'The Nelson Touch': Restoring HMS 'Victory', 1805-1925

A painting showing the 'Victory' at her permanent home in No. 2 Dry Dock, Portsmouth. She is pictured in starboard-bow view. She was dry-docked at Portsmouth in 1922 following the launch of a national appeal - the 'Save the Victory Fund' - to restore and preserve her in her Trafalgar condition, shorn of later additions. The ship was refloated for the last time on 8 April 1925 to adjust her cradle and so that her waterline was level with the top of the dock. he buildings of the dockyard are visible on the right and beyond a submarine visible on the left the battleship 'Queen Elizabeth' can be seen alongside the Sheer Jetty

The painting shows the ship during an early phase of her reconditioning - probably in the later part of 1924 in fact, and using a photographs as a reference - together with a number of the men working on it. Several men stand on the scaffolding to the right of the picture, working on the figurehead bearing the coat of arms of George III. On the right a number of figures are at work on the ship from the scaffolding, observed by members of the restoration committee. The artist has paid close attention to detail of the work in progress. He has concentrated on the restoration and the figures, both looking at the ship and working on it. After Wyllie's death his wife Marian wrote about the painting and identified some of the figures. The Wyllies themselves are shown standing on the deck of the 'Victory' on the left. Wyllie, in casual dress, wears a cap and a white beard. He leans on the rail to the left of his wife. She is highly visible in a white dress and a blue hat with trailing scarf, resting her hand on the rail to the right. Other well-dressed men, women and children are shown on the deck standing under a canvas awning while a uniformed officer shows the restoration in progress.

Members of the restoration committee stand in two groups on the jetty on the left, looking at plans. Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee (1859-1925) is shown in the foreground of the picture with Sir Philip Watts and Wyllie's son Harold. He is shown discussing a blueprint of the rigging with Sir Philip. Other members of the 'Victory' committee stand in a group in the foreground. Sir Doveton Sturdee was a prime mover in the restoration efforts and Marion Wyllie writes that he sat for his portrait by her husband. The painting combines reportage with portraiture in this distinctive and unusual composition and it is significant that Wyllie locates himself and family in the venture. As well as the closely observed detailing relating to the ship's restoration, the artist has carefully detailed social niceties and clothes appropriate to social standing and status. Every person is shown wearing headgear specific to their role.

The son of an English genre painter, William Morrison Wyllie, the artist was a painter and engraver. He spent most of his childhood summers in France, where his parents owned houses on the coast, first at Boulogne and later at Wimereux. He entered the Royal Academy schools in 1866 and won the Turner Gold Medal for Landscape in 1870. His interest in the sea developed into a continuing career as a marine painter. He was elected ARA in 1889, following an exhibition of 69 watercolours at the Fine Art Society. In the 1890s his development as a watercolourist reached its peak. He worked on paintings of shipping throughout World War I. Thereafter he is best remembered for his series of small etchings and drypoints of London views in the 1920s, and for his large but only partly successful panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar, painted shortly before his death for what is now the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth. This was previously 'The Victory Museum' and was developed in parallel to the restoration of the ship in the adjacent dock from 1922, a project headed by the Society for Nautical Research. Wyllie, a founder member of the Society, was also a leading supporter of the 'Save the Victory' campaign, this painting being one manifestation of that support, as was his work on the panorama.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and bought almost immediately by Sir James Caird (1864-1954). He substantially helped to fund the 'Victory' restoration, and his support later underlay the creation of the National Maritime Museum, for which he amassed and donated a huge collection as well as providing funding. The painting is inscribed 'W L Wyllie 1925', bottom right.

Object Details

ID: BHC3701
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Wyllie, William Lionel
Vessels: Victory (1765)
Date made: 1925
People: Royal Academy of Arts, London
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Painting: 1275 x 1863 mm; Frame: 1455 mm x 2043 mm x 75 mm

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