The Nelson Pediment

King William Court, The Old Royal Naval College

I always find it a bit odd that one of the best bits of The Old Royal Naval College is tucked away in a side-court so you actually have to seek it out rather than it being on display for all to see. It’s huge (40ft x 10ft) – but frankly it feels a bit like an afterthought. And, to some extent, I guess it is.

Nelson was (and remains) Britain’s most important naval commander, but he died after the ORNC had been finished and all the good spots for splendid pediments were already taken. They had to shoehorn him in somewhere, though, so he’s round the back of King William Block – you have to go right into the courtyard and look back on yourself to find it.

It was created in 1812 by Benjamin West from his 1807 painting The Immortality of Nelson, held by the National Maritime Museum. Coade Stone and many coade-connoisseurs reckon it’s the finest example of sculptures in the material. West, by the way, is most famous for his painting The Death of Nelson (he specialised in the heroic demises of famous naval leaders it appears; he also depicted General Wolfe’s last moments) in the Maritime museum and of course he was responsible for the giant piece above the altar in the Naval College Chapel, but in the actual execution of the pediment, he worked with Joseph Panzetta, who worked for the Coades for 26 years. It took the pair of them three years to create and West got paid a thousand pounds for his design – considerably more per foot than Sir James Thornhill got for the Painted Hall. That’s Inflation, I guess. The Coade factory received £2,584, but I doubt Panzetta saw too much of it.

The main figures are of Britannia, complete with trident and helmet, receiving Nelson’s body from Neptune. On either side various creatures and godlets, maritime and otherwise, writhe from their Coade-stone bases. It’s all very symbolic, though I’m not sure of much other than the obvious Sea-god- Britain-ruling-the-waves-dead-hero stuff. Somewhere I’ve seen a little key; a line drawing of all the figures with explanations of their meanings, but I can’t for the life of me remember where.

Horses, spare cannons and balls, what looks like a sinking ship (though it could be some kind of fortress – it’s not the most clearly defined bit) and tablets picking out highlights from Nelsons career all jostle each other for space. I particularly like the three maidens holding Brittania’s coat and Union (Jack, presumably, since it’s maritime) flagged shield while she’s got her hands full.

The best way to view the pediment is from just below the lamp post in King William Court, but the most romantic way to see it is from the window of the little side-annex off the Painted Hall, dedicated to Nelson. It’s usually shut unless you go on a guided tour, but don’t forget to have a peek out of the window if you take an official walk.

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