Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Horatio Nelson at the NPG and in Edinburgh

by Lemuel Francis Abbott, oil on canvas, 1797
I am not hugely enamored with military history, but one cannot study Jane Austen's era without knowing something of Nelson. For better or worse, my early impressions of the man were defined by the 1941 film That Hamilton Woman (it's amazing how many characters, both real and fictional, were first introduced to me as Laurence Olivier). Those of us who don't find military history fascinating sometimes cling to scandalous tidbits like Nelson's affair with Emma Hamilton, as they are far more engaging to our brains than battle maneuvers. So it was with some chagrin that I visited The Nelson Monument on top of Calton Hill only to discover the small but highly informative museum exhibit dedicated to him there made not a single mention of his notorious mistress. For my five pounds, I would have liked to have had that small bone tossed my way. Of course, I was paying to climb the tower and enjoy the view, which I would gladly do again.

I suppose the legitimate Nelson enthusiast must get rather bored of we dilettantes who want to delve again and again into the details of his great romance. I understand that his military career is legendary and of far greater lasting significance than the details of his love life. Yet when presenting the image of a man in his entirety - when seeking to understand his character and motivations - is not such information essential? Behold his portrait on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London: this is not the image of a glorified military emblem (as we saw George IV portray himself in the same room), but a surprisingly gentle and unassuming looking man, not formidable in the least despite the proudly display of his Star and Ribbon of the Bath and Naval Gold Medal. This portrait is based on one from a previous sitting for the same artist, though it was also taken from life, and it was commissioned for Lady Nelson. How I wished there were portraits of both she and Lady Hamilton nearby! Perhaps such a display would be a bit sensationalist, especially in a room of the gallery dedicated George IV, but I would have reveled in it, nonetheless. I find this portrait fascinating in its backstory. There is some madness in this tale, and that always sparks my imagination. This is from the NPG website:
Although Nelson only sat to him twice, Abbott subsequently copied the picture over forty times. The copies gradually declined in quality as the artist became mentally ill but this was no bar to their popularity. Many were purchased by Nelson's naval colleagues, his family and friends.  
In July 1798, Nelson's wife wrote to him: 'My dearest Husband - I am now writing opposite to your portrait, the likeness is great. I am well-satisfied with Abbott… it is my companion, my sincere friend in your absence…'.
Nelson supposedly began his affair with Lady Hamilton that September, so there's your scandal. Revel with me.

Please enjoy the views from the top of the monument. It was incredibly windy up there but totally worth the climb. One gets the feeling of being an admiral on his ship, looking out into the endless distance.

The Nelson Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

View of Hollyrood Castle from top of Nelson Monument

View of the rest of Calton Hill from Nelson Monument, including
the National Monument of Scotland and the City Observatory.

View of Arthur's Seat from Nelson Monument

View of Calton Hill, Edinburgh New Town, and the Firth of
Forth, estuary to the North Sea, from Nelson Monument.

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