Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s intimate letters on display for first time

It’s Trafalgar Day tomorrow (21 Oct) and the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) is revealing some of Lord Nelson’s letters in a temporary exhibition that will run till 16 April 2023.

‘Nelson In His Own Words: Treasures from the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation’ features rare & intimate letters and documents penned by Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson at the peak of his fame, many of which have never been displayed before. The focus is on some 30 documents from the Foundation’s Nelson collection, which includes 15 personal letters, displayed alongside other personal items from the museum’s own collections including a betrothal ring given by Nelson to Emma Hamilton, miniature portraits, and a meat platter from HMS Victory.

The Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation is a public benefit cultural institution established in 2007 by Panos Laskaridis and Marilena Laskaridis. It works to promote Greek culture and especially Greek letters and historical and nautical research. This exhibition marks the start of a new collaboration between the NMRN and the Foundation.

“During my postgraduate studies at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich,” Panos Laskaridis explains, “the only civilian student amongst Royal Navy officers, I quickly became infatuated with Nelson. The Laskaridis Nelson Collection aims to bring to light Horatio Nelson not just as a dedicated officer and great leader of men at sea in peace and war; but also, as a man in love, with personal feelings and anxieties, that do not diminish by any measure his being one of the greatest naval heroes of all times.”

Close up on two pages of a handwritten letter
Nelson’s letters (Photo: NMRN)

The letters on display are each fragile survivors which, written in different places and situations, give a unique insight into Nelson’s life and preoccupations.

For example, there’s one letter written to Emma Hamilton when she was pregnant with Horatia (she would give birth on the 29th January 1801). Nelson knows she is due any day but he won’t be around because at that point he is second in command of the channel fleet. He writes: ‘My Dear Lady Hamilton, When I consider that this day 9 months was your birthday, and that although we had a gale of wind, yet I was happy and sung ‘Come Cheer up Fair Emma’ even the thought compared with this day makes me melancholy, my heart somehow is sunk within me …’.

The ‘Nelson In His Own Words’ exhibition is housed in the Nelson gallery at the NMRN’s home in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. Their permanent display includes a comparison of Nelson’s handwriting before and after he lost his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797.

These letters, written with his left hand, are peppered with fascinating insights from everyday gossip and anecdotes to historic events, and breaking news of the Battle of the Nile. The letters take the reader through Nelson’s relationship with Emma Hamilton to just a few days before his death at Trafalgar on HMS Victory.

A man holds up one of Nelson's letters to the camera
NMRN curator Will Heppa with a letter from Nelson. Look at the state of that address! The Post Office are never going to be able to deliver that! (Photo: NMRN)

Matthew Sheldon, Executive Director of The National Museum of the Royal Navy said: “The letters were written in the turbulent and troubled years which were the peak of Nelson’s fame. They might be sent from the middle of the Atlantic or the Mediterranean; be written when rushing to get his furniture onboard HMS Victory or when chasing the French Fleet. We can imagine them being signed and sealed, despatched by boat, carried by ship and coach to the tables of his friends and family.

“Through the letters we can hear Nelson’s voice in his own words; his emotions and energy always near the surface, as he jumps from the personal to the professional all in one sentence.”

A large white tent covers HMS Victory
Victory Live: The Big Repair (Photo: NMRN)

If you go to see the ‘Nelson In His Own Words’ exhibition, you’ll also have a chance to experience ‘Victory Live: The Big Repair’ on HMS Victory (100 metres away). It’s a rare opportunity to see the decade-long efforts to stabilise and repair HMS Victory and meet the shipwrights and conservators who are overseeing the work. It’s all about saggy bottoms, smart props and death watch beetles!

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