Text by Jacqueline Banerjee, 2012. Photograph copyright © Dr Craig Thornber, who very kindly sent in a large version of the picture on his own lovely website, A Celebration of England (see especially his section on "Admiral Lord Nelson" under "Some British Heroes"). Click on both the following images for larger pictures.

Nelson Monument by Richard (later Sir Richard) Westmacott. 1807-09. The Bull Ring, Birmingham City Centre. Larger than life-size bronze on a high Portland stone drum. Paid for by public subscription, this is the earliest memorial to the national hero, as well as being Westmacott's earliest public work and Birmingham's first public statue (see Upton 82). Andy Foster calls it "a democratic monument, without heroics," and says that Westmacott "aimed at simplicity, in contrast to his idealised Nelson of Liverpool of 1808-13" (86); but note that the Liverpool monument was designed by Matthew Cotes Wyatt, and probably owes much of its Romantic element to him. At the unveiling on 5 October 1809, Westmacott's own description of the Bull Ring monument was distributed to the people who had gathered for the ceremony:

In this work, intended to perpetuate the greatest example of naval genius, simplicity has been the chief object in the arrangement. The hero is represented in a reposed and dignified attitude, his left arm reclining on an anchor. He appears in the costume of his native country, invested with the insignia of those honours by which his sovereign and distant princes distinguished him. To the right of the statue the grand symbol of the naval profession is introduced. Victory, the constant attendant upon her favourite hero, embellishes the prow. To the left is disposed a sail, which, being placed behind the statue, gives breadth to that view of the composition. Above the ship is a facsimile of the Flag Staff Truck of L'Orient, which was fished up by Sir Samuel Hood the day following the battle of the Nile, and presented by him to Lord Nelson, the same being deposited at Mitford as a trophy of that ever memorable action.

The description continues with details of the original marble pedestal and carvings:

This group is mounted upon a pedestal of statuary marble, a circular form having been selected as best adapted to the situation. To personify that affectionate regard which caused the present patriotic tribute to be raised, the town, Birmingham, is represented in a dejected attitude, murally crowned, mourning her loss; she being accompanied by groups of genii, or children, in allusion to the rising generation, who offer consolation to her, by producing the trident and the rudder. (qtd. in Langford 307)

There were also upright canons at each corner carrying lamp standards. However, all this was lost when the monument was moved during the city centre redevelopment of the early 1960s, and the bronze statue is now mounted instead on a plain white Portland stone drum (see "Trafalgar Day celebrations" for details of its recent history).

Flaxman's monument to a noble, idealised Nelson of 1818 in the crypt of St Paul's. Source: Thomson 223.

Even so, the Birmingham monument is a fine specimen of Westmacott's work. Although it has been criticised as "a proud but ungainly representation of corporeal heroism," perhaps because of the ragged outline of the composition, it is also described by the same commentator (surely appreciatively?) as showing Nelson himself as a "more rugged hero than those depicted in St. Paul's" (Hoock 438, n. 18). No doubt the principal allusion here is to John Flaxman's Nelson Monument at the cathedral, illustrated alongside. Here, Nelson's right side is discreetly hidden by the ceremonial robe hanging on that shoulder, and the main figure is surrounded by elaborate symbolism: the names of his famous battles and the gods of the seas encircle him, while on one side Britannia points him out to the youth of Britain, and on the other side a British lion bares its teeth aggressively. Famous and elaborate though this monument is, as a whole, the lion at the base is perhaps the most lively element. In Westmacott's case, not only is the nautical background dramatic, but the figure itself is striking — the battle wound evident, the pose relaxed but the facial expression alert and attentive.

Related Material

References

Hoock, Holgar. Empires of the Imagination: Politics, War, and the Arts in the British World, 1750-1850. London: Profile, 2010.

Langford, John Alfred. A Century of Local Life: or, A Chronicle of Local Events, from 1741-1841. Birmingham: W. G. Moore, 1871. Internet Archive. 19 September 2012.

Thomson, Rev. Thos., ed. The Comprehensive History of England: Civil and Military, Religious, Intellectual, and Social, from the Earliest Period to the Suppression of the Sepoy Revolt. Div. X. London: Blackie, 1862. Internet Archive. 19 September 2012.

"Trafalgar Day." Birmingham City Council. 19 September 2012.

Upton, Christopher. A History of Birmingham. Chichester: Phillimore, 1993.


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Last modified 19 September 2012