Marengo’s makeover: conserving Napoleon’s favourite war horse

In this picture, a conservator at the National Army Museum in London holds the skull of Marengo, the most famous of the horses that belonged to French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Named after Napoleon’s victory over the Austrian Empire at the Battle of Marengo in Italy on 14 June 1800, Marengo served on many military campaigns, and was a brave and fearless servant of his master.

Image: National Army Museum

The light grey Arab stallion was captured, along with his owner, at Waterloo in 1815. After his death, the skeleton of Marengo went on display for decades at the Royal United Services Institute, before being moved to the National Army Museum in the 1960s.

His full skeleton is now on show as part of a new exhibition at the museum entitled ‘Conflict in Europe’, which opened last month. The exhibition explores how Britain’s soldiers have fought on the Continent from the 1700s to the present day, including in the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough and the Duke of Wellington – victor of Waterloo – and during the two World Wars.

Joining Marengo on display are some 900 artefacts, including William Siborne’s vast model of the Waterloo battlefield, a bracelet belonging to Florence Nightingale – given to her by the Sultan of Turkey following the Crimean War – and a ‘Jingling Johnny’, a military musical instrument from the 18th-century Middle East.

The museum hopes that, through each of these artefacts, visitors will be able to appreciate the consequences of war for individual soldiers – though, as curator Sophie Stathi explained, few of the items on display are likely to demonstrate these consequences more immediately than the Crimean campaign journal of General Sir Mark Walker.

‘On 10 June 1855, Walker’s handwriting changes dramatically, after a shell fragment smashed his elbow and he had his right arm amputated,’ Stathi revealed, adding: ‘I love it because it is a very personal visual reminder of the impact of battle.’

The opening of ‘Conflict in Europe’ marks a period of renovation for the museum, with a major refreshment of its exhibition spaces. And not long ago Marengo himself underwent some significant conservation. Held together by an ageing metal mount, he had begun to lose his shape.

‘The drooping head and the peculiar stiff position of the legs made him look more like a mule,’ Stathi said at the time. ‘He was one of the most loved objects in the old museum, but every time I came into the gallery, I always thought there was something sad about him.’

In response, experts were called in from the Natural History Museum. After determining that his skeleton, although cracked in places, could take the strain of renovation, a new armature was built to support him – and give him back his shape.

Marengo was also thoroughly cleaned to eradicate the dirt and grime that had built up over the years, particularly around and within his still magnificent skull. •

Conflict in Europe is now open at the National Army Museum in London. Admission to the main galleries is free.