Monday, 21 October 2013

Trafalgar Day

Today is the 208th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. We recently installed in our Navy Gallery the classic 1876 engraving "Death of Nelson"  by Charles W. Sharpe, based on the 1861 painting by Daniel Maclise.

1) "The Death of Nelson"  MMA, M2011.102.1, Gift of Adrian Bridgehouse

The engraving shows the dying Nelson on the deck of HMS Victory just after he was felled by a sharpshooter's musket ball on October 21, 1805. Nelson's death during his great final victory is, of course, an iconic moment in Royal Navy history. Maclise's painting followed two other earlier notable paintings with the same title, one by Arthur William Devis in 1805 and the other by Benjamin West in 1806. Maclise was commissioned to do the painting as a mural for the Palace of Westminster. The engraving based on the painting was widely sold and hung above many fireplaces around Nova Scotia.

2) "The Death of Nelson" finished study. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Wikimedia 

 Maclise invested a great deal of time seeking accurate details. He interviewed Trafalgar survivors and studied period equipment.  However, the painting is still a stylized view of the event with a composition that compresses the sweeping decks of HMS Victory and avoids the fact that Nelson was quickly taken below decks to die. The artist also chose to emphasize the diversity of age, race and gender in the Royal Navy during the sailing era. This produced fascinating portraits of the people around Nelson and gives the work a greater meaning, communicating not only the veneration of Nelson but also the courage and suffering of the ordinary people in Victory's crew.
3) This detail in the engraving shows a "powder monkey", a very young member of Victory's crew, bringing gunpowder from the magazine to a gun crew on the deck. 

4) A central figure in the work is one of Victory's African crew members who has spotted the French sharpshooter and is directing a Royal Marine to exact quick retribution.

5) This woman features prominently in the engraving. Wives of long-serving British sailors were regularly found aboard some warships where they served, unpaid, to care for wounded and load cartridges.

Neither Victory nor Nelson ever came to Nova Scotia (although Nelson did spend some time in Quebec).  However, the Battle of Trafalgar affected our region. Atlantic Canadians of all ranks served in the Royal Navy and fought at Trafalgar and there is an ongoing search to identify the region's Trafalgar veterans which you can read about on historian Keith Mercer's blog. Nova Scotians welcomed the assertion of naval security that resulted from the battle. They shared in the mourning for the loss of Nelson, a legacy that was seen for decades in the naming of not only ships but children after Nelson, Victory and Trafalgar. That is why our museum, like most maritime museums in the Commonwealth, has a Victory model on display.
 6) The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic's Victory model and "Death of Nelson" engraving.

Into the 20th century, Nelson came to embody the fighting spirit and tradition of service which the Royal Canadian Navy inherited from the British Royal Navy. In fact, the RCN arranged for its first flagship, HMCS Niobe, to arrive in Halifax on Trafalgar Day in 1910.

7) HMCS Niobe steams past Georges Island arriving in Halifax on Trafalgar Day, 1910. MMA, MP31.7.6

Our colleagues at the Naval Museum of Halifax, formerly the Maritime Command Museum, marked this year's Trafalgar Day by unveiling a just-acquired ship portrait of Niobe. It is a rare painting of the ship created when Niobe was still in commission by the ship portrait artist A.J. Janson. 

8) Richard Sanderson at the Naval Museum of Halifax with the newly unveiled portrait of Niobe. MMA, Gerry Lunn

9) The white ensign flying at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on Trafalgar Day 2013.

Our museum continues to mark Trafalgar Day by flying a very large ensign in honour of the battle. This flag was actually flown above HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England in the 1970s. It was donated to the museum a few years ago by Tom Barlow who was given the flag by his grandfather. Weather permitting we hoist the large ensign on important naval anniversaries, especially Trafalgar Day.

1 comment:

  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.