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Bellerophon anchors at Plymouth's Big Screen
By Jemima Laing
BBC Devon

Napoleon on the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound, 1815: Jules Girardet 1856-1938
Napoleon on the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound, 1815: Jules Girardet 1856-1938

The few days Napoleon spent anchored in Plymouth Sound are an important part of the city's history.

Now a painting of the chaotic scenes which surrounded his visit has gone up on the back of Plymouth's Big Screen - as part of the Big Blueprint project.

Steve Clement-Large's Argyle Man has been replaced by Napoleon on the Bellerophon by Jules Girardet.

It depicts Plymothians straining to catch sight of the just-defeated Napoleon on board the vessel.

It was anchored in Plymouth Sound in 1815 en route to exile in Elba.

The oil painting was bought by Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in 1909.

It's one of those fascinating facts about Plymouth that Napoleon did actually come here
Councillor Peter Brookshaw

The picture was chosen for the honour after it topped a public poll to find the most popular piece in the museum.

The story of the Bellerophon is an important part of the city's history, with tales of thousands of people taking to the water to snatch a glimpse of Napoleon.

The ship was kept isolated from the throngs of curious sightseers by two guard ships anchored close at hand.

On 4 August 1815 Lord Keith ordered Bellerophon to go to sea and await the arrival of HMS Northumberland which had been designated to take Napoleon into exile on St Helena.

Although the ship was kept isolated while off Plymouth's coast, Napoleon would parade on deck at 6pm each evening, to the delight of the flocks of people crammed into small boats.

Argyle Man by Steve Clement-Large
The painting replaces Steve Clement-Large's Argyle Man

Plymouth historian Chris Robinson said he believed there was some truth in the story that one person drowned on one of the nightly trips out to see Napoleon on deck.

"I think there was at least one fatality with all the Bellerophon madness, there is a picture of the ship in later years without its masts in the dockyard, it's in my new book."

And what about another story that some of the ship's timbers eventually end up as building material for houses in Plymouth?

"Certainly it's feasible as many properties, including mine on the Barbican, were constructed of old ship's timbers," said Chris.

"The wood was mature and well-seasoned and a number of masts were used to build staircases - again my shop in New Street is one of half a dozen or so examples left in Plymouth."

The Plymouth Big Screen is the only one of the country's 18 screens to use the reverse in this innovative way - the project is a collaboration between the council's Arts Unit, Plymouth City Art Gallery and Museum, the BBC and the Plymouth City Centre Company.

"I love this picture," said Councillor Peter Brookshaw.

"It's one of those fascinating facts about Plymouth that Napoleon did actually come here - or was at least moored in the Sound.

"The picture in the museum is enormous and not only does it tell us a bit about our past, it reminds people what we have in our gallery."

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