On 19 December 2013, I sat alone and in silence in a darkened basement room at the British Film Institute, watching a biographical film made in 1918. This was Maurice Elvey’s film Nelson, a film I had read about but had never seen. I knew a lot about the making of the film, some of the challenges it faced and the critical response to it. I also knew that it had been made just before Elvey’s masterpiece, The Life Story of David Lloyd George, so I was secretly hoping for something a bit special.
Nelson turned out to be a curate’s egg of a film – parts of it are excellent, while parts of it are simply bad. I liked the scenes of Nelson’s childhood, featuring young actor Eric Barker as a funny and irreverent boy. I liked the love scenes between Donald Calthrop and Ivy Close as Nelson and Lady Nelson. I was gripped by the siege of Naples and the battle scenes depicted diagrammatically. I enjoyed the intertitles – beautifully illustrated with nautical ropes and flags. And I loved the structure of the film – Admiral Fremantle giving a young would be sailor a biography of Nelson to teach him how to be a sailor. On the other hand I winced at a particularly ill-advised Arctic sequence and was appalled at the badly conceived make up applied to Donald Calthrop, which made it difficult to take the character seriously.
I hadn’t uncovered a masterpiece. Rather I had seen a very flawed film albeit one with some brilliant moments. Disappointing. And yet… an interest in Nelson’s place in the national culture was sparked. Six months later I found myself in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in front of Nelson’s tomb. I have stood on the decks of HMS Victory and seen the spot where Nelson fell at the Battle of Trafalgar.
I’ve looked at figureheads at Portsmouth and been to the site of the Cradle of the Navy – the old Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight, where part of the film was shot.
And I have looked at endless Nelson memorabilia – pill boxes, playbills, paintings and papercuts. And then there is the sewn Nelsonalia – a skirt flounce worn by Emma, Lady Hamilton. Samplers sewn by young girls to mark the passing of a national hero. The remains of the Union Jack flown on the Victory. Nelson’s bloodied stockings. The coat he was wearing when the fatal shot was fired.
The story of Nelson, Elvey’s flawed film and the outpouring of grief at the death of a hero transformed into porcelain, paper and stitch have inspired me to create my own tribute – a portrait quilt.
The Nelson quilt is a work in progress – 3,200 one inch squares will take some time to put together, particularly when they are all paper pieced by hand. But I feel moved to carry on. I blame Maurice Elvey.