'New Visions' of our collection: October

An architectural model of Nelson's Column by William Railton, c.1838
On the ground floor of the National Maritime Museum you will find our Maritime London galleries. This is a very special section of the Museum - here you really get a sense of London as a changing port city. From drawings to panoramas, Greenwich is depicted here as an integral part of the networks of trade. Trade is inevitably bound to power. Powerful cities are full of symbols that reflect, commemorate and rewrite history. In this gallery one of the most famous landmarks of London can be found - Nelson's Column. Of course to see it in its actual location you will need to travel to Trafalgar Square - just a short train ride away. Here, though, we have a model of it, carefully constructed at a 1:22 scale from bath stone, wood, marble and metal.
In 1838 the Nelson Memorial Committee proposed an idea to create a memorial to commemorate Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. An open competition was announced and the architect William Railton was chosen to design the monument's column, while the sculptor Edward Hodges Baily was selected to create Nelson's statue. This model is believed to be the first visualisation of how the final version would look. Construction on Railton's column began in 1840. In 1850 the four bas-reliefs depicting Nelson's battles of St Vincent, Copenhagen, the Nile, and Trafalgar were added. In1867 four bronze lions, which are shown here in the model at NMM, completed the monument as we know it today. Now much sat on by visitors to London, these figures were designed by Sir Edwin Landseer, a painter known for his depictions of animals. There are also a few differences between NMM's version and how the statue turned out. Architectural models are design experiments that inevitably will be reworked once the scaling-up process begins. Our model shows steps around the base that did not make it to the final design.
Monuments are usually built to commemorate a specific event, but as they slip into public consciousness they gather anecdotes and associations. As a public square, Trafalgar Square operates as a meeting place and as a space to gather groups to both celebrate and demonstrate - from sporting victory parades and New Year revelry to demonstrations against apartheid and the poll tax. Nelson's Column famously was sold in 1923 by a retired Glasgow-born actor Arthur Furguson to an American tourist for £6000, and just before the statue of Nelson was placed on the top of the column construction workers held a picnic right at the top. This model is a constant reminder that history is always perceived through the present and by how we use architecture, while the present is equally marked by events and symbols of the past.