Nelson put in his place by new Maritime Museum exhibition

Admiral positioned as essential cog in wheel of a superior navy rather than heroic maverick he is often portrayed as

It might outrage some traditionalists to discover that Horatio Nelson only appears halfway through the new gallery bearing his name at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. What’s more, the admiral is portrayed as just one of many heroes – and a flawed one at that.

The gallery displays some of the most important objects in any national collection, including the uniform coat Nelson was wearing on the deck of HMS Victory on 21 October 1805 when, during the Battle of Trafalgar, a French sniper found his mark. The bullet pierced his shoulder and lung, lodging in his spine and carrying some of the gold braid from his epaulette deep into his body.

The star object, however, is a far rarer survival – a pair of ordinary seaman’s blue striped trousers, displayed beside a cat-o’-nine tails, the lash with which discipline was maintained until 1879.

“Anyone coming here looking for a shrine to Nelson will be disappointed,” says James Davey, curator of naval history. “We have put Nelson back into the context of the navy. We were very anxious to avoid hagiography. We are showing him as a man who made mistakes – but also as a man who learned from his mistakes. He was undoubtedly exceptional, but we have tried to show why.”

As far as the curators are concerned, Lieutenant Gabriel Bray, whose inglorious naval career spluttered out in a desk job, is another hero. He seems to have spent most of his time on board sketching, and his vivid watercolours, most on display for the first time, give a unique view of everyday life below decks.

Nelson first appears in an early portrait as a newly promoted captain at the age of 21, with two arms, two bright eyes, and pink cheeks.

The next portrait, which Nelson displayed in his home with Emma Hamilton, shows a haggard figure wrapped in blood soaked bandages after the terrible injuries, including the loss of his right arm, sustained in the Battle of the Nile.

The first scrawled letter written with his left hand shows him deeply depressed: “I am become a burden to my friends and useless to my country.” Just five years later, he was a national hero, mourned in an explosion of national grief, buried in one of the greatest state funerals ever mounted.

An entire wall is filled with the mass-produced souvenirs, including cheap coloured prints, toby jugs and door stops, which were displayed in every cottage and pub in the country. Davey’s favourite is an embroidery by Mary Gill, who was just 11 when Nelson died: “She lived in Durham, which is about as far from the sea as you can get, and yet his death made such an impression that she chose to give so much of her time to making this memorial.”

The last wall is filled by a huge painting of Napoleon, a prisoner on the deck of HMS Bellerophon. Nearby …read more