“I t’s still the most famous warship in the most famous naval battle in history,” says Henry House, Head of Furniture and Decorative Arts at Sotheby’s London. The triumph of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar has transcended the pages of naval studies to become the stuff of popular legend. This summer, two singular objects relating to Victory – one a masterpiece of its form, the other a commonplace witness to epic events – are to be offered in Sotheby’s Treasures sale. Both are portholes into the ship’s glorious story.
On 21 October 1805, driven by the indomitable spirit of Admiral Lord Nelson, Victory and her fellow ships of the line engaged a Franco-Spanish force off the Cape of Trafalgar on the southwest of Spain. The Atlantic waters became a maelstrom of cannon fire.
But Victory very nearly didn’t make it to Trafalgar. By end of the 18th century, having seen action at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, the ship was considered an old maid of the sea. It was nearly decommissioned. Instead, it went through years of repair and modernisation, emerging like a phoenix from Chatham Naval Dockyard in 1803. The vessel’s renaissance is revisited in a masterpiece of model-boatbuilding, offered at Sotheby’s, a unique record of the ship from the time of its refitting.
“It is a dockyard model,” explains House. “It gave the perception of how it was going to look. There are elements on the model that were never put onto Victory because they ran out of time and money.” These models were created without masts (rigging was a secondary fitting in the dockyards). The result is a kind of exquisitely-crafted 3D blueprint.
The miniature hull – detailing in 1:48 scale the re-shaped stern, additional gun ports and cherubic figurehead – is the only known model of Victory contemporary to the time of the Battle of Trafalgar. The piece has remained in the collection of the Green family, former owners of the Blackwall Dockyard on the Thames, and is the perfect storm of craftsmanship and historic significance. “Even from the 17th century these models had become things that were highly prized,” House notes. “Samuel Pepys collected ship models.” And Victory seized the imagination of the masters: Constable sketched the newly-fitted ship at anchor at Chatham – he called it “the flower of the flock” – while Turner travelled to Sheerness in the winter of 1805 to draw the battered ship on its return from Trafalgar.
Another artist drawn to Victory was William Devis. Painted two years after the event, his masterpiece The Death of Nelson captures the body of the national hero in the quivering light of a lantern. One such lantern from Victory now appears at Sotheby’s, a maritime relic of tragic significance. The lantern dates to circa 1800 and clearly sports the damage of action.
Such lights were used to cut through the chaotic fog of cannon-smoke swirling within the enclosed hull. Recalling a middle deck in battle, one junior officer declared “it beggars all description: it bewilders the senses of sight and hearing.” Lanterns provided beacons of hope. The lantern at Sotheby’s was presented to Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, for his orchestration of a later restoration of Victory in the 1920s.
The two objects in Sotheby’s sale invoke billowing ensigns and the raking of broadsides, Nelson’s tactical brilliance and the sacrifice of sailors. But they provide very different perspectives on Victory. “One shows the ship in its finery,” House notes. “And the battered old tin lantern would have been used in the gundecks which would have been pretty appalling places to be during the battle.”
Artifacts from Victory are today some of the greatest, and most sought after, relics of our maritime past. In 2002, Sotheby’s sold the collection of Alexander Davison, Nelson’s confidant, which included the admiral’s blood-stained purse. It had been discovered in a forgotten chest. Likewise, the existence of the model of Victory was unknown to the present descendants of the Green family. Only when a single piece of paper was discovered – what turned out to be a loan agreement – did they realise that the model lay in storage at the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Today, the mythic power of Victory remains undiminished. “It still has a resonance,” states House. “History still inspires people.” The ship is now in the care of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, having survived the firepower of the French navy, the vicissitudes of Admiralty chiefs and the appetites of the deathwatch beetle. As the two objects at Sotheby’s bear testament, it has been a tumultuous two centuries from which this icon of naval history has emerged victorious.