Nelson, Navy, Nation: National Maritime Museum's Story of Royal Navy and British People

By Ben Miller | 16 October 2013

Exhibition review: Nelson, Navy, Nation: The Story of the Royal Navy and the British People, 1688-1815, National Maritime Museum, London, from October 21 2013

A photo of a mask of an 18th century man against a dark background
Life mask of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (circa 1800). Maker unknown© National Maritime Museum, London
When Admiral Vernon cast a gimlet eye on fame and immortality during the 18th century, he reckoned without the emergence of Nelson a few decades later. A bewigged portrait of Vernon looms within the shadow of medals, cups and a cinema screen on one flank of this major new gallery at the National Maritime Museum, explaining his early designs on coasting into the nation’s affections. But it isn’t long before his imprint is usurped.

A photo of a large naval statue featuring a lion with a crown on its head
Lion figurehead (circa 1720). This heraldic crowned lion holds a small badge of the cross of Saint George. It is a rare survival of a standard Royal Naval lion figurehead from a small warship© National Maritime Museum, London
The adulation afforded to Vernon was boundless after he came good on a pledge to capture Porto Bello, in the Carribean, using only six ships in 1739. Cue fans indented with patriotic poems, hundreds of coat-adorning medals and an imposing white bust of the man. Portobello Road is named after him. The star of this show, even in a section not ostensibly devoted to him, inevitably becomes Nelson though. His life mask peeks out, a rusted wraith, from the very same case.

Nelson became a midshipman before he had even entered adolescence, advancing, it is briefly detailed, through skill, connections and “initiative” at the Battle of St Cape. The Battle of the Nile victory saw him pedestalled as the superstar of an age when naval icons were celebrities, and Francis Abbott’s portraits place Nelson squarely as a handsome hero and endlessly inspirational commander.

Yet it is his tangible fallibility which provides the most intrigue here: witness the strange serenity of the portrait of his white-shirted, head-bandaged torso from the encounter which sealed his eminence. He almost seems ready to fall on his sword in a letter to a fellow Admiral in 1797 when, following a disastrous assault on Tenerife, his right arm had to be amputated. Writing with his left hand for the first time, he expresses a critical-sounding crisis of personal confidence, tested again less than a year later when his storm-battered flagship suffered the ultimate indignity of being towed to safety. This embarrassment, Nelson decided, was punishment for his prior pomp.

A photo of an illustration showing a sailor with a wooden leg playing a violin
Print of Billy Waters (circa 1820). Born in America during the War of Independence, Waters was a sailor who lost his right leg as a result of falling from the topsail yard of the Ganymed. Unable to serve at sea, he became a famous London street entertainer© National Maritime Museum, London
Nelson was not the only seafarer to suffer. We see American-born draughtsmen bereft of legs after falling from their rigging, an officer struggling to pay his way during the peaceful 1820s, a wooden-calved “Greenwich Pensioner” gesturing at Greenwich Hospital and even, during the late 18th century, sailors forced to beg – “the anguish in his eye”, as a Robert Sayer mezzotint from the time suggests. Admirals are court-marshalled and executed (one oil features row after row of a firing squad, cartoonish in pointy red-and-black hats) or lionised for their exalted loyalty in earthenware and bowls.

The public may not have known what to make of the sailors they actually encountered, with rumours of unruly behaviour at sea evolving into a perception of land-lubbered deck-treaders as Punch-and-Judy style figures. But the nation knew that the country’s hopes of punching the French off the face of the earth, as a propaganda-packed James Gillray cartoon reminiscent of the museum’s recent Broadsides knockabout has it, lay in their hands.

Few personal items owned by sailors survived, but those that did are fantastic – love tokens, a letter to a wife about a sick daughter, clothes and a series of previously unseen watercolours by crew member Gabriel Bray. Instrumental incisors are put to delightful use in trepanning – the act of cutting a hole in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain. A bone saw, a double-edged knife, a red box full of tiny blades, scissors and measurers are the accompanying daggered implements.

An image of a painting of an admiral during the 18th century
John Francis Rigaud Captain Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805 (1781). A three-quarter-length portrait to right in captain's full-dress uniform, over three years seniority, 1774-87© National Maritime Museum, London
Elsewhere, a masthead and lightning conductor from the French flagship, L’Orient, are about as dramatic as any maritime relic imaginable, secured by Nelson himself. Cannonballs fire the imagination, including a 32-pounder which required seven men to operate and a bar shot fired at the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar, killing eight Royal Marines.

Napoleon surfaces in oil form, captured, bloated, stern-faced, leaning next to a conveniently-placed Union Jack under the watch of servicemen from a land where he was villainised. Stage left, a box is lined by some of the 20,933 medals awarded to sailors during the 22 years of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Among the affecting stories is that of James Sharman, a young man at Trafalgar who became the keeper of a monument devoted to Nelson, where he would sit, answering questions, reflecting on his service.

Sharman was a seaman who helped carry the wounded Admiral below deck during the battle. The Death of Nelson, one of several vast canvasses, pictures Nelson as the jaundiced Messiah, lit by a fading light and surrounded by his men. Yet the painting speaks less than his stockings and breeches, cut away by surgeons about to realise they would not save him. In a suite of spaces full of reverential bravado, the simplest of artefacts carry the greatest power.

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission free. Follow the museum on Twitter @NMMGreenwich.

More pictures:

Lemuel Francis Abbott, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson (1799)© National Maritime Museum, London
An image of a painting of various naval ships at sea during the 18th century
John Cleveley, the Elder, The Royal George at Deptford Showing the Launch of the Cambridge (1757)© National Maritime Museum, London
An image of a painting of sailors on the deck of a naval boat at war in the 18th century
Dighton, Denis, The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (circa 1825)© National Maritime Museum, London
An image of a painting of various dignitaries around a table on a ship during the 18th century
William Hogarth,, Captain Lord George Graham, 1715-47, in his Cabin (1742-44)© National Maritime Museum, London
An image of an 18th century painting of an admiral clubbing alligators in a shallow sea
James Gillray; H. Humphrey, 'Extirpation of the Plagues of Egypt; - Destruction of Revolutionary Crocodiles; - or - The British Hero cleansing ye mouth of ye Nile (published October 6 1798)© National Maritime Museum, London
An image of an 18th century coin showing a naval admiral against gold lettering
Metal disc, maker unknown (circa 1740)© National Maritime Museum, London
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