Fit for a hero

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
John Crossland samples the 200th anniversary exhibition of Nelson.

The hero is back in the curriculum as a phenomenon that can affect the course of history and has, since the summer, provoked heated debate. But should Nelson, for example, be regarded as a nationalistic role-model, as members of the History Curriculum Association argue, or treated as a daring exponent of military strategy, as the History Review school of thought believes?

The 200th anniversary exhibition of Nelson (1758-1805), which opened last month at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, south London, could not be more opportune, celebrating as it does the decade of victories that made Nelson a national hero and gave Britain command of the waves for a century.

Nelson answered the need for a naval hero when Napoleon dominated Europe, and in each of his three victories, the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar, altered the balance of power in favour of a desperately isolated Britain. The last victory won Britain control of the seas until the First World War.

The permanent new Nelson gallery is the late James Gardner's swansong as a designer; with Dr Eric Kentley of the museum's staff, he has reinterpreted the legend coolly and impartially without losing the strong romantic appeal.

That the legend was largely Nelson's own creation is perhaps the most dramatic revelation of this show. Six hundred exhibits, chosen from the great mass of surviving memorabilia all proclaim - from painted vase to engraved weapons, from exotic foreign orders to bijouterie in hideous taste - the greatness of the parson's son from rural Norfolk.

A close friend, the Earl of Minto, wrote after a weekend with Nelson and Emma Hamilton at Merton, their country retreat: "Not only the rooms, but the whole house, staircase and all, are covered with nothing but pictures of her and him; of all sizes and sorts, and representations of his naval actions, coats of arms. . .an excess of vanity which counteracts its own purpose."

It was, however, in no way out of tune with popular mood. Nelson may have been snubbed by George III at a royal levee for abandoning his wife, but whenever he stepped ashore he was followed around by an adoring crowd, to whom he was, simply, the Hero.

He was their saviour. For, as Gardner proclaims in "Chaos and anarchy", the banner introducing a section on Nelson's rise to fame during the French Revolution: "The stage is set for the appearance of a national saviour".

And as the commentary points out, it became quite common posthumously to portray Nelson in Christ-like attitudes, most famously in Arthur Davis's great 1807 canvas of his lingering death in Victory's cockpit. His emaciated body, bathed in golden light and surrounded by sorrowing shipmates, is more reminiscent of a Deposition from the Cross than the "butcher's shambles" of contemporary descriptions, with surgeon's mates scurrying about, depositing severed limbs in barrels.

Every stitch of the clothing in which the admiral fell was reverently preserved, along with other manna reflecting his glory - bits of Victory's shot-riddled sides and a cannon ball found embedded in them. But the most revered relic, loaned by the Queen until next February, is the musket ball which, in Nelson's own words, "did for (him) at last". The tiny lump of lead, 1.5cm in diameter, is misshapen from impact with his backbone and is wreathed in gold braid from the epaulette which was carried deep into the wound. Together with a length of silvery hair, still tied en queue with black ribbon, which was cut from his corpse in deference to his last wish to "leave his hair to Lady Hamilton", it lies with his uniform on a replica black velvet, canopied catafalque, which Gardner has made one of the two focal points of the exhibition.

The "undress" uniform coat - torn in the left shoulder at the bullet's entry point and spangled with the decoration which made Nelson such a prime target - with his white cotton breeches, cut from him to ease his last agony, and his blood-sodden knee stockings embroidered "N" and "B" for Nelson and Bronte, the twin titles he received for the Battle of the Nile, sprawl in their display as Nelson himself did on the quarterdeck, at 1.30pm on October 21, 1805.

The second focal point, opposite the catafalque, is a computer-animated version of Trafalgar, which has been created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, originators of the Muppets. Here virtual reality comes to the aid of a school group leader try-ing to make sense of naval warfare under sail for his charges whose comprehension encompasses only post-nuclear, electronic combat.

Framed by two shattered pieces of Victory's foremast and jib-boom, the British fleet sails into view in two parallel lines, to pierce the Franco-Spanish line. The young visitor can appreciate at a glance the "Nelson touch", the plan for a "victory of annihilation" which, as he told Emma in his penultimate letter, "came as an electric shock to his captains".

Victory, her tiger-striped sides belching smoke and flame, breaks through between the Redoutable and the Bucentaure, her yardarms snagging their rigging, and they sway on the oily swell, locked in mortal conflict.

It is not only Nelson's ruthless innovations in naval tactics, sweeping away the leisurely promenading which prevented clear-cut victory in the 18th century, that marked him out as a modern man. "I always act as I feel right, without regard to custom," is the quote above the bay devoted to his service record, and that could apply to his disdain of establishment disapproval over Emma Hamilton as easily as his coup in taking the fleet through shoal waters and enveloping and destroying Napoleon's invasion squadron at the mouth of the Nile, thus changing the balance of maritime power in the Mediterranean at a stroke.

The exhibition doesn't shirk the implications of the Hamiltons' open marriage, nor Nelson and Emma's cohabitation at "Paradise Merton". A reconstruction of the parlour, redolent of Jane Austen's England, detached from the horrors of the Napoleonic wars, brings together items from the actual setting - Emma's worktable, the dog Nileus's silver collar, and the overmantle mirror set with Nelson's coat of arms.

The artefacts are complemented by an effective written commentary and a continuous metallic information band which runs beneath the cases and, using profiles of Nelson's ships and various logos, sets the object above in the context of his life.

Nelson's own quotations are set above cabinets, displaying artefacts from that period of his life, with cards giving potted updates of the course of the Napoleonic wars.

The sickly boy who at 18 "resolved to be a hero" and by 45 had leapfrogged more than 80 other candidates for the rank of Vice-Admiral and become the only choice for command of the main striking force against Napoleon's invasion plans, will continue to hold his place as the "necessary hero" with this, now permanent exhibition's aid.

PLANNING FOR THE DECADE Plans for future events are still fluid but will include ceremonies to mark the key anniversaries of Cape St Vincent 1997; The Nile 1998; Copenhagen 2001 and Trafalgar 2005 NELSON IN THE CURRICULUM

Primary: five to seven-year-olds must be taught about the lives of different kinds of famous men and women, including personalities drawn from British history, of which Nelson is a prominent example.

Secondary: 11 to 14-year-olds can study Nelson in the overview of the Napoleonic wars. "As part of this unit, pupils must study in depth at least one of the main events, personalities or developments of the period" - examples which are listed in the statutory Order are Nelson and Wellington.

FACILITIES FOR SCHOOL GROUPS

The new education centre opened in April at the National Maritime Museum has brought in local secondary teacher Tony Hier to develop resources for school visits. Teachers will be able to work with groups in the gallery with particular reference to key stage 3 of the national curriculum and will receive packs with photocopies of key Nelson documents - his letters, battle plans, etc.

"We will be presenting information, making sure the children know there are different interpretations of what makes the hero," says a spokesman. "It will take the debate through to what constitutes a hero today."

The museum is open daily, 10am to 5pm. Special arrangements for school parties should be made with the education department, tel: 0181 312 6608.

For imaginative contact with Nelson's world afloat, there can be no better example than his flagship, Victory, at the Royal Navy Dockyard Museum in Portsmouth, where there are further artefacts and documents.

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