Exhibition | Nelson & Norfolk

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on August 1, 2017

The Battle of the Nile was fought on August 1 and 2 in 1798. Press release (via Art Daily) for the exhibition now on view at Norwich Castle Museum:

Nelson & Norfolk
Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, 29 July — 1 October 2017

Pierre Nicolas Legrand, Apotheosis of Nelson, ca. 1805–18 (Greenwich: National Maritime Museum).

Admiral Lord Nelson (1758–1805) and his affection for his native county of Norfolk is the subject of a major exhibition Nelson & Norfolk, on view at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery from 29 July until 1 October 2017. 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.

The single bullet (or musket ball), which mortally wounded Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, is one of the important objects on display as part of the revelatory exhibition. The bullet, which is usually on display at Windsor Castle 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 15mm, 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.

Another 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 16 × 8.3 meters—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.

Ruth Battersby Tooke, Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles at Norwich Castle, said: “The exhibition is built around key objects such as the fatal bullet and the Ensign, with their remarkable histories. In explaining the story of each of the unique and significant 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’.”

The exhibition is 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 includes 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 is 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 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 (1798–1800), 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 around 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.

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 around 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.

Margaret Dewsbury, Chair of Norfolk County Council Communities Committee said: “The people of Norfolk are understandably proud to claim Nelson as one of our own; with this exhibition we can take stock of what his influence and reputation has meant to both his home county and the country as a whole. We are very grateful to all the lenders to the exhibition whose generosity has enabled us to bring together a truly unique collection of artefacts. To be able to include items which take us from his birth in the beautiful Norfolk village of Burnham Thorpe to his heroic death at Trafalgar is remarkable and moving and will make for an unforgettable experience for visitors.”

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.




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