Royal Naval Museum

Photo of W L Wyllie and his daughter Aileen painting the Panorama


W L Wyllie and the Panorama of Trafalgar

In the Bicentenary year of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson, a remarkable painting of the Battle celebrated its own 75th anniversary.

The Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar was opened in Portsmouth Dockyard, close to HMS Victory, on 29th July 1930 by King George V.  At 42 feet by 12 feet (13 metres x 4 metres), perhaps the largest representation of the Battle in existence, it can still be seen today, in its original position, but now as part of the displays of the Royal Naval Museum. Indeed, raising money to build the Museum was part of the motivation for the painting itself.

It is even more remarkable because the artist was in his 79th year when he painted it (he died less than a year after its opening).  Moreover, it is one of the few remaining examples of a ‘panorama’, a genre that has its origins in late eighteenth-century England and with which Nelson was certainly familiar.

William Lionel Wyllie was the most distinguished marine artist of his day and his work is still in great demand.  From 1906, when he moved to Portsmouth, he became closely associated with the Navy.  So much so, indeed, that he was buried with full Naval honours in 1931.  In a moving ceremony, reminiscent of Nelson’s state funeral in 1806, his body was rowed up Portsmouth Harbour in a Naval cutter past battleships with dipped colours and bugles calling and quaysides lined with dockyard workers.

Wyllie painted and engraved the steam-powered warships of his day, but he retained a special affection for the sailing Navy, the prime example of which was Victory.  As a keen (and competitive) sailor, he understood sailing ships, and the elements – the wind and the sea - in which they operate.  His work is enthused with that knowledge and his deep love of all things maritime.

Wyllie was therefore an obvious choice – and a willing volunteer – to join the movement to save the Victory in the early 1920s.  Already 40 years old at Trafalgar, after a further 100 years of pulling at her moorings in Portsmouth Harbour, Nelson’s flagship was in a bad state, with perhaps half her timbers rotten.  Led by the Society for Nautical Research, money was raised, the ship was brought into dry dock in January 1922, and a full-scale restoration got underway.

Paintings and prints by Wyllie helped both to keep the subject in the public eye and to raise money.  With the Victory restoration safely in hand by the mid-1920s, attention turned to the question of building a museum to further the public's knowledge of the ship and its history.  Partly to raise the money to do this, and partly to satisfy a deep personal wish, Wyllie proposed to paint a panorama of the Battle.

Difficult to imagine though it may now be, panoramas were the cinemas of their day.  Invented in 1787 by Robert Barker, they achieved the height of their popularity at the time of the 1900 Universal Exhibition.  The name ‘panorama’ is derived from the Greek and means ‘see all’.  By creating a 360º image, often adorned with mock terrain in the foreground, and on some occasions sounds and scents, the artist tried to trick the viewer into imagining he or she was actually at the scene, rather than simply viewing a painting.

The early panoramas were views of the major cities.  The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars provided ample scope for panoramas of battles to be produced for propaganda purposes.  In 1799, Robert Barker and his son, Henry Aston Barker, displayed a Panorama of the Battle of the Nile in Leicester Square, commemorating Nelson’s great victory over the French fleet which had saved Egypt from invasion by Napoleon in 1798.  Later that year, Henry Barker was introduced to Nelson and recorded that he ‘took me by the hand, saying he was indebted to me for keeping up the fame of his victory in the battle of the Nile for a year longer than it would have lasted in the public estimation’.

An artist working in the late-nineteenth century (he was born in 1851), Wyllie would have been familiar with panoramas.  He clearly recognised that Trafalgar would have made an ideal subject, as he was keen to paint one to celebrate the centenary of the Battle in 1905, but this did not come about. 

The rescue of the Victory presented a final opportunity to achieve what Wyllie himself referred to as ‘the wish of my life’.  It was recognised by the Navy, who put up a loan of £700 to build an extension to some rigging sheds across from Victory’s dry dock.  Wyllie laid the foundation stone in May 1929.

With typical thoroughness, Wyllie sought to make the painting as accurate as possible.   Friends read through log books to identify the relative positions of the ships; the Navigation School was consulted to determine the correct position of the sun.  Wyllie even took a cruise off Cape Trafalgar itself to study the colour of the sea and the sky.  A number of his preliminary sketches can be seen in the Royal Naval Museum.

The huge canvas was specially made: in fact, the original was not big enough and a further piece was attached to each end, the joins hidden by watersplashes from falling cannonshot.  A sailmaker was employed to cut eyelets and the canvas was hung like a sail, with lacing at top and bottom.

Wyllie’s daughter, Aileen, herself a talented artist, was her father’s principal assistant with the mammoth task.  In an interview in later life, she referred to how she would ‘put on the equivalent of a pound of butter and go back and be unable to find the place’.  In all, it took nine months to complete the work, with Wyllie working most days from 10 in the morning until 5 at night, with a nap in the middle.  Much of the painting had to be done on step ladders; looking back, Aileen had nothing but admiration for her father: ‘At the time it seemed natural, but now that I am old, I cannot think how he did those hours on ladders in his 79th year.’  Such was Wyllie’s fame that people actually paid to watch him work!

In keeping with the style of the panorama genre, Wyllie designed the painting to be seen through the windows of the stern cabin of the French ship, Neptune. 

Eventually, the painting was complete and on Tuesday 29th July 1930 it was formally opened by King George V.  The Annual Report of the Society for Nautical Research for 1930 describes how the King ‘examined the picture closely from every point of view and warmly complimented Mr Wyllie on his work.’

The painting depicts the Battle at it height at 2.00 pm.  The two fleets are fully engaged.  To the left, in a haze of gun-smoke, Collingwood’s division is crushing the Allied rear.  To the right, the Allied van is trying to come round in the light winds to support its colleagues, but it has effectively been cut out of the battle by Nelson’s decisive tactics.  And in the centre is the Victory, still flying Nelson’s final signal, Engage the Enemy more closely, locked in a deadly struggle with the French ship, Redoutable. 

The only licence Wyllie allowed himself was to include the falling of the masts of the great Spanish four-decker, the Santissima Trinidad.  This significant event did not occur until 30 minutes later.

The Panorama was a great success.  45,000 people viewed it in the months immediately after it was opened.  One enthusiastic visitor even confessed to having seen it sixteen times!  When Wyllie died, less than a year later, on 6th April 1931, he will have known that his great work had struck a chord with the public and that he had more than played his part in keeping alive interest in ‘Nelson and his Old Sailing Navy’.

The Society for Nautical Research’s objective of a Victory Museum was achieved in 1938, when the rigging sheds behind which the Panorama hung were replaced with a purpose-built building to display the treasures relating to the battle and Nelson that had been collected onboard the Victory. 

The Panorama was its largest exhibit (closely followed by Charles II’s state barge that had carried Nelson’s body to his funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral in January 1806) and it remains so today, with the Museum, renamed the Victory Gallery, now part of the larger Royal Naval Museum.

The Panorama has, however, been moved on three occasions.  The outbreak of World War II in 1939 saw it being stored in a tunnel underneath Portsdown Hill on the outskirts of Portsmouth.  Twice since it has been taken away for restoration, in the mid-1960s and at the end of the 1990s. 

The latter occasion was the result of a careful inspection of the painting as part of the preparations for a major redevelopment of the Royal Naval Museum’s exhibitions on Nelson, Victory and Trafalgar.  It became clear that the Panorama was in a bad way.  In particular, the canvas around the eyelets was tearing; unless something was done, the sheer weight of the painting was likely to lead to severe damage. 

With financial support from the Society for Nautical Research, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Idlewild Trust, the Royal Naval Museum appointed Valentine Walsh, a conservator and restorer of fine art, and Richard Pelter, a specialist in large paintings.  The Panorama was taken to Richard Pelter’s studios in Bristol, where a second canvas was glued onto the reverse.  This canvas would take the weight, thereby reducing the stress on the original, with a new method of hanging that once again derived from contemporary sailmaking techniques.

The Museum had also given considerable thought to the display of the Panorama.  A couple of steps led down to its annexe, not much, but enough to make it inaccessible to wheelchair users and the less agile.  Wyllie’s design of the stern windows of the Neptune made it difficult for children, in particular, to see the painting.  And, at the back of the Gallery, it was easy to miss it altogether.

To get around these problems, the Panorama, still of course in its original annexe, is now seen by the visitor as the final part of ‘The Trafalgar Experience’.  This is a multi-media walk-through show housed on one side of the Victory Gallery, that explains why the Battle took place, introduces Nelson and Napoleon, and recreates a gundeck on the Victory at the height of the battle.  With a commentary and special lighting (effects that the pioneers of the panorama genre would no doubt have incorporated if they could have), Wyllie’s work, so meticulously researched, can be appreciated both as a depiction of the Battle and as a work of art.  The use of ramps and a lift also mean that everybody can get to see it.

Over 100,000 people a year have seen the Panorama since the redevelopments described above were completed.  It is to be hoped that even more will do so in this anniversary year and that they will fully appreciate the legacy of a remarkable artist whose enthusiasm, energy and skill created such a masterpiece.

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