At the end of July I was lucky enough to attend the press preview of the Nelson and Norfolk exhibition at Norwich’s Castle Museum, to write a feature for September’s edition of Concrete. The exhibition is home to a number of historically important items which chart Nelson’s life and career, with its most headline-grabbing being the musket ball which killed the British Admiral at the Battle of Trafalgar, loaned from the royal collection and normally on display at Windsor Castle.
It was a really interesting experience to see the exhibition before its opening. I’ve never walked through a museum with the fronts of glass cases open and staff on stepladders drilling the brackets for exhibits into the walls before.
Anyway, snapping out of my Ben Stiller fantasy, I was given a tour of the exhibits by Andy, a member of staff at Norfolk County Council’s museum service who was really helpful and explained the stories behind some of the huge number of exhibits packed into the adjoining areas of the Castle’s temporary exhibition space.
The exhibition is divided into various sections dealing with different aspects of Nelson’s legacy, many including contemporary items from around the turn of the nineteenth century. These include areas dedicated to Nelson’s birth and upbringing, his naval victories and contemporary celebration, his funeral and his legacy. There have been several big loans from national collections, as well as items curated from across the Norfolk Museums Service along with other local museums like the Yarmouth Sailors’ Home and private collections.
An enormous French ensign from the ship Le Généreux greets visitors at the very start and end of the exhibition, as soon as you get through the doors. The sheer scale of it is enormous, and it is even more impressive when you consider the fact that there is not enough room to display the entire flag, with a portion rolled up in front of the display plinth and visible through a small perspex window. Much of the original dust and gunpowder is still on the dull, tattered fabric. Originally used on a French ship, it was symbolically captured by Napoleon and gifted to the city of Norwich where it has been stored in various locations ever since, and is on public display for the first time in years.
There is currently a crowdfunding effort underway to pay for the ongoing preservation of the ensign and its future display once this exhibition is over. You can donate here.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is an enormous portrait of Napoleon which looks over the rooms painted by contemporary William Beechey. Its ornately crafted wooden frame is perhaps as interesting as the painting itself. Either side of the portrait sits cases, one of which holds two of Napoleon’s swords including one depicted in the portrait, while the other includes Napoleon’s hat worn during the battle of the Nile which he afterwards gifted to Beechey. In a nice quirk of curation, there is a picture hung in the entrance to the main exhibition of a scene which includes the very same Beechey portrait shortly before visitors get to see the real thing.
These are accompanied in the Castle by several other paintings loaned in from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich of Nelson’s fleet in action in the Battle of the Nile by Thomas Whitcombe, Nelson painted almost like a religious figure by Scott-Pierre-Nicolas Legrand to commemorate his death alongside the Norfolk Museums Service’s own Fred Roe’s retrospective work from the early 1900s The Return of the Hero, depicting Nelson’s welcome back to Norfolk after another victory.
Two really interesting items have been loaned from local schools where Nelson was educated. Although he did not study there for long, what is now Paston College donated a brick which a young Nelson may have carved his initials in. Possibly. What is even more interesting is a cannonball used in the Battle of Copenhagen. The story goes that it was found embedded in a wall and many years later a group of Norwich School students on a school trip in the Danish capital were presented with the cannonball to take ‘back’ with them to Norfolk.
Nelson’s Norfolk heritage is evident throughout the exhibition, with several items of local significance including the Burnham Thorpe parish register in which Nelson’s birth has been recorded and annotated in the margin by members of his family with details of some of his naval victories.
Napoleon’s relationship with Emma Hamilton is explored through pictures and items including a cutting of one of her dresses embroidered with Nelson’s name and an embroidered silk of the pair together.
Also a part of the section dealing with Nelson’s personal life is a locket supposedly containing a clipping of Napoleon’s hair. Like the brick, the provenance is not certain but short of ruining the item by doing a DNA test, historians are as happy as they can be that some of the hair belongs to Napoleon.
The section to one end of the exhibition, after the deadly yet surprisingly small musket ball encased within a locket, deals with Napoleon’s funeral, with a selection of illustrations and silks marking the occasion. One of the black velvet drapes from Nelson’s funeral car, bearing the gilded cardboard (!) word ‘Trafalgar’ which was saved from the vehicle has been reunited in the same room as a silk hatchment used at the funeral march for the first time since the soon after the ceremony when the car was dismantled.
Another area takes care of the memorial to Nelson in Great Yarmouth. Perhaps the most intriguing item in this section is the old concrete head of the figure of Britannia from the memorial which was replaced with a fibreglass replica in the 1980s because it was damaged and weighing heavily on the enormous column. A little known fact is that the Yarmouth memorial actually predates the far better known Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
Several pieces of the exhibition feature ceremonial everyday items made of wood taken from HMS Victory. A copper plate from the hull of Napoleon’s Trafalgar flagship where he was mortally wounded is also on display, despite the ship remaining intact and open to the public in Portsmouth.
Perhaps my favourite piece, however, is Napoleon’s blue velvet jacket from the battle of the Nile with gold buttons and trim, which he gave to a sculptor who had created a bust of him. Perhaps already conscious of his legacy, he gave it to her unwashed and it has been preserved so well that there is a large and clearly visible patch of pomatum, a popular hair product of the time.
After the exhibition, I spoke to curator Ruth Battersby Tooke who kindly agreed to an interview despite seeming to be rushed off her feet on the final day of preparation before her exhibition opened to the public.
After much deliberation, she named the ensign as her favourite piece in the exhibition, explaining that: “it hasn’t been seen in public for 100 years, so this is really a once in a century, not just a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this incredible survivor from the French Revolutionary Wars.”
She also noted the quality of loans arranged from national exhibitions to local public and private collections since work got underway on planning the exhibition last spring: “What I think has really got people excited is that we’ve had fantastic national loans, from national museums: the National Maritime Museum, Her Majesty the Queen, the Royal Collection, but also there are a couple of objects from private collections, which have never been seen before in public, which is very exciting.
“Also, places like Nelson’s schools [have loaned items] so we really tried to get a broad range of lenders to bring them all here at once and put them all in one room.”
Ms Battersby Tooke described some of the challenges of curating an exhibition in a shorter time frame than usual, explaining: “It was very daunting to get the Beechey portrait of Nelson off the wall of Blackfriars Hall, I have to say personally I’m just really glad I wasn’t there that day because I think I would have been in bits!”
She concluded by praising the “museum service full of amazing professionals with incredibly professional skills and also passion and dedication for enabling objects to speak,” and being able to “overcome those complexities.”
Nelson and Norfolk is now open and runs until Sunday 30th September. You can read more about the exhibition in the freshers’ edition of Concrete, out in September.