To mark the anniversary of the state funeral of Lord Nelson, this week’s work of art is a disconcertingly vivid effigy of him created by the wax modeller Catherine Andras. It was made in 1806, a year after Nelson’s death, and placed on public display in Westminster Abbey, where it is still to be found. The uniform that the figure wears, conspicuously decorated by medals, was furnished by the Nelson family. It includes the shoe buckles that he wore when he was killed, at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Catherine Andras, who was born in 1775, rose from humble origins to be appointed “Modeller in Wax to Queen Charlotte”. Her models, most of which were created on a small scale, “were of coloured wax and most elaborately finished, eyelashes and eyebrows inserted of the finest quality imaginable.” The exceptional commission to make a life-size effigy of Nelson for the Abbey was given to her because she had already modelled a small likeness of him, from life, and so it was thought that she could be counted upon to fashion a more authentically realistic image than someone who had never met him.
Andras was an orphan who had helped to run a toy and perfumery business with her two sisters in Bristol. She made wax dolls on consignment for travelling funfairs, which attracted so much favourable comment and sold so well that she decided to branch out into portraiture. She modelled a number of celebrities, including John Wesley and a colourful Polish military gentleman called General Koscinsko. In the hope of furthering her career she gained an introduction to Robert Bowyer, a successful miniature painter who lived and worked in London. Bowyer and his wife, who had just lost a daughter at the time, were so taken with her that they adopted her and took her into their own home. It was there that she modelled Nelson, while his picture was being painted by her adoptive father. The admiral joked that he was not used to being taken “Starboard and Larboard at the same time.”
Throughout the eighteenth century, Westminster Abbey had been regarded as the national mausoleum for war heroes, but by the start of the nineteenth century it seemed full almost to overflowing with grand memorials – a veritable “warehouse of statuary”, as James Gandon remarked. In 1795 Parliament had decided to erect monuments to the illustrious dead in the still undecorated interior of St Paul’s and so it was that Nelson was laid to rest there, after a funeral procession witnessed by an unprecedentedly large crowd. According to one eyewitness, his body “passed in sad procession up the Thames, amidst the booming of minute-guns and the tolling of bells… it was borne along the streets of London through a sea of bare heads, in deep and impressive silence broken only by the sobs of the onlookers, to its final resting place in St Paul’s.” After the event, more crowds flocked to the cathedral, not only to see Nelson’s place of burial but also to see the elaborate funeral car, based on the HMS Victory, in which his coffin had been placed for the procession. Visitors were charged tuppence each, generating much money for St Paul’s. This rubbed salt into the wounds of the jealously watching minor canons and vergers of Westminster Abbey, much of whose income was derived from the admission charge levied by the “shewers of tombs”. The effect on their business was nothing short of catastrophic, and so it was that they commissioned Catherine Andras’s effigy as a counter-attraction. It installed, in double-quick time, by the spring of 1806, and originally exhibited in a glass case inscribed, rather ironically, with the words Nelson had famously declared on the eve of the battle of St Vincent: “Victory or Westminster Abbey.”
Andras’s effigy attracted many visitors, although some felt that it was vulgar and brought the Abbey down to the level of a mere waxwork museum such as that established by Mrs Salmon, which had been a popular attraction in London since the early eighteenth century. The sculptor Joseph Nollekens remarked, rather snootily, to one of the vergers, that “I wonder you keep such stuff … I don’t mind going to Mrs Salmon’s wax-work in Fleet Street where Mother Shipton [an automaton placed by the door] gives you a kick as you’re going out, but oh dear, you should not have such rubbish in the Abbey.” Nollekens was not quite right, however, in regarding the effigy of Nelson as a mere “wax-work”, because the very fact that it was commissioned for Westminster Abbey also suggestively placed it within a very different tradition – that of the royal funeral effigy, traditionally made from wax, of which numerous examples are held there. The meaning of such royal effigies, and their role in the funerals of both French and English kings since the late thirteenth century, has been explained by the historian Julian Litten: “Whilst the coffin contained the body of the deceased king, the life-size ‘hearse-statue’ or funeral effigy, displayed supine atop the coffin, gorgeously attired in coronation robes lent from the Great Wardrobe, with jewelled diadem or crown upon the head and the regalia of kingship - the orb and sceptre – in its hands, represented the deceased monarch on his journey to meet the king of Kings.”
The royal effigy had ceased to be part of the pomp of royal funerals after the death of James I in 1625, but the fact that it was revived for Lord Nelson – albeit in rather unusual circumstances – suggests the extent to which the hero had acquired the aura of an uncrowned king. During his own lifetime Nelson had played up to his own vast popularity, embarking on regal progresses through the country, during the course of which his every move – whether shopping, or going to the opera – was attended by vast applauding crowds. It may well have been for this reason, as much as for his scandalous liaison with Lady Emma Hamilton, that the royal family so pointedly declined to attend his funeral in St Paul’s. So the very medium in which Andras’s statue was carried out says something both about the extraordinary force of Nelson’s personality and the almost subversive nature of his popularity. It also happens to look very much like him. Nelson’s mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, remarked that Andras’s effigy was far more convincing than any other painted or sculpted portrait: “in the direction & form of the nose, mouth and chin … the general carriage of the body was exactly his … altogether the likeness was so great it was impossible for anyone who had known him to doubt about or mistake it.” The model, incidentally, is in relatively good condition, considering its antiquity. Two fingers were found to be broken and restored in 1934, while more recently some areas of lost polychrome tint on the nose were toned in to blend with the rest.