There are many reasons to visit Greenwich – the Cutty Sark, the world’s meridian, the painted hall, the Queen’s House and the permanent collections at the National Maritime Museum are a few of them. Now there are 2 more great reasons as the National Maritime Museum has opened its Nelson Galleries as well as a wonderful exhibition about Turner, one of my favourite painters. I was luckily enough to be shown around by the Curators for both exhibitions which is a privilege so if you ever see one advertised, do book yourself onto it for the inside track you get, bringing the exhibition to life.
Firstly Turner whose work is dominated by the sea but this is the first time that an exhibition has explicitly featured this, so ‘Turner and the Sea’ is very welcome. We can see 100 paintings from his first exhibited work through to his later masterpieces. Accompanying paintings show his influencers, particularly the Dutch sea painters the van de Velders.
The sea was also a dominating influence on Britain at that time with fears of invasion and the growth of the navy which makes a neat link with the Nelson galleries which I feature below. We see his work grow and develop as the exhibition takes a chronological approach. The display gives the viewer plenty of space and light to enjoy the sections and themes and to admire the brilliance of his work.
Turner felt a great affinity with the working man and many of his paintings feature sailors, and dock workers.
Turner never went anywhere without a sketchbook and to me, these are every bit as impressive as the finished works. One room has several cases showing these books as well as preparatory works.
This final room has a breathtaking collection of his final seascapes which caused considerable controversy at the time with a great deal of sniping from the critics. To our eyes, they look as if they could be from the 20th century, not the mid 19th, as he was painting beyond the rules and conventions of his time.
This is one of his last paintings before his death in 1851. The Turner bequest left his work to the National Gallery, subsequently to the Tate and over 20,000 pieces were donated and are kept for us to enjoy.
You’ll need a good rest before heading to the Nelson Galleries and there are plenty of good places to eat in Greenwich, including an Eel and Pie shop if you are feeling brave enough for this east London speciality! Back in the National Maritime Museum, up on the top floor, is a new set of galleries dedicated to Horatio Nelson, one of Britain’s greatest naval heroes who won the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the subject of the wonderful Turner painting photographed above. Sadly he died as the battle was won but the nation was extremely grateful and his legend lives on as we enjoy Trafalgar Square in his honour and visit his tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.
The galleries take you through Nelson’s life but also gives the visitor an intriguing insight in the times Nelson lived in. The exhibition is called Nelson, Navy and Nation and all three elements are explored for us in fascinating detail. We learn about life on the battleships and not just for the officers, and the lasting impact the victory had on the nation. The collection of ‘tat’ that was made to celebrate Trafalgar and Nelson’s previous victory in Egypt is fun to see, from mugs to wallpaper his face was on everything and it feels rather contemporary in nature but our celebrity obsessions are nothing new.
The high point for me is the return of Nelson’s jacket from France where it’s been on loan awaiting the new gallery. We are so lucky to have the jacket he was shot and killed in and you can see the bullet hole in the left shoulder where the French sniper’s bullet entered and lodged in his spine, leading to his death at the age of 47. He was a slight man and the jacket has an elegance and a poignancy as a unique historical garment.
We also learn about British society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and how the popularity of the navy waxed and waned and the sheer scale of the dockyards, especially at Portsmouth which was the biggest industrial complex the world had ever seen. At the more personal level, we see the love tokens exchanged before sailors went off on their perilous, long and unpredictable journeys and the letters sent home. Contrary to the popular myth of the King’s shilling, most sailors were not press-ganged, except during war, as the work was attractive with generally good conditions. These were skilled men so captains would not want random men pulled off the street to be manning their ships. However, with an official entry age of 11, some were not so much volunteers as volunteered! For those further up the social scale, the navy was seen as a respectable profession for a gentleman. One other unexpected piece of information was the number of women on board these ships, some for the obvious reasons but others accompanying their husbands.
Nelson’s strategic and tactical genius is highlighted and you can explore this through a very impressive interactive game with both French and English fleets so you can experience the battle plans and how they played out. It had not been all success for him and I was fascinated to read a letter Nelson wrote following a previous defeat in battle where he says he will learn from his mistakes – and he did!
The exhibition really makes you think about the importance of the Navy at that time to this island nation and the impact that Nelson had on his era. These new galleries will give the visitor a great deal of food for thought and are well worth a visit.