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Royal Naval Museum

'There Is But One Nelson'

Bringing Nelson Alive At The Royal Naval Museum'
Colin White

Horatio Nelson is one of Britain's greatest heroes. Over 1,000 books have been written about him. There have been some 20 films and television dramas based on his life. Nowadays, there are even special web sites devoted to him on the Internet.

He is one of those instantly recognisable historical figures, like Henry VIII and Queen Victoria. We all reckon we know exactly what he looked like.

But how accurate is our picture of him? Most people when asked to describe him would conjure up a picture of a small man, even a little one, with an empty sleeve and a black eye-patch over one eye.

The empty sleeve is true enough - but he never wore an eye-patch. In fact, he didn't need to. We tend to say, rather carelessly, that Nelson 'lost his eye'. In fact he lost his sight as the result of an internal injury (possibly a detached retina). Externally, there was no disfigurement and certainly no empty eye socket. So the eye-patch is a popular myth.

Nor was he unusually small. He was in fact about 5 feet 6 inches tall (1.7 metres) - about average height for a man of his time. How can we be so precise? After his death, the clothes he had worn at the Battle of Trafalgar were lovingly preserved, almost like holy relics in a church. There is a complete set: coat and waistcoat; breeches and stockings. From these, we know that he had a waist size of about 32/33 inches (81/83 cms) and a chest size of about 38/39 inches (96/99cms). And, making suitable allowance for the size of his head, we can establish his height fairly closely.

But what did he actually look like? Until recently, this was very much a matter of opinion. Over 40 portraits of him were painted in his lifetime and no two of them are alike - so each Nelson expert had their own favourite likeness. Now, however, we can be much more certain. Recent research has established that a mask of Nelson's face in the collection at the Royal Naval Museum, originally thought to be a death mask, was in fact taken from his live face in Vienna in 1800. This means that, for the first time, we have an accurate yardstick against which we can judge the portraits.

It also means that we have a model on which to base an accurate recreation of Nelson's face, using all the most modern techniques of face reconstruction and modelling.

All this modern research into Nelson's appearance has been carried out at the Royal Naval Museum. Standing alongside Nelson' famous flagship, HMS Victory in the heart of Portsmouth's historic naval dockyard, the Museum has always had a close association with the great hero. Over the years, it has built up a unique Nelson Collection consisting of some 500 individual items. The Museum is currently undergoing a massive 10 million redevelopment and the first of its new displays to be opened was a modern, state-of-the-art exhibition that brings Nelson alive for a new generation and a new century.

Such an exhibition needed a striking centrepiece. So, early in the planning, the curators decided to commission a new figure of Nelson that would bring together all the new insights and, hopefully, give visitors a vivid impression of what he looked like.

The commission for the figure went to Tony Julius, of the internationally renowned firm of figure-makers, 'Gems'. He, in turn, commissioned sculptor Dik Beech to prepare a new bust of Nelson, based on the Museum's life mask and on some of the key portraits. Working closely with the Museum's experts, Dik set about creating a bust, as if Nelson was actually sitting for him in the flesh.

Three or four earlier impressions were discarded until finally a really striking likeness emerged. For example, at one point, Nelson was looking very solemn - almost stern - and one of Nelson's closest friends had referred to his 'sweet smile' - it was part of his charm and attractiveness. Luckily, the Museum had recently acquired a contemporary bust by Laurence Gahagan, sculpted in 1798 - the only likeness of Nelson to show his smile. So, Dik Beech used that as a model for the new bust's mouth.

Once the bust had finally been approved, Gems produced a wax head from it, which was then placed on a figure based on the accurate measurements supplied by the Museum.

Meanwhile, Lesley Edwards, from the firm of historical costumiers, 'Stitch in Time', was commissioned to produce an accurate copy of Nelson's uniform, based on the original which is now in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

Gradually, all this careful work of reconstruction was brought together. But then there was a last-minute hitch. What colour was Nelson's hair? The life mask was no help here. The evidence offered by the portraits was confusing: in some, Nelson's hair appeared almost white; in others grey. The Royal Naval Museum had some strands of his hair, which had been cut off after his death and distributed among his friends. But these had been turned into rings, or even bracelets, and it was clear that they had been dyed to make them look more attractive. It seemed that an impasse had been reached and that the figure-makers would have to rely on guesswork.

In the meantime, the Museum curators had been carefully looking through their Nelson collection, preparing all the artefacts for display. A number of items were in store, since there had not been enough room for them in any previous exhibition. Among them, was a beautiful locket which had belonged to Emma Hamilton and, when it was opened, a real treasure was revealed - a large lock of Nelson's hair, untouched by Time, or by any 'improving' hand. Excitingly, it was not pure white, or even grey: it was a 'pepper and salt' mixture of light, sandy brown (Nelson's original colouring as a young man) and white. At last, an accurate match could be made and the hair added to the head.

So to the finishing touches. What sort of colouring should Nelson's face be given? Again, the portraits were no help: some showed him looking very pale and sickly; others with a high, almost florid colour. In this case, old-fashioned documentary research came to the rescue. It had been decided that Nelson would be shown as he was in the autumn of 1805, just before the Battle of Trafalgar. As it happens, he visited England briefly for a short spell of leave at that time and, because he was so famous, everyone who met him left a record of their impressions. Putting these together, the curators were able to establish that Nelson looked fit and tanned after a long spell of service in the Mediterranean. He was a happy man too: his affair with Emma Hamilton had been blessed with a daughter, Horatia, whom he adored and he had discovered that he was very popular with his countrymen, who had cheered him and mobbed him whenever he appeared in the streets.

So the new Nelson figure finally arrived in Portsmouth. It is taller than most people expect. It has no eye-patch - and it is impossible to tell which of the eyes is actually 'blind'. Nelson looks relaxed and healthy - and he is smiling gently as he reaches out a friendly hand to greet the visitor.

The Model of Nelson for : The Hero and The Man Exhibtion

'There is but one Nelson' said one of his contemporaries admiringly. Now the same can be said of the Portsmouth figure. No other likeness comes anywhere near it for accuracy and realism. Everyone who sees it feels they have caught a glimpse of the real Nelson.

Colin White 2000

The Royal Naval Museum is a Registered Charity : No 266563

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Created on the 1 August 2000
Modified 16 June 2001