The exhibition presents some of the most extraordinary and potent objects connected to Nelson, from his boyhood in Norfolk to his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
Ruth Battersby Tooke, Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles at Norwich Castle, said: “The exhibition is built around key objects such as this emblematic ensign, with its remarkable history. In explaining the story of the ensign, together with those of each of the other important exhibits, we are providing insights into Nelson and his times, the cult of his personality and the way he has been lionised and commemorated. The exhibition’s main themes are Nelson’s extraordinary legacy, his reputation and the ongoing nature of his ‘Immortal Memory’.”
Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
Castle Hill, Norwich
Tel. +44 (0)1603 495897
Extracts from the press release:
The undisputed centerpiece is the highly important, early French Tricolour – the monumental Ensign (or flag) of the French warship Le Généreux, which took part in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. A British victory, the battle sealed Nelson’s reputation as England’s greatest hero.
Although Le Généreux was one of only two ships of the line from the French fleet to escape this historic battle, it was subsequently captured, on 18 February 1800 by Nelson’s flag captain Sir Edward Berry, on board the HMS Foudroyant.
When the huge Ensign of Le Généreux was “struck”, that is removed from the flagpole at the rear of the ship, and surrendered to Sir Edward Berry, it was immediately despatched as a gift to the City of Norwich. One of the largest (it measures 16m x 8.3m – roughly the size of a tennis-court) and most iconic objects connected to Norfolk’s most famous son, Admiral Lord Nelson, this is the first time this historic object has been on public display for more than a century.
A Just Giving fundraising project has been launched in a bid to raise £5,000 towards the £40,000 cost of preserving the exhibition’s centrepiece and to provide accessible storage, which will allow it to be enjoyed by visitors to other venues and also to be featured in a proposed permanent display in Norwich. (Please see separate release).
The exhibition will be divided into several sections each one examining a key part or element of Nelson’s life and career starting with his birth and early years in his beloved home county of Norfolk. The Norfolk section will include the Burnham Thorpe Parish Register, the village where Nelson was born, which is annotated in the margin by Nelson’s father, rector of the parish, with dates of significant milestones and naval victories. The register will be displayed alongside the poignant “Dear, dear Burnham letter” written by Nelson in 1804. Also of interest is a Freedom Box, presented to Nelson by the Corporation of Thetford following the decision to bestow upon him the Freedom of the town in 1798.
Personalia from Strangers’ Hall in Norwich include a lock of Nelson’s hair, owned originally by Captain Hardy and given to Norwich Museums in 1847, a napkin bearing the monogram of NB for Nelson Duke of Bronte, an honour conferred to him after the Battle of the Nile, as well as scraps of the British Ensign and sailcloth from HMS Victory. Collectively these diverse objects all illustrate Nelson’s early life and the affection for his home county.
Other sections will focus on The Battle of the Nile, which took place on 1 August 1798, Naples and Emma, Nelson’s Death, and finally his Funeral.
Extremely apt to be exhibited together with the Ensign from Le Généreux is Nelson’s famous coat, which he wore at the Battle of the Nile kindly loaned by the National Maritime Museum Greenwich. Made in wool and linen with large brass buttons and gold alloy braiding, this is a typical flag officer’s undress coat of the period. The coat also gives an indication as to how slight Nelson was. Excitingly the hat, which Nelson wore at this decisive battle, is also on display. This is the first time that the coat and hat have been reunited since 1891.
The drama of the final moments of this historic Battle of the Nile are vividly depicted in a dramatic oil painting by artist Thomas Whitcombe. Amidst the smoke from cannons and fires, the magnificent ships are shown with their sails billowing and respective ensigns flying, the foreground littered with debris of wrecked ships and lifeboats filled with sailors lucky to have escaped alive. The painting was executed in 1799 a year after the Battle of the Nile took place.
No exhibition about Nelson can avoid the subject of his time in Naples, where he met the extraordinary Emma Hamilton, who became the love of his life. Particularly poignant is a charming locket (in the collection of Norwich Castle) that contains two different locks of hair. The high quality of the workmanship suggests that it was probably a private commission and there is a possibility that the hair enclosed is that of Nelson and Emma Hamilton, making this a hugely romantic and enigmatic object. Also in this section is the border of a dress embellished in honour of Lord Nelson and worn by Emma Hamilton at Palermo, circa 1799, together with a touching picture embroidered in silk of Nelson and his beloved Emma.
Nelson’s death is illustrated by the painting “The Apotheosis of Nelson” on loan from the National Maritime Museum painted by Scott Pierre Nicolas Legrand circa 1805-18. It clearly conveys the level of hero-worship that Nelson had inspired during his life-time and which was set to continue for generations to come. This highly romantic painting depicts a deified Nelson achieving immortality as he ascends up to the gods on Mount Olympus, while his sailors grieve for him on the decks of the ship below.
[Also on display is the bullet which killed Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805], which is usually on display at Windsor Castle, [which] has been generously lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection, and this is the first time it has been shown in Norfolk, Nelson’s home county.
Measuring 15 mm, the lead shot bullet is mounted in a hinged silver locket together with some remnants of gold lace from Admiral Nelson’s uniform and a small handwritten note with the words “The bullet by which Nelson was killed”.
Although it cost Nelson his life, The Battle of Trafalgar, which took place on the 21 October 1805, is still regarded today as one of Britain’s greatest naval victories.
It was early in the morning on 21 October 1805 that Nelson, in command of the Royal Navy, seized the opportunity to engage with the Franco-Spanish fleet outside the port of Cadiz. Having issued the famous signal ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’, a fierce sea battle ensued.
Nelson directed operations from the decks of the Victory, which was under the command of Captain Hardy. During the battle, Nelson was fatally wounded by a bullet shot by a French sharpshooter from the mizzen-top of the Redoubtable.
The bullet entered his left shoulder, passed diagonally through his spine and lodged in the muscles of his back, causing irreparable damage to his spine and lungs. Crippled with pain Nelson said: ‘They have done for me at last. Hardy… my backbone is shot through’.
Nelson was tended to by the ship’s surgeon William Beatty, but his injuries were too severe for Beatty to be able to save him. Having given instructions for his possessions to be sent to his beloved Emma, Lady Hamilton, and asking to be remembered by her, his family and friends, his dying words were “Thank God, I have done my duty”.
When Beatty extracted the bullet from Nelson’s body it was still fused to lace from the epaulette of Nelson’s jacket. Beatty kept the bullet and Captain Hardy had it mounted into a locket, which he is said to have worn for the rest of his life. On Beatty’s death in 1842 it was presented to Queen Victoria and has remained in the Royal Collection since that day.
On hearing of his death The Times reported: “We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice. The country has gained the most splendid and decisive Victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased”. Nelson’s body was brought back to England and given a state funeral on 9 January 1806. His body was interred in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. Trafalgar Day continues to be recognised and celebrated more than 200 years after Nelson’s death.
Nelson’s funeral resulted in a public demonstration of grief on a national scale. The dramatic black velvet drape from Nelson’s funeral car, together with the painted silk hatchment, both used at his funeral, have not been seen together since the funeral car was dismantled circa 1826.
There is also a uniform worn by a Greenwich Volunteer who guarded Nelson’s coffin during his two-day lying-in-state, a model of the funeral barge made by a French prisoner of war at Norman Cross internment camp, a picture on glass showing Lord Nelson Lying in State by J. Hinton and additional extensive Nelson funeral memorabilia.
Presiding over the exhibition, as a whole, is the large, compelling portrait in oils of Nelson by the artist William Beechey, commissioned by the City of Norwich and completed in 1801. The portrait features another noteworthy exhibit, namely the sword surrendered to Nelson by the Spanish Admiral Xavier Winthuysen after the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797. When two Spanish ships, the San Nicolas and the San Josef, became entangled Nelson was able to board one then the other. On the deck of the San Josef, Nelson received the surrendered swords of the Spanish, including this one. Nelson’s naval officer’s hat, depicted prominently in the portrait and given to the artist William Beechey by Nelson after he sat for the famous portrait, adds further human interest.
Complementing the important loans from major national museums and institutions around the country are additional fascinating and unique objects drawn from Norfolk Museums Service’s own Nelson archives, as well as other local collections in the county including those of Norwich Social History, Fine and Decorative Art, the Great Yarmouth Sailors’ Home, as well as Nelson’s schools; The Norwich School and Paston College. Numerous items have also been generously loaned by private collectors.
Nelson & Norfolk is not intended to be a chronology of the life and times of Nelson illustrated by objects. Instead this exhibition takes its starting point and narrative from the objects themselves. In bringing together so much authentic material, the exhibition reflects the ways in which Nelson has been represented in imagery and how his remarkable life story has been told through objects. Likewise a strong cohesive thread is the affection that Nelson had for the county that ‘gave him birth’ and Norfolk’s immeasurable pride in its most famous son. This is the first time that these objects have ever been presented together in one exhibition.
The exhibition is timely in that coincides with the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Nelson memorial in Great Yarmouth, the county’s most significant memorial to its local hero. It also follows on from the recent exhibition Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich (November 2016 to 17 April, 2017).