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Art review: National Maritime Museum

23 November 2018

Nicholas Cranfield visits the National Maritime Museum’s new galleries

Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum and Casson Mann. © Hufton+Crow

Visitors in the “Tudor and Stuart Seafarers” gallery

Visitors in the “Tudor and Stuart Seafarers” gallery

FOUR new permanent gallery spaces have opened in the Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The leading British architects Purcell were entrusted to transform the East Wing of the Grade I building that originally held the museum’s archive and library collections on book presses designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Where possible, the panelling has been retained and refurbished. Spare bookshelves have been relocated in the Story Museum in Oxford, another Heritage Lottery Fund project undertaken by Purcell.

At the mouth-watering cost of £12.6 million, the new galleries convert 1000 square metres of space into four areas by Casson Mann, who had previously designed the successful “Nelson, Navy, Nation” with interactive displays, clear (if somewhat brief) labels, and enough objects to inform the story intelligently for the hard-put-upon tourist and school groups alike. With an eye once again to the interactive requirements of children, more than 1000 artefacts from the collection are now put on show here: “Pacific Encounters”, “Polar Worlds”, “Sea Things”, and “Tudor and Stuart Seafarers”.

Having been to the opening of “Oceania” the previous day at the Royal Academy, I concentrated on the emergence of a maritime nation, 1485 to 1707, for which James Davey has edited a helpful handbook (published by Adlard Coles). A similar publication, Pacific Exploration (edited by N. Rigby, P. van der Merwe, and G Williams), accompanies the first of the exhibition rooms.

The NMG has to make do with a large reproduction of the Sebastiano del Piombo portrait of the Genoese adventurer John Cabot to start the story under Henry VII, but things pick up thereafter.

Here you will find Philip II’s written instructions ordering the 1588 Armada and, by way of a rejoinder, the victory song of three stanzas written by Elizabeth I and “sunge in December after the scatteringe of the Spanish Navy”. The Virgin Queen was often likened to the prophetess Deborah (Judges 5) in her lifetime and, like her father, could sing.

Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum and Casson Mann. © Hufton+Crow  Installation view of the “Polar Worlds” gallery

Other memorabilia from the defeat of the Spanish Armada demonstrate how the Tudor Protestants marketed their naval victory over a former king of England as God’s vindication of their cause. Playing cards with imagined scenes from the engagement were still popular in the 17th century.

Of the paintings in the room, the most distinguished is that of the shipwright Peter Pett, standing alongside Charles I’s 1637 flagship, the Sovereign of the Seas (Peter Lely, 1645-50), which replaced the Prince Royal, laid down for the king’s elder short-lived brother Henry, Prince of Wales.

A portrait of a 23-year-old Navigator with globe and dividers (1624) is here attributed to a Flemish artist, Hendrick van der Borcht (1583-1651), whom I had associated with still-life and flower paintings. The self-satisfied young man holds a pair of dividers over a celestial globe. In the centre of this room is one of Mercator’s 1541 terrestrial globes.

Charts abound, including those in The Manners Mirror (1588), an illustrated nautical almanac from the 1540s with the coasts of the North and Baltic seas inked in, and the elaborate large-scale hand-drawn map of the “plattmaker” Nicholas Camberford.

Born in Kilkenny around 1600, Camberford set up a cartography studio in Stepney funded by the Drapers’ Company. Pepys visited him on 22 July 1663, after having his hair cut and collecting his copy of The South Sea Waggoner from the binders. He commented on “his manner of working, which is very fine and laborious”. and left, reading Ben Jonson’s comedy The Devil is an Ass.

Visitors leaving here will want to come back to Greenwich, as Pepys himself did often enough.

National Maritime Museum, Romney Road, Greenwich, London SE10. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Recorded information: phone 020 8312 6565.


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