PhD Candidate, Maritime Studies
It was on May when I received an invitation to attend the opening of a very unique and interesting exhibition. The Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation was inviting me to attend the opening of Lord Admiral Nelson’s naval exhibition taking place at the Hellenic Maritime Museum in Piraeus, Greece for a limited time only. The private collection is permanently exhibited in a neoclassical mansion in Piraeus, at the premises of the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation and consists of books, paintings, personal items, dispatches, autograph letters and more. The collection belongs to the Greek shipowner Panos Laskaridis, President of the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation. It took Laskaridis thirty years to collect these items through auctions and other collectors and it was a result of admiration and appreciation of the British maritime history. Parts of the collection have been exhibited during the 200th Anniversary celebration of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005 in London, Athens, Cephalonia and the Falkland Islands.
During my visit at the museum I met Mr Steven Coobs, responsible for the collection, who gave me an interview and also guided me through the exhibits. Mr Coobs explained that Nelson’s private collection has been one of the biggest collections outside the United Kingdom and its importance to the public is remarkable. The collection contains a selection of nearly 800 books, all dedicated to Horatio Nelson and the Napoleonic Wars. Placed in glass display cases someone can see documents and newspapers of the same period talking about the Siege of Malta (1798-1800), the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1797), the Battle of the Nile (1798), the Battle of Copenhagen (1807) and the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). But the most interesting among the documents are probably the autograph diary of Admiral Lord Collingwood, the autograph diary of Thomas Fletcher, who was a gunner aboard HMS Defense at the Battle of Trafalgar, and also a few pages from the diaries of HMS Naid and HMS Swiftsure.
The Foundation’s outstanding collection encompasses a wide range of painting, flags and banners from the period of the Napoleonic Wars as well. One of the exhibits is the framed fragment of Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. Moreover, among the exhibits someone can see some of his personal items, like his special cutlery set. It was constructed after Nelson lost his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797 and its usage is aimed for one handed people. Although Nelson was not naturally left-handed, he managed to write again and finally build up to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It is easy to detect the dramatic change in his handwriting especially in his first letters. The collection contains two letters written by the naval commander which refer to Admiral Cornwallis and Admiral Collingwood, and his correspondence with Lady Hamilton which reveals different aspects of his character.
While walking through the exhibition room Mr Coobs asked me if I am ready to see something unique. Suddenly, I had in front me about thirty ship models made almost entirely from bones. The bone ship models were constructed during the period of the Napoleonic Wars by French war-prisoners and became very famous among the British artistic crowd. Mr Coobs explained that during the Napoleonic Wars over 10,000 prisoners were held captive in Britain and some of them had remained locked away for over a decade. Encouraged by the captors the prisoners were allowed to produce small objects d’art and sell them afterwards at the camps’ periodic civilian open markets. Very popular were the models representing British naval ships. All the models were constructed mostly from cattle bones kept by the prisoners from the food rations issued by the British, which they boiled until they became soft and ductile. Each ship model would normally take about a year to complete and that makes them unique. The prisoners used the large bones to carve the body of the ship and by using pieces of wood they used to create the finely detailed cannons and masts. For the sail rigging they used their own hair or threads taken from their bed clothes.
Similarly interesting is the Scrimshaw Collection which also belongs to the Laskaridis Foundation and is dated back to the 19th century. These handmade crafts were created by whalers who would patiently carve the teeth and bones of whales and other marine mammals. These crafts were normally created at sea and would later be donated to friends and family. The decorated or engraved bones and ivories depict various aspects of life in land and at sea, a seaman’s adventures, various ships and whales of course.