on 7 November 2004
I bought this book charmed by the idea of the discovery of extraordinary and poignant relics of a heroic moment in time. What could be more enticing than a gold-stuffed purse soaked in hero-blood! It seems so much like the stuff of classical legend, it is wonderful that such a discovery can be made today. This initial phase of the book is of course fascinating and one very much enjoys hearing about the author's astonishing experience of bringing this treasure to light while working for Sotheby's in 2002.
But this is far more than a study of some antiquities. Downer has illuminated the world of Alexander Davison, Nelson's close friend and prize agent (and the original owner of the hoard of countless resonant artefacts and letters). This book draws us close to Nelson, his wife Fanny, Emma Hamilton and Davison, largely through these newly discovered letters, but also through broader research. The letters, particularly those written by Fanny Nelson as her marriage was failing, are very affecting as her feelings tear through the constraints of 18th/19th century propriety. And we become fascinated by Davison, his ambitions, business dealings and vanities, his relationship with Nelson and other private and professional relationships as we follow him through triumphs and disasters. We are also shown Davison's persistent Masonic influences, which come through time and again in the gifts, artworks and votive objects he commissions, evidently perceived by him as strengthening the tie between himself and Nelson. There is clearly scope for further investigation into the extent to which his business and political life, and his friendship with Nelson, and indeed Nelson's own career, were affected by their hitherto unknown Masonic background.
Davison's and Nelson's flaws are exposed in this book, but not in a judgemental way. Their imperfections are not seen as undermining their greatness, they are simply part of the picture. Downer turns an immense amount of information into a great story with soul and sensitivity. By discovering the marvellous finds which led to the writing of this book, Downer opened a window into Nelson's world. By researching and writing this book he turned the light on inside. It is a fascinating read.
Martyn Downer, the author was Head of Jewellery at Sotheby's in London from 1999 to 2003. At the beginning of July 2002, Sotheby's announced to the world the discovery of a major cache of material relating to the life of England's greatest naval hero, Horatio Nelson. The man who made this extraordinary find and who subsequently spent over a year validating the material and placing it in the context of Nelson's life was Martyn Downer.
While the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar has brought out an abundance of books about Nelson, this book stands out amongst them because of its content. This is not a book about the great man's battles and conquests, nor about his ships or his men, although they are of course mentioned. This is a book about the chance finding after many years of some of the most famous possessions of Admiral Nelson himself. Possessions that were thought to have been lost over a century ago.
Among the items found are his swords, medals, pistols and pottery and porcelain. Also letters, both to his wife Fanny and his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton. To be able to handle items that had been lost for so long must have been a wonderful experience for the author and to find items that have never before been documented must have been truly exciting.
This is a book that gets into the heart and mind of the greatest naval hero England has ever had, or ever likely to have.
on 9 March 2005
Whilst the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar will certainly usher in more books about Nelson, it is doubtful as to whether any of them will be quite as original as this. Taking it's cue from a chance discovery of Nelson memorabilia, including many previously unseen letters from Nelson, this book charts the spectacular rise and fall of his business associate and friend, Alexander Davison.
Whilst it is true to say that Nelson is not the centre of this story, Downer reveals a world of business transactions and patrionage where one false move (or two in the case of Davison) would land in jail. Banker, contractor, businessman, Mason, patron of the arts and confidant of Nelson, Davison led a full and fascinating life - almost like a Napoleonic Robert Maxwell. He also acted as Nelson's Prize Agent - the capture of foriegn ships clearly being the Admiral's raison d'etre.
The book is almost like a case study for "O" level history with it's accounts of playrights such as Sheriden, politicians such as William Pitt, captains of industry like Matthew Boulton and tales of rotten boroughs. Nelson enlightens the pages upon his return from war but readers will be shocked at the manner at which he ditched his faithful wife Fanny for the scheming Emma Hamilton. I would certainly not consider Nelson a "Great Briton" after reading this book. He comes across as vain and utterly dominated by women as well as always being short of money. (The usual expensive girlfriend problem.) This does not really touch on Nelson's naval campaign's and this may disappoint some readers but Davison's eventful life is certainly worthy of a biography.
Although I would have liked to learn how the artifacts reached their owner before auction (but can understand why from a confidential point of view we don't!), the author tells his story well and I am sure that there is much in this book to appeal to readers who love history. Very enjoyable.
on 28 December 2014
Probably the most important book written on Nelson so far this Century. Downer's fascinating account of the staggering treasure trove of 'Nelsoniana' brought to him as an expert in maritime antiques is truly stranger than fiction. Most importantly, the letters he found, written between Nelson's prize-agent and confidant Alexander Davison and Nelson's wife Frances, completely changed the view of the wronged wife, for too long mistakenly described as 'cold and heartless'. This book is a must for all students of Nelson and those close to him.