Posted July 2017
The ‘Nelson & Norfolk’ Exhibition
“I am myself a Norfolk man,” to the Immortal Memory of Lord Nelson.
Admiral Lord Nelson (1758 –1805) and his affection for his native county of Norfolk is the subject of a major exhibition entitled ‘Nelson & Norfolk’. It’s a one-off exhibition curated by the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery that runs from 29th July to 1st of October.
The exhibition includes:
- An early French Tricolour Ensign captured from the French warship Le Généreux in 1800.
- The single bullet (or musket ball), which mortally wounded Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, generously lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection.
- Nelson’s undress coat and hat worn at the Battle of the Nile, reunited for the first time for more than 100 years.
- A locket containing two different locks of hair – possibly that of Nelson and Emma Hamilton.
- A black velvet drape from Nelson’s funeral car, together with the commemorative hatchment. Both were used at his funeral and not seen together since circa 1826.
A collection of extraordinary objects
The exhibition displays some of the most extraordinary objects connected to Nelson, from his boyhood in Norfolk to his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
The centerpiece is the 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 one of England’s greatest heros.
Although Le Généreux was one of only two ships from the French fleet to escape this historic battle, on 18th February 1800 it was subsequently captured, 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. It was surrendered to Sir Edward Berry and immediately despatched as a gift to the City of Norwich.
It’s one of the largest (it measures 16m x 8.3m that’s roughly the size of a tennis-court) and most iconic objects connected to Norfolk’s most famous son, Admiral Lord Nelson. It is the first time this historic object has been on public display for more than a century.
Fatally wounded by a single musket ball
In addition to the flag the single bullet (or musket ball), which mortally wounded Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, is also on display.
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”.
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’.” – Ruth Battersby Tooke, Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles at Norwich Castle.
Nelson’s famous coat
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.
The hat, which Nelson wore at this decisive battle is also on display and it’s the first time the coat and hat have been reunited since 1891.
The freedom of Thetford
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), that’s 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.
The Battle of the Nile
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.
The love of his life
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 continued 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 circa 1826.
There’s 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.
Nelson received the surrendered swords
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 exhibit, namely the sword surrendered to Nelson by the Spanish Admiral Xavier Winthuysen after the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14th 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.
Unique items generously loaned by private collectors
Complementing the important loans from major national museums and institutions around the country are unique objects drawn from Norfolk Museums Service’s own Nelson archives.
Plus other local collections in the county including those of Norwich Social History, Fine and Decorative Art, the Great Yarmouth Sailors’ Home, and Nelson’s schools; The Norwich School and Paston College. Numerous items have also been generously loaned by private collectors.
Bringing together authentic material
Nelson & Norfolk exhibition 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.
Nelson’s affection to Norfolk
A strong theme throughout the exhibition 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).
To be enjoyed by future generations
A recent Just Giving fundraising project was launched in a bid to raise £5,000 towards the £40,000 cost of preserving the exhibition’s centrepiece and to provide accessible storage. This will allow it to be enjoyed by visitors to other venues and to be featured in a proposed permanent display in Norwich.
Please check online for specific admission prices and opening times.
Please note that the last admission is half an hour before close and opening times on Sundays are 1pm to 5pm.