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Exploring William L Wyllie and The Panorama of The Battle of Trafalgar

17 September 2018

William Wyllie painting outside his house

William Wyllie painting outside his house

The Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar was opened in Portsmouth Dockyard, close to HMS Victory, on 29th July 1930 by King George V. At 42 feet by 12 feet (13 metres x 4 metres), perhaps the largest representation of the battle in existence, it can still be seen today, in its original position, but now as part of the displays in our museum.

It is even more remarkable because the artist was in his 79th year when he painted it (he died less than a year after its opening). Moreover, it is one of the few remaining examples of a ‘panorama’, a genre that has its origins in late eighteenth-century England and with which Nelson was certainly familiar. William Lionel Wyllie was the most distinguished marine artist of his day and his work is still in great demand.

From 1906, when he moved to Portsmouth, he became closely associated with the navy. So much so, indeed, that he was buried with full naval honours in 1931. In a moving ceremony, reminiscent of Nelson’s state funeral in 1806, his body was rowed up Portsmouth Harbour in a naval cutter past battleships with dipped colours and bugles calling and quaysides lined with dockyard workers.

Wyllie painted and engraved the steam-powered warships of his day, but he retained a special affection for the sailing navy, the prime example of which was Victory. As a keen (and competitive) sailor, he understood sailing ships, and the elements – the wind and the sea - in which they operate. His work is enthused with that knowledge and his deep love of all things maritime. Wyllie was therefore an obvious choice – and a willing volunteer – to join the movement to save the Victory in the early 1920s.

Already 40 years old at Trafalgar, after a further 100 years of pulling at her moorings in Portsmouth Harbour, Nelson’s flagship was in a bad state, with perhaps half her timbers rotten. Led by the Society for Nautical Research, money was raised, the ship was brought into dry dock in January 1922, and a full-scale restoration got underway. Paintings and prints by Wyllie helped both to keep the subject in the public eye and to raise money. With the Victory restoration safely in hand by the mid-1920s, attention turned to the question of building a museum to further the public's knowledge of the ship and its history.

Partly to raise the money to do this, and partly to satisfy a deep personal wish, Wyllie proposed to paint a panorama of the battle. With typical thoroughness, Wyllie sought to make the painting as accurate as possible. Friends read through log books to identify the relative positions of the ships; the Navigation School was consulted to determine the correct position of the sun. Wyllie even took a cruise off Cape Trafalgar itself to study the colour of the sea and the sky. A number of his preliminary sketches can be seen in the museum. Wyllie’s daughter, Aileen, herself a talented artist, was her father’s principal assistant with the mammoth task.

Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar by William L Wyllie

The Panorama of The Battle of Trafalgar by William L Wyllie shows the breadth of the skirmish which unfolds before the observer 

In all, it took nine months to complete the work, with Wyllie working most days from 10 in the morning until 5 at night, with a nap in the middle. Much of the painting had to be done on step ladders; looking back, Aileen had nothing but admiration for her father: ‘At the time it seemed natural, but now that I am old, I cannot think how he did those hours on ladders in his 79th year.’ Such was Wyllie’s fame that people actually paid to watch him work! Eventually, the painting was complete and on Tuesday 29 July 1930 it was formally opened by King George V.

The Annual Report of the Society for Nautical Research for 1930 describes how the King ‘examined the picture closely from every point of view and warmly complimented Mr Wyllie on his work.’ The panorama is now seen by visitors as the final part of ‘The Trafalgar Experience.’ This is a multi-media walk-through show housed on one side of the Victory Gallery, which explains why the Battle took place, introduces Nelson and Napoleon, and recreates a gundeck on the Victory at the height of the battle. With a commentary and special lighting, Wyllie’s work, so meticulously researched, can be appreciated both as a depiction of the battle and as a work of art.

See William Wyllies masterpiece inside The National Museum of the Royal Navy Portsmouth
Be stirred by the magnificient parnorama and more with a Full Navy Ticket. 

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