England Expects: The Nelson Lamp at the Royal Pavilion

In this blog post I include the text for my recent Pavilion Tale, which took place at the Royal Pavilion on 7 February. In this talk, and this blog post, I used the Nelson Lamp at the Royal Pavilion to investigate part of Britain’s vibrant naval history.

Using the Nelson Lamp on display in the Banqueting Room Gallery as a starting point, I will be diving in to Britain’s naval history and focussing on one historic figure in particular. He was the inspiration for Patrick O’Brian’s character Captain Jack Aubrey in the Aubrey-Maturin series, later played by the actor Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This particular historic figure also provided the author C S Forester with the basis for his character Horatio Hornblower. Forester wrote eleven books about Hornblower, who was brought to the screen first by Gregory Peck and then in a series of made for television movies starring Ioan Gruffudd. The figure I am talking about is, of course, is Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté. The Nelson lamp is one of many examples of items produced to commemorate Nelson, and celebrate the role he played in confirming British naval dominance in the Napoleonic era.

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Russell Crowe (left) as Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), and Ioan Gruffudd (right) as Horatio Hornblower in the Hornblower television series.


The Nelson lamp is part of the Dolphin suite, and was commissioned by John Fish in about 1810, to pay homage to Nelson who had died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. From its dolphins to its sphinxes, the Nelson lamp is an example of flamboyant, early nineteenth century furniture design. At the base, three dolphins help to hold up the frame of the lamp with their tails. The middle area of the lamp is inscribed with the words ‘To the memory of Lord Viscount Nelson / Of the late John Fish Esq. / Presented by his widow executerix’. Just above this, on the frame itself, three gilt crocodiles process around the frame of the lamp. Three carved sphinxes hold up the bowl of the lamp. Crocodiles and sphinxes are symbols of Egypt and Ancient Egypt; this is a reference to Nelson’s resounding victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. At the top of the Nelson Lamp, we have the bowl of the lamp itself, which has designs and scenes painted on it. One side shows British ‘ships of the line’ approaching the French ships at the Battle of Trafalgar; we know this is the Battle of Trafalgar because of the unique tactics that Nelson used during this battle (more on that shortly). On the other side of the lamp, we can see the figure of Britannia on the left. Figures of Liberty and Triumph are presenting Britannia with a crown, which she is holding over a bust of Nelson here. Nelson is depicted as a carved marble bust, showing that after his death he has been immortalised and memorialised in British culture.  In their 1988 book Nelson: The Immortal Memory, David Howarth and Stephen Howarth describe how Nelson is still regarded ‘with respect and unique affection’, emphasising how Nelson ‘was the most brilliant and most honoured naval leader Britain has produced’.

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But who was Horatio Nelson? James Harrison, in his 1806 biography of Nelson, describes  how – and I quote – ‘in tracing the history of a hero so active as Lord Nelson, the mind can scarcely be allowed a moments pause’. And indeed, throughout his life, Nelson barely took a moment’s pause; when you read a biography of Nelson one can really understand how authors like C S Forester and Patrick O’Brian were inspired by him. Horatio Nelson was born on the 29 September 1758, the sixth of eleven children. The son of a rector, the Reverend Edmund Nelson, he spent his early life in Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk. Nelson’s uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, was a naval man, and had a great influence on the young Horatio Nelson. So much so, that at the age of 13, Nelson left grammar school and joined the Navy; this was comparatively old to start a career in the Navy: most boys joined up at 9 or 10 years old, sometimes even younger, if they were employed as a ‘powder monkey’ to ferry cartridges and gunpowder from the magazine to the artillery. Nelson began his naval career on 1 January 1771 as an ordinary seaman and coxswain under the command of his uncle Maurice Suckling; he was quickly appointed as a midshipman and began his officer training. Early on in his career Nelson discovered he suffered from seasickness, an affliction that would remain with him for the rest of his life and career. This would be mirrored by the author C S Forester in his book Mr Midshipman Hornblower, where young Horatio Hornblower distinguishes himself as the midshipman who is seasick whilst moored at Spithead.

Lemuel Francis Abbott, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805, 1799. Oil on canvas, National Maritime Museum, London.


Nelson rose to prominence during the Napoleonic Wars, which happened between 1796 and 1815. Here, the British Empire and its allies fought against the French Empire and its allies. The Napoleonic Wars have their roots in the French Revolution of 1789; after the end of the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte became politically dominant and ran France as a military dictatorship. France, stable under Napoleon, sought dominance in Europe; other European nation states including Britain reacted to protect their economic, political, and imperial interests and sovereignty. Napoleon may have been renowned at the time as a military commander on land, but it was the well trained, well supplied, and well practiced British Navy that would be his downfall – and ensure that Britain became dominant. This was the period when Britain really did rule the waves, thanks, in part, to Nelson. Now, I would like to take a quick look at two of Nelson’s victories during the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Trafalgar, both of which are represented on the Nelson Lamp here at the Royal Pavilion.

The Battle of the Nile, represented by the sphinxes and crocodiles, was the climax of a three month long naval campaign that played out across the Mediterranean Sea. The British fleet, under the command of Rear-Admiral Nelson, and the French fleet, under the command of Francois-Paul Brueys d’Aigelliers, met for combat between the first and third of August 1798. The British wanted to protect their access to India via the Mediterranean; if the French won, the British Empire would be split apart. Nelson trapped much of the French fleet in a crossfire. French ships where caught up in a bombardment and battered in to surrender. Of seventeen French ships at the start of the battle, only four of them survived. The Battle of the Nile was immortalised in Felicia Dorothea Hemans 1806 poem Casabianca. Nelson’s victory at the Nile also sparked a craze for Egyptian goods, such as mummies – which were ground down and used as a cure-all, a sort of Napoleonic paracetamol – and other antiques. It also sparked a fashion for Egyptian style furniture, much like our Nelson lamp and some of the more Egyptian style furniture you can see dotted around the Pavilion, particularly in the King’s Apartments.

The other decisive British Naval victory represented on the lamp is the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place on 21 October 1805. 27 British ships under the command of Nelson – now Admiral Nelson – helped to confirm British naval supremacy in this period. Nelson departed from the tactical orthodoxy of the day; ordinarily, battling ships would line up parallel to each other and bombard each other. Nelson, however, split his fleet in to two lines, which then sailed perpendicular to the French fleet, and split the line of French ships into three. This caused chaos in the French lines, forcing them to engage British ships more closely and risk being boarded. After the victory, Nelson’s penultimate flag signal became iconic. Before signalling to ‘engage the enemy more closely’, Nelson ordered his signalmen to spell out the now famous phrase ‘England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty’. It took twelve hoists to pass on the message. The British Navy at this used the numeric flag code, which assigns numbers and number combinations to different letters, words and phrases, and was based on Rear Admiral Sir Home Popham’s 1800 treatise Telegraphic Signals of Marine Vocabulary.

At the Battle of Trafalgar, ‘doing his duty’ would cost Nelson his life. At 1pm, Nelson was hit by a marksman on the Redoutable, some fifty feet away. The bullet entered his left shoulder, passed through his spine, and lodged two inches below his right shoulder blade in the muscles of his back. He was carried belowdecks by Robert Adair, Sergeant-Major of the Marines, and two seamen. Nelson draped a handkerchief over his face so as not to alarm or distract his crew. William Beatty, ship’s surgeon, checked Nelson over, but Nelson told him that ‘you can do nothing for me. I have but a short time to live. My back is shot through’. Thomas Hardy, one of the officers, came belowdecks at 2.30pm to tell Nelson that some enemy ships had surrendered. Nelson told Hardy to drop anchor so the HMS Victory would not drift, and reminded him to ‘take care of poor Ladt Hamilton’, his mistress. Nelson then said ‘kiss me, Hardy’; Hardy obliged and kissed him on the cheek and the forehead. Beatty heard Nelson murmur ‘Thank God I have done my duty’; Nelson continued to decline and the ship’s chaplain recorded his last words as ‘God and my country’. Nelson died at half past four, three and a half hours after he had been shot.

But that is not quite the end of our story. Nelson was brought back to Britain via Gibraltar. To make the journey home, Nelson’s body was preserved in a cask of brandy and spices (mainly camphor and myrrh). The cask was lashed to the mainmast of HMS Victory and placed under guard. News of Nelson’s death travelled ahead of him on the rather appropriately named HMS Pickle. On hearing the news, George III said that we have lost more than we have gained’. Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, recalled how ‘They brought me word, Mr Whitby from the Admiralty. “Show him in directly”, I said. He came in, and with a pale countenance and faint voice, said, “We have gained a great Victory.” – “Never mind your Victory”, I said. “My letters – give me my letters” – Captain Whitby was unable to speak – tears in his eyes and a deathly paleness over his face made me comprehend him. I believe I gave a scream and fell back, and for ten hours I could neither speak nor shed a tear.’ On arrival, the cask holding Nelson’s body was opened and was found to be empty of brandy. Nelson’s body was removed from the cask and it was discovered that sailors had drilled a small hole with a gimlet in the side of the cask. They then surreptitiously sucked the alcohol out through a straw. This was called ‘tapping the admiral’, and also gave rise to the naval practice of calling brandy ‘Nelson’s blood’.

Nelson’s body was unloaded from HMS Victory in London. At Greenwich, he was placed in a lead coffin, inside a wooden one made from the main mast of L’Orient, a French ship destroyed at the Battle of the Nile, and salvaged after the battle. At Greenwich, Nelson lay in state in the painted hall for three days. And here we have another link to George IV, then Prince of Wales, and the Royal Pavilion. George, alongside Lord Hood and Chief Mourner Sir Peter Parker, accompanied Nelson’s body upriver, travelling by barge. George wanted to attend the funeral but his father George III reminded him that it was inappropriate for the heir of the throne to attend the funeral of anyone other than the Royal Family. Ever the rebel, George, Prince of Wales, attended in a private capacity with his brothers later on. On 9 January 1806, a massive procession accompanied the coffin from the Admiralty to St Paul’s Cathedral. The procession consisted of 32 Admirals, 100 captains, and an escort of 10,000 soldiers. Nelson was interred in the  crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral after a four hour service.


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