Wednesday 4 December 2019

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The wife and I both work part-time now (I jokingly refer to it as semi-retired!) and have been trying to get out and about together on our shared Tuesday off. We have had several trips out to museums and galleries, just the two of us, something we haven't been able to do regularly since the kids were born. Yesterday we visited the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Its been a long time since I was last here and I had forgotten what an excellent museum it is and the amazing collection of very famous pictures it holds. 

The Battle of Barfleur (19 May 1692) by Ludolf Backhuysen - The English and Dutch Fleets stop a planned French invasion during the Nine Years War. They won two linked battles, off Barfleur and La Hoguq and destroyed many enemy ships. This picture shows the French flagship, the Soleil Royal, under attack. 

The Destruction of 'L'Orient' at the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798 by George Arnald. The explosion was so shocking that both sides stopped firing in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Fragments of the ship were scattered across Aboukir Bay and Nelson kept a piece (on display in the museum) of a masthead as a souvenir.  

The fall of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 Oct 1805 by Denis Dighton - The sailors and Royal Marines on a ships upper deck were extremely exposed to enemy fire. This painting of the Victory at Trafalgar shows the fierce fighting with the French warship Redoubtable close alongside. Nelson is shown falling wounded to the deck. 

The Death of Nelson by Arthur William Devis is probably the most famous picture to come from the Battle of Trafalgar. It portrays the death of Horatio Nelson at 16:30 on 21 October 1805, below decks on his flagship HMS Victory during the Battle. The artist spent several weeks on board the Victory, sketching the location and making individual studies of the persons featured in the final work. The painting takes liberties with the actual setting and people present. The place of death on the ’tween-deck was actually far shorter than depicted, and Captain Thomas Hardy (standing behind Nelson) was not actually present at the moment of death. 

In addition to the gallery dedicated to Nelsons Navy, I had specifically wanted to visit the Polar Exploration gallery. (this isn't military history related, so you may want to skip this bit). I have long had a fascination with this romantic period of our history and in particular the Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917. The expedition ship Endurance became trapped in sea ice and was eventually crushed, forcing the crew onto the frozen sea. The story of their trek across the ice and eventual rescue is for my money one of the greatest survival tales of all time. If you have never seen the pictures of the expedition photographer Frank Hurley I urge you to seek them out, they are truly spectacular and some of the best images ever taken during this period of exploration. 

Endurance among ice pinnacles by Frank Hurley. Shackleton expedition, February 1915. 

Perilous Position of HMS Terror by Admiral William Smyth - On his final Arctic expedition George Back's ship, HMS Terror, got trapped. Squeezed by the pressure of the ice, it drifted for 200 miles before finally floating free. It was so badly damaged that it barely made it back across the Atlantic. The Artist was at the time a first lieutenant on the voyage. 

They forged the last links with their lives by William Thomas Smith - Franklin's entire crew perished during their attempt to navigate the North-West Passage. In 1859, searchers found a boat with human remains, believed to belong to the crew. This scene is imagined here. Lady Franklin supported the idea that her husband had found the route, although, in reality, this was not the case. 

We also had a wander around Greenwich but we will probably come back at a later date to visit the Cutty Sark and some of the other museums here. 
Not sure what our plans are for next week, but if the weather stays dry we'll probably find somewhere else to explore.


  1. Replies
    1. I'd forgotten how many famous works of art are displayed here. I probably shouldn't be so surprised considering how important our maritime history has been (and continues to be) to our national identity.


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