A favourite from the House

Our House Officer, Robin James looks at an item from our collection. His latest favourite is a beautiful Regency work casket, which throws a sidelight on the Napoleonic wars. Its exterior is a dulled black, but the inside is an exquisite display of craftsmanship.

Robin explains the workbox's origin and significance, and how it came to be part of the collection at West Horsley Place. 

French Prisoners of War  

A staggering number of French prisoners were captured during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), and many were confined to camps in Britain. Whilst housed in camps such those at Portchester Castle, Hampshire and Norman Cross (Peterborough), French prisoners were encouraged to use their time productively. Prisoners who were skilled in carpentry and cabinet making gathered a range of materials such as bone, wood, nails and straw to create some remarkable objects in very poor conditions. These objects could be sold to local British civilians, which would help to supplement the very meagre lives they were forced to lead. Prisoners received very little food and no luxuries so the sale of their wares would have been extremely important.  


The style of straw marquetry used to make this casket was very fashionable in continental Europe in the eighteenth century, and it has been fashioned here into extremely delicate and artfully composed designs. French prisoners of war from this period are known to have been particularly skilled at shaping this material. The maker has used this technique to construct precise geometric borders and panels, and the living animals he has captured are composed of straw pieces only a few millimetres in size.

Distinctive French design

The lidded compartments inside the box are believed to be decorated with scenes from the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, classics of French literature published in the late seventeenth century. As you can see, numerous factors have contributed to the deterioration of the external panels, causing damage to colours, embrittlement of straw and general cracking of the materials.

The inside has been much more effectively preserved as a result of its much-reduced light exposure and the buffering effect of the box itself against atmospheric fluctuations and dust. What remains inside is a wonderful remnant of the object’s original impressive design as it was conceived by its maker.

This one may have been purchased by the Duchess of Roxburghe’s grandfather, Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) who is known to have been greatly interested in Napoleon and the history of France in the early nineteenth century. The fine bust of Napoleon we have on display in the library at West Horsley Place, and our collection of volumes on this period are testament to this.

The casket that we have in our collection at West Horsley Place is a fine example of its type despite its condition. It has a fascinating story and we hope you find it as charming as we do.