at Norman Cross Huntingdonshire 1796 to 1816, published in 1913, while describing a straw marquetry picture, he says “…One, a view of the west front of Peterborough Cathedral, bearing the name De la Porte (as the artist who constructed it, has been already mentioned), and in the course of the researches made for the purpose of this history, the owner of the name has been identified with Corporal Jean De la Porte, one of the French heroes who on the 12th October 1805 fought against the British at Trafalgar, where Nelson died, but not before he had settled the question of our nation’s supremacy on the sea.  J. De la Porte was taken in L’Intrépide.”

Was there a ship called L’Intrépide?  (L’Intrépide is the French name, shortened by the English to Intrepide). According to Wikipedia;

“Intrépide was a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line of the French navy. She was originally built at Ferrol, Spain in 1790 by José Romero y Fernández de Landa as the Spanish ship of the line Intrepido, and later was sold to France in 1800.  On October 21, 1805 (during the Battle of Trafalgar) the Intrépide (fought against 6 ships) only to strike her colours at about 17:00, badly damaged with half of her crew dead.”  

In addition, the Intrépide crew’s fate is mentioned in a 1906 article that appeared in The English Illustrated Magazine, Volume XXXlV. The basis of the article is described as excerpts from the journal of Second Lieut. L. B. Halloran, Royal Marines, on board HMS Britannia. His granddaughter presented the article entitled,  “In the Days of Trafalgar”  which recounts in part:

“The gale came almost a hurricane, and we were ordered to take out all the prisoners from the French L’Intrépide, 74 Guns, and to burn her; this we effected with the greatest difficulty, the sea running very high. However, the whole Ship’s company, wounded and otherwise, were safely brought on board, and the ship set on fire.”

The ship L’Intrépide can be accounted for, but what about an individual crew member?

Another early reference, published in 1907, by Basil Thompson, in his book, The Story of Dartmoor Prison,  he writes of Jean De La Porte and his reputation as a straw artist for the first time as well as his association with the ship L’Intrépide:

“In the great action off Cape Trafalgar on 21st October 1805, the Leviathan, seventy-four guns, under Captain Bayton, was next to the Victory.  After passing through the enemy’s line she dismasted her opponent, raked the Santissima Trinidad, and passed on to the San Augustin, one of seven coming to surround her; this ship was silenced in fifteen minutes, and the crew of the Leviathan, making her fast with a hawser, towed her into the English Fleet with the English Jack flying.  The French ship L’Intrépide had by distant firing cut into the sails and rigging of the Leviathan, but three more British ships coming up, L’Intrépide was, after a noble resistance, also compelled to surrender, and was set on fire by the Britannia. The crews were landed at Portsmouth and transferred to Norman Cross, where they were received on 8th January 1806.  One was Corporal Jean De la Porte, whose name appears as the maker of signed straw marquetry pictures, and to whom are attributed many other unsigned pictures of the same character.  Mr. Jean De la Porte is spoken of as an officer; had he been of that rank he would not have been in the prison, but out on parole.  He was a Petty Officer, and would be in the Petty Officers’ prison.  He was confined at Norman Cross for nearly nine years, and during this long captivity his artistic skill and taste must have enormously mitigated his suffering.”

De Laporte’s prison life was described in the 2007 book entitled, The Arts and Crafts of Napoleonic and  American Prisoners of War 1756-1816, by author Clive L. Lloyd, as:

“The fact that, as a non-commissioned officer, he would have been quartered  in the somewhat superior conditions of the Petty Officer’s Block in the Depot, and enjoyed the remuneration from his undoubtedly superior craftsmanship, probably means that he lived as comfortably as any man could who had been deprived of his freedom for so many years.”

It is interesting that this man made a name for himself in England, during war time, as a straw artist.  Was he acknowledged as a straw artist while in France at any time? To date no information has been found to confirm any additional straw work attributed to him by name other than those during his time of confinement.  If the timeline and information above is somewhat accurate, Jean De Laporte was possibly held at Norman Cross Depot from 1806 until its closure eight years later in August of 1814 when the Depot was emptied of prisoners.  A good amount of straw decorated items, today, are attributed to that prison’s Market.  In order to sell their product, the prisoner was required to affix his name to the item being sold to identify the maker so he could eventually receive payment. These labels must have been temporary since objects bearing them generally do not exist today. That De Laporte permanently signed his work is interesting and difficult to explain.

Peterborough Museum and City Gallery in England, or Peterborough Museum, has a few signed examples of his work in their world famous collection of straw work.

The first image shown is described by Peterborough Museum as:

“Straw marquetry picture on wood, framed in a heavy wood frame with beaded and carved decoration. Depicts a Cossack officer in uniform surrounded by radiating strips of straw in a ‘sun-ray’ pattern. Made in 1812 by De Laporte, a prisoner of war who was Petty Officer on the ‘Intrepide’, captured off Cape Trafalgar.”   Measurements: Length (cm) : 29.3  (11 1/2 inches) (Accession Number: PETMG:E477)

Author Toller continues to describe this picture of a “Cosak Officer” as, “inscribed on the back:–  “Monsieur De Laporte, Prisoner de Guerre, Norman Cross, le troisieme de Juillier, mille huit cent douze.”  ( This is translated as “Mr. De Laporte, Prisoner of War, Norman Cross, the third of July, one thousand eight hundred and twelve”.)

Please note the use of micro-mosaic straw work to create the subject’s costume. Micro-mosaic straw work appears in other pieces thought to have been sold at the Norman Cross Depot’s Market.

Jean De Laporte, straw marquetry Cossack Officer , Made at Norman Cross Depot 1812, Courtesy Peterborough Museum and City Gallery

Jean De Laporte, straw marquetry Cossack Officer, Made at Norman Cross Depot 1812, Courtesy Peterborough Museum and City Gallery

Toller also states, “The pair to this brilliant piece of work can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  This “Monbars Leader of the Buccaneers”  is inscribed with the same name, but an earlier date: –“Le Quatorzieme d’Aout, mille suit cent dix” (or The Fourteenth of August, one thousand eight hundred and ten). In her 1965 book she offers a very poor photograph of the inscription on the back of the piece, however the Victoria and Albert Museum cite the maker as unknown.  Perhaps it merits an additional look as author Lloyd says the piece “Monbars Leader of Buckaneers” at the Victoria and Albert Museum is signed by De Laporte .

 Other than Toller’s description, there is no indication these two works were ever meant as a pair.

Monbars Leader of Buckaneers, possibly by Jean de Laporte, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

“Monbars Leader of Buckaneers”, possibly by Jean de Laporte, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

A second picture “Monbars Leader of the Buckaneers” is in the collection of the Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight also dated 1810. (Museum number LL9275)  It would be interesting to compare the two and note any small differences.

Our research indicates it was not unusual for prisoners at Norman Cross Depot to barter or pay for the items necessary to produce their straw works from the monies they earned.  De Laporte at times used prints as references to create his works of the outside world as seen in the next image. How else would he have been able to produce recognizable locations he never would have seen?  Prisoners of that time welcomed any form of communication with the world beyond their prison walls.

The next image is described by Peterborough Museum as:

“Glazed straw marquetry picture on wood, framed in a heavy grooved wood frame. Depicts a group of beggars/peasant family surrounded by straw radiating out in a ‘sun-ray’ pattern within an octagonal surround. (After a German print). Made by De Laporte, a prisoner of war who was Petty Officer on the ‘Intrepide’, captured off Cape Trafalgar. ”   Measurements: Length (cm) : 29.0 ( 11.4 inches)    (Accession Number: PETMG:E419)

ean De Laporte, straw marquetry Beggar Family , Made at Norman Cross Depot 1812, Courtesy Peterborough Museum and City Gallery

Jean De Laporte, straw marquetry Beggar Family, made at Norman Cross Depot 1812, Courtesy Peterborough Museum and City Gallery

Finally a view of Peterborough Cathedral described by Walker in 1913 as being a favorite subject of De Laporte.  From Blackwood’s Magazine, Volume 195, April 1914 article entitled, “Norman Cross”:

“One of the most beautiful of these objects is a picture of Peterborough Cathedral, marvelously worked in coloured straw by a certain Jean de la Porte, who had been taken prisoner at Trafalgar.”

Peterborough Museum offers the following description for the work of Jean De Laporte as:

“Rectangular gold, orange, green and brown coloured straw marquetry picture, depicting the North West front of Peterborough Cathedral. The picture is framed with a large heavy brown wood and plaster moulded frame, with moulded leaf decoration. According to the Yorkshire Post (1901) ‘It is the largest piece of Norman Cross straw work known to be in existence’ (though there is a larger picture in the Peterborough Museum collection).   Measurements: Length (cm) : 76.0  (30 inches)  (Accession Number: PETMG:E458)”

Jean De LaPorte Peterborough Cathedral , Courtesy Peterborough Museum Collection

Jean De LaPorte Peterborough Cathedral, Courtesy Peterborough Museum Collection

Toller further relates William Strong, Archdeacon of Northampton (1797-1842), a frequent visitor to Norman Cross Depot who noted in his diary that he “paid £2 2s.0d. for a large straw work picture of Peterborough Cathedral (the work of De Laporte).”  T.J. Walker confirms another diary entry by Archdeacon Strong, in 1811, in which he paid 2 guineas for  “a straw marquetry picture of the Minster”.

Regarding De Laporte’s recurring Peterborough Cathedral subject, Thomas Bagshawe writing in The Romance of the Straw Hat, published in 1933 by Luton Museum, says the image was copied from an engraving of the northwest view of Peterborough Cathedral published in 1807.  He claims Jean De Laporte sold his picture for five guineas.

Stunning work produced in difficult conditions, and attributed to an identified Napoleonic Prisoner of War Straw Artist, who proudly thought to name, sign, date and state his location on his works. Other straw pieces, although unsigned at Peterborough and other museums are speculated to have been attributed to him due to the craftsmanship or subject matter.

Napoleonic prisoner of war straw artist, prisoners of Norman Cross Depot, Norman Cross Depot, The Straw Shop

Jean De Laporte Landscape, Courtesy Peterborough Museum Collection

On the Peterborough database there is a landscape signed J Delaporte. (Accession Number E447)  described as:

” Glazed straw marquetry picture on wood, framed in a black frame with gold ball beading in stepped seams. Depicts a river scene (landscape) with a bridge, a boat and 2 men fishing. Artist is possibly J Delaporte, one of the better known prisoners.” Length (cm) : 25.5 (10 inches).

There are other landscapes  (well at least one) very similar but not signed. There are also other views of Peterborough Cathedral very similar but not signed.(Accession Numbers:  E420, E453, E458, E586, E585, E600).

There is also speculation there were others working for him under his direction. It would require some serious examination to compare his signed work and those attributed to him but not signed.

The Straw Shop set out to introduce an identified, Napoleonic prisoner of war straw artist.  If De Laporte had not produced and labelled his straw work the way he did, he would have joined the thousands and thousands of later forgotten names of prisoners during those war years. But he did sign his work and as a result his story is known, his ship is known, the battle he was captured in is known. The Straw Shop did find conflicting references as to the French Naval rank held by  De Laporte.  Whichever, Corporal or Petty Officer, his ship and crew became prisoners of Britain during the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21st, 1805.  Landing in England at Portsmouth, he was transferred to Norman Cross Depot on January 8, 1806.  While incarcerated there in the best accommodations the Depot offered to those of his rank, he excelled as a paid artist, until as late as possibly August 1814 when the prison was closed. The known works in this article are dated 1810 and 1812.  Once released from prison, he simply disappears into history.  So that his story as an identified and authenticated Napoleonic War Prisoner and Straw Artist does not disappear altogether this article is presented.  As always, additional information on this 200 plus year old subject is welcomed.

Thank you Peterborough Museum and City Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum for sharing your Collections with the public.  Thank you Portsmouth Museum for sharing your straw collection with The Straw Shop.  Thank you Veronica Main for additional reference material.

 

Copyright 2019, Jan Huss/The Straw Shop

 

On the subject of unsigned work that may be attributed to De Laporte is a box in a book shape in the Portsmouth Museum Collection. The quality of the micro-mosaic straw work throughout this box is extraordinary and is very much in De Laporte’s style. It would be fascinating to compare a signed known work of his with this one to note any similarities or differences.   The Straw Shop is pleased to share detailed and enlarged images from that piece:

micro mosaic straw work, Portsmouth Museum, The Straw Shop

Top of Portsmouth Museum box, Courtesy Portsmouth Museum

The outside of the box shows some wear but it is the micro straw work that brings this character alive. Do you notice any similarity to (reversed image) to “Monbars Leader of Buckaneers” at the Victorian and Albert Museum? Are there similarities to the “Monbars Leader of Buckaneers” in the Lady Lever Gallery?

Napoleonic straw Portsmouth Museum, The Straw Shop

Lady with streamer on Portsmouth Museum box, Courtesy Portsmouth Museum

The straw ribbon on this piece is so masterfully executed as are the other elements shown.

Napoleonic straw Portsmouth Museum, The Straw Shop

Inside lid of Portsmouth Museum box, Courtesy Portsmouth Museum

The inside lid depicts a scene of a cat up a tree with a dog pointing his master to it, and a man stopping a boy from going after the cat.

This is clearly the work of a master straw craftsman.  It would be interesting to know if this beautiful and humorous box was worked by De Laporte. Without true examination we may never know.  How many other pieces produced by De Laporte still exist today?