What do you think of when you hear the words ‘HMS Victory’? The battle of Trafalgar? The death of Nelson? Anything else? No! Well you’re not alone and a new exhibition at The Historic Dockyard Chatham is setting out to tell her full story. Alex Patterson, The Historic Dockyard’s Collections and Galleries Manager and Curator of the new ‘HMS Victory: The Untold Story’ kindly took a few moments away from the launch event to give me a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the exhibition.
Hello Alex, many thanks for taking the time to talk to me. How did you feel when you walked in today and saw everything done?
Relieved I think. It’s up. Very proud, very pleased. It’s always the morning after the final tweaks that you walk in and turn off the work lights and you’re standing in there by yourself and… it takes a moment for it all to sink in really.
Gail James (the Historic Dockyard’s Communications Manager) was saying that the exhibition is your baby – has it turned out how you envisaged it?
Yes. It is almost as if it has leapt off from the paper and into the gallery. I think that we’ve gone through quite a long process of design development, including colours and I think this exhibition has probably been the hardest to sort out the colours for, which sounds trivial but you have to get the colours right.
Is that finding the right colours to show off the objects?
Yes, you can’t have garish pink or bright green for instance. It’s finding a palette that will suit the objects, especially with an exhibition of this nature because you have mixed media, so you have manuscripts that are on very pale paper that can only be lit at low levels to ensure that they are not going to fade and then you have these fantastic large oil paintings that are so vibrant… so it’s trying to find a colour that suits both. We ended up going for two shades of blue, a red and a black that tie in with the figurehead.
Does the colour make any difference to the way people can read and interpret an exhibition?
Yes, if you get it spectacularly wrong at a basic level it can really make it difficult to read the text but, at the same time, good colours help to set the pace and scene and help to divide up the space as well. So it’s very important to get those sections right, otherwise, you have to put up large arrows to say ‘this way’ and ‘you are here’. Subtle colours and signage do that and help set the mood as well as the tone and the general emotion of the exhibition.
How long has it taken you to put this together?
We started just under a year ago, back in March, we met with Brian (Lavery – a naval historian and the guest curator for the exhibition) and from that process he went away and identified a very long list of potential objects and identified the stories and I have been working very closely with him ever since. The design process started in September/October time. So not that long at all and we have got a number of major partners as well, so I have been working very closely with them all to make sure that, once they had agreed the loans, all the specifications were right – its things like mounts -making sure that letters are on the correct page and how things are framed, what degree you want to angle items and lighting. Everything you can think of from the logistics of how they are going to get here to who is going to unwrap them and do all of the condition checking – there is so much you have to think about but I have a very good network of colleagues across the different partners who have been very supportive.
Did this exhibition give you any unique challenges?
It’s the largest number of lenders that we have ever had to work with – we’ve got five lenders which doesn’t sound that many but we’ve only got about 35 actual objects in there so that’s quite a lot of people involved. Logistically it has been great fun but a bit of a challenge. The Royal Collection is a lender that we have never worked with before so that’s been very exciting.
Have you used anything from your archive?
Yes, we have two items in there. One is a lovely little common place book belonging to a carpenter, you’ll see it in the low desk case in there. It’s bound in leather and was written by a gentleman called John Allen. He worked at the dockyard at the time the Victory was first commissioned, we don’t know if he worked on Victory or not but, in his own hand writing, there is a very simple line that reads ‘Victory was commissioned’ and it’s just a wonderful piece. This eyewitness account gives you goose bumps, it really does and it’s just beautiful.
The other item we have in there is a commissioning letter for the new master of Victory in 1831. While she didn’t go out to sea anymore, they still required a nucleus crew on board her at all times so if she needed to be made ready she could be, however, at that time you were looking at ships clad in iron and her effectiveness in battle wouldn’t have been that great but she was still needed for that so we have those two lovely little items of our own in there too.
What’s your favourite item?
Two – I’ve got two – a small presentational sword given to Admiral Sir John Jervis after the battle of Cape St Vincent. It’s this gorgeous, jewel encrusted, sword with a small triangular blade. It’s about 80cm high and on the pommel you have, visible from the upright position, the coat of arms of the City of London and underneath that you have got a picture of Victory. And for me, not only is it sumptuous in terms of its decoration – the jewel encrusting and beautiful gold work which you don’t see anymore – they really knew how to do bling back in those days – but also it symbolises the importance of the Royal Navy and the City of London and the City of London’s need for the Royal Navy to protect British interests abroad. To protect the trade that helped us become this global empire. It’s been forgotten. Without the Royal Navy, the City of London wouldn’t have been as powerful and we probably wouldn’t be speaking English right now, we could easily have been speaking French. So it’s really that vital link where you have the juxtaposition between coat of arms and ship and it just symbolises the power of that relationship at that time which we don’t really think about today.
The other one, I’ll show you in a minute. (If you want to know what it was look out for my next blog post coming on Friday.)
Is there anything not in the exhibition that you would like to have been here?
There was one item that was unable to be lent to us and it’s a portrait of Sir Thomas Slade. He was the designer, the father of Victory and we have a fantastic reproduction of his image but had we had the original portrait next to the order letter, next to the plan, it would just have been …. but in actual fact, the way that we have been able to reproduce that painting means that we still have his presence and he is the first person you see as you walk in.
Is there anything that needed conservation before you could use it?
In terms of our items, the common place book – it looked a little bit tired and its pages were coming out so we sent that to conservation. The National Maritime Museum, because they are the largest lender, also had numerous items that needed conserving. I only discovered this on Monday, when their conservation officer was down helping with the installation, but there is a half-block model in the middle of the gallery called the Commerce de Marseille, a French ship that was captured by the British at the Siege of Toulon, and when they were cleaning this model up they revealed all the stern decorations. It had basically been hidden by the linseed oil the conservators have used to make sure that the fabric of the model is maintained but, through the years, dust and dirt had built up as linseed oil can be quite sticky. Now, through delicate cleaning, they have revealed this beautiful decoration so I’d like to think that, thanks to us having this exhibition, we have been having an impact elsewhere.
What’s been your most memorable moment?
I think probably walking in to see the figurehead up for the first time. It was that moment of going in to see the final piece in place, the gallery was empty, the work lights were off and my gallery technician had aimed all the spotlights on the figurehead and I just walked in and looked down the corridor – it was the impact of it sitting there that was just so powerful. So that was probably a ‘wow’ moment for me.
As this exhibition is all about untold stories, did you learn any new ones?
Yes, I learnt the Russians stole the plans of the Victory and built a number of ships based on her lines for Catherine the Great so you have this brilliant espionage story right there. And, in the 18th Century she was almost wrecked during her launch so she almost didn’t make it out of the dock. Then, in Jervis’ order book there is a lovely little entry where he’s sat on Victory writing his orders – his paragraph is just beautifully put and he says that it has come to his attention that there have been a number of women on several ships and they are using far too much water!
What do you hope visitors will gain from this exhibition?
I hope they gain a greater insight into Britain’s most famous ship. I would hope that we have got the point across that she was built here, she is Chatham in that sense and I think it is very important that we get the message across to people that Chatham up until, well we were building ships right up until the 1960’s, but in terms of the age of sail, Chatham was the leading centre for ship construction and built quite a few national icons including HMS Victory and her contemporary the ’Fighting Temeraire’ that’s in Turner’s famous painting. That heritage has been forgotten and its part of the Dockyard Trust’s overall objective to educate people, not just about the role of the dockyard in terms of the shipbuilder but also about what those ships went out to do. Chatham had such a vital role in the 18th century in terms of supporting the Royal Navy to capture global supremacy and I hope that comes across. On the other side as well, I hope people come to understand that its Victory plus – there is more to Victory than the battle of Trafalgar.
At the end of the day she had a very long, varied career but she didn’t start off doing anything exciting she just sat in the Medway for 20 years, she came into the dock twice for repairs over those 20 years because she was at risk of sinking. So we think of this prize ship, this icon being launched and off she goes to sea. But nothing, no. So hopefully people get to understand Victory’s role, she wasn’t always with Nelson, and there was life after Nelson as well. And, before she was put in ordinary in Portsmouth harbour, she played a really crucial role in the Baltic Campaign between 1808 and 1812 – primarily as a symbolic ship rather than firing guns but it was the notion that she had that fire power that made people afraid and we have likened Victory, in the office, to being equal to ‘Queen Elizabeth’ the aircraft carrier that has just been launched. They are the big status items you hope you never have to use. Home crowds will be happy and adoring and the away team will be terrified of what can be seen, they are the preventative measure. Victory was used in the Baltic for that very reason by Suamarez so I hope that people will understand that, while the exhibition is called the untold story, it might not be revealing new stories. Some of the little snippets are new but the notion of the untold story is that we often talk about the Victory in terms of Trafalgar but we want to tell the other stories, the untold stories that surround her and actually make her one of the greatest ships that ever was.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Please come! The exhibition runs from the 14 February to 31 May 2015. I would say that it is an exhibition for all, not for a specialist audience. It’s for anyone who has got a vague interest in history or just likes to look at beautiful artwork or craftsmanship and models. I think there is something in there for everybody.
I have to add that both my 11 year old and I thoroughly enjoyed it and you can find visitor information for the ‘HMS Victory: The Untold Story’ here.
I’d also like to add a huge thank you to Alex and Gail for taking the time to talk to me about the exhibition and for allowing me to reproduce images from the archives of the Historic Dockyard Chatham on this blog.