Wednesday, 31 March 2010

‘Battle of Trafalgar’ - William Lionel Wyllie

Wyllie-Battle_of_Trafalgar‘Battle of Trafalgar’ - William Lionel Wyllie (detail)

A detail from a massive 42 foot long panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar! The battle that ensured Napoleon would never invade Britain with his armies, painted on a scale that matches how momentous that victory was.


And when I say a “panorama” of the battle, what I mean is a full 360-degree circle of canvas, in which the observer could stand and be overwhelmed. 

  “Difficult to imagine though it may now be, panoramas were the cinemas of their day [says the Royal Naval Museum website].  Invented in 1787 by Robert Barker, they achieved the height of their popularity at the time of the 1900 Universal Exhibition.  The name ‘panorama’ is derived from the Greek and means ‘see all’.  By creating a 360º image, often adorned with mock terrain in the foreground, and on some occasions sounds and scents, the artist tried to trick the viewer into imagining he or she was actually at the scene, rather than simply viewing a painting. . .

Even small and ‘on the flat’ as seen here you can imagine the shot and cannon blasts, the destruction wrought by flying balls of metal. It looks like being there would be be like visiting a canyon of hell.

    “With typical thoroughness, Wyllie sought to make his own 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. . .
    “The huge canvas was specially made: in fact, the original was not big enough and a further piece was attached to each end, the joins hidden by watersplashes from falling cannonshot.  A sailmaker was employed to cut eyelets and the canvas was hung like a sail, with lacing at top and bottom.
    “Wyllie’s daughter, Aileen, herself a talented artist, was her father’s principal assistant with the mammoth task.  In an interview in later life, she referred to how she would ‘put on the equivalent of a pound of butter and go back and be unable to find the place’.  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!
     “In keeping with the style of the panorama genre, Wyllie designed the painting to be seen through the windows of the stern cabin of the French ship, Neptune. . .
    “The painting depicts the Battle at it height at 2.00 pm.  The two fleets are fully engaged.  To the left, in a haze of gun-smoke, Collingwood’s division is crushing the Allied rear.  To the right, the Allied van is trying to come round in the light winds to support its colleagues, but it has effectively been cut out of the battle by Nelson’s decisive tactics.  And in the centre is the Victory, still flying Nelson’s final signal, ‘Engage the Enemy More Closely,’ locked in a deadly struggle with the French ship, Redoubtable [a captured British ship under a French flag]. 
    “The only licence Wyllie allowed himself was to include the falling of the masts of the great Spanish four-decker, the Santissima Trinidad.  This significant event did not occur until 30 minutes later.
    “The Panorama was a great success.  45,000 people viewed it in the months immediately after it was opened.  One enthusiastic visitor even confessed to having seen it sixteen times!  When Wyllie died, less than a year later, on 6th April 1931, he will have known that his great work had struck a chord with the public and that he had more than played his part in keeping alive interest in [this turning point in European history].”


  1. A wonderful post. I just finished the book "Trafalgar-the Nelson touch" by David Howarth which gives an almost minute-by-minute account of the battle. It's filled with fine illustrations, but none better than this.

  2. I've just been reading C.S. Forester's 'Hornblower' book, so Wyllie's painting really caught my eye.

  3. Wow!




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