24/03/2023 General News
Edward Seago, Delia Smith, James Dyson, Stephen Fry, Myleene Klass… our county has produced its fair share of famous names down the years, writes David Broom.
But despite living two centuries before the era of social media and celebrity culture, the best-known of our county’s eminent sons and daughters undoubtedly remains Horatio Nelson, Vice-Admiral and 1st Viscount of The Nile and Burnham Thorpe in the county of Norfolk.
You don’t need me to explain the source of his fame. A formidable naval commander, he scored a whole series of victories, mostly against the French and the Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars, before losing his life just as the fleet won the decisive Battle of Trafalgar.
Nelson was born in 1758, the son of the rector of Burnham Thorpe, and attended Paston Grammar School in North Walsham and King Edward VI Grammar School in Norwich. He learned to sail on Barton Broad, before starting his naval career in 1771.
The great victory at Trafalgar, coupled with his untimely death, assured Nelson lasting fame in Britain. Monuments and memorials were constructed across the country (the most famous being the pillar in Trafalgar Square in London).
The production of Nelson memorabilia became something of a massive industry, and salerooms across the UK regularly see plates, cups, busts and other items come to auction.
Occasionally rather more rare items associated with the great man pop up for sale. In 2020, Keys sold two locks of his hair for £4,100, in a sale which saw 85 Nelson-related lots go under the hammer.
Most of these date from after his death, when his fame was at its peak. But there was a market, albeit smaller, for Nelson memorabilia even before his great victory at Trafalgar. These pieces were produced in smaller numbers, and are therefore more scarce – but they are just as interesting.
One of the things which marks these pieces out is how Nelson is referred to on them. Early pieces pre-date his elevation to a viscountcy, and, of course, make no mention of his most famous victories. Nevertheless, he was something of a celebrity from his early days of command, as well as being a controversial figure due to his very public affair with the also-married Emma Hamilton.
One such item is coming up for auction in keys’ first three day Fine Sale of the year next week. A late 18th century creamware documentary Nelson jug, it has an oval medallion with a full length portrait of the great man, titled’ Baron Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk’ – his first title, bestowed in 1798, much to his chagrin, as with customary self-confidence, he believed that his conduct at the Battle of the Nile merited a viscountcy, something he would have to wait a further three years for.
The jug has a pre-sale estimate of £300-£400, although being rare it is difficult to know what it will eventually sell for.
It is important to say that Nelson was a flawed hero. An undoubtedly brilliant naval commander and leader of men, he was confident to the point of arrogance, and was prone to insecurities and violent moods swings. His attitude towards slavery, although not uncommon at the time, seems anachronistic through a modern lens, although his actions towards slaves suggest that the picture is more nuanced than many think.
Nevertheless, for all his faults, Nelson remains a Norfolk and a British hero, and his name continues to attract bidders in the saleroom.