Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Trafalgar Day

Part of the university library is housed in a building which was originally built as barracks for the Buckinghamshire Yeomanry*, a volunteer cavalry regiment formed in 1794 at the start of the of the wars with France which only ended at Waterloo in 1815.

On the first floor, which presumably served then as a dormitory, the wooden beams supporting the ceiling and roof were left untouched when the building was converted in 1975 to its present purpose. On one of these is this inscription:


This was almost certainly painted within months of the battle, because on another beam is the slogan

Burdett & Liberty,

the slogan of the supporters of Sir Francis Burdett, an early proponent of reforming the suffrage, when he sat as MP for Middlesex in 1805-1806.

The painting below of the Death of Nelson was done by the American-born President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Benjamin West. He was at a dinner in 1801 with Nelson who asked him why he had done no more paintings like the Death of Wolfe.

'Because, my Lord, there are no more subjects', answered the painter, before continuing 'But, my Lord, I fear your intrepidity will yet furnish me with such another scene; and if it should, I shall certainly avail myself of it.'

'Will you?' responded the sailor, 'Will you, Mr West? Then I hope I shall die in the next battle.'

The artist took liberties with the facts. Nelson was not killed instantly: he died three hours after being shot and being carried down to the orlop below the waterline where the surgeon worked during battle. West wrote in justification

"There was no other way of representing the death of a hero but by an Epic representation of it. It must exhibit the event in a way to excite awe and veneration ... and ... show the importance of the Hero. Wolfe must not die like a common soldier under a bush; neither should Nelson be represented dying in the gloomy hold of a ship, like a sick man in a prison hole. To move the mind there should be a spectacle presented to raise and warm the mind, and all should be proportioned to the highest idea conceived of the Hero. No boy ... would be animated by a representation of Nelson dying like an ordinary man. His feelings must be roused and his mind inflamed by a scene great and extraordinary. A mere matter of fact will never produce this effect."

The painter here expresses what many biographers have also felt, so that the written accounts of the deaths of their subjects were frequently embellished and embroidered in order to depict a worthy "Death of a Hero".

* Created the Royal Buckinghamshire Yeomanry in 1845, during a visit paid by Queen Victoria to Stowe, the seat of the third Duke of Buckingham and Chandos who supported the regiment from his own pocket. This is an example of his profligate expenditure which led to his bankruptcy in 1847 and to the eventual establishment of a public school on the site.

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