HMS Victory returns to its 1805 colours (and Nelson hated them)

It’s now 210 years since HMS Victory helped Britannia rule the waves after it emerged victorious at the Battle of Trafalgar. To commemorate the conflict, Victory will be repainted in the colours it was on that day in 1805. All About History got in touch with Andrew Baines, head of historic ships at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, who told us a little bit more about the ambitious project.

HMS Victory repaint

What is the repainting trying to achieve?

The primary reason for repainting Victory over the summer was to ensure that the ship’s hull was weathertight. In the past, rainwater has caused significant damage to Victory, and so over the past few years we’ve undertaken lots of work to eliminate sources of water ingress. The hull planking is in quite poor condition in places, and leaks on the seams. In the course of painting, we repair the damaged areas and make sure everything’s in good condition.

This year’s painting was of course different because of the change in the colours used. Over the past three and a half years we’ve endeavoured to bring an archaeological approach to the Victory Project. A key part of that work has been an investigation into the historic colour schemes that can still be found on Victory. By combining the archaeological evidence with information in the museum’s rich manuscript holdings, we have identified the colours worn by Victory at the time of Trafalgar, and the trustees decided that these historically accurate colours should be used when we repainted.

The real motivation for this change is that we can now say that this isn’t what we think Victory might have looked like, nor is it what it would have looked like if we’d been picking colours back 1805, it’s simply what it looked like when Nelson was rowed out to the ship on 14 September 1805. It’s rather pleasing that, for the first time in more than 200 years, we’ve been able to give Victory that appearance.

Is the first time Victory has been repainted?
There’s an old saying in the Royal Navy – if it moves, salute it, and if it doesn’t, paint it. Victory has been repainted on a continual basis throughout its history. When at sea, it was probably repainted four or five times each year. In 1816, it lost its ochre and black bands and these were replaced by black and white bands that were carried all the way through to 1922, when the ship was permanently dry docked. At that stage, it was painted in a very bright yellow and black scheme, which was believed to be correct for the period of Trafalgar. The yellow used has changed across the last 90 years as the recipe had to change when use of pigments such as chrome yellow was made illegal. Now, of course, having identified the correct colours, we simply mix the correct shade using modern pigments that are much kinder to the environment.

HMS Victory repaint
The legendary Admiral Nelson led Victory on numerous occasions

Why did Victory have these colours at Trafalgar? Was it tradition or some sort of war paint for an advantage in battle?

Victory’s colour has changed over its existence to suit the fashions of the day. When it was first commissioned in the 1770s, its sides were varnished, rather than painted, and it was decorated with bright blues and reds in a frieze around the top of the ship’s hull. By the 1790s, that had given way to plain sides of painted ochre, and then Nelson applied his famous chequer scheme when Victory became his flagship in 1803.

The colours themselves are simply the cheapest pigments available – lamb black, white lead and yellow ochre (which in reality can be anything from straw to a pale brown). We know Nelson wasn’t happy with the shade of ochre on Victory’s sides and asked for more white paint to make them paler. Unfortunately for him, he died before his request reached the Admiralty. Not being particularly sentimental chaps, they turned the request down!

Could you describe the time-lapse to us?

The time-lapse video shows the painting of the ship’s starboard side over a period of about three months. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t particularly kind to us this year, but the time-lapse does bring home how much work goes into a job such as this, even with modern equipment such as mobile platforms. In 1805, all of the painting would have been done by seamen in Bosun’s chairs – effectively a plank hung over the ship’s side that you sat on to work.

HMS Victory repaint
HMS Victory in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1900

Do you have any other new and exciting projects coming up at the Dockyard?

The winter period is quite an exciting one for us at HMS Victory as we are using all of the research we have undertaken in the past few years to redisplay and reinterpret the ship. There will be a new route through Victory providing access to areas that have never been accessible to the public before, and also changes to spaces that people are quite familiar with, such as Nelson’s Great Cabin, which when completed will be almost unrecognisable to anyone who has been on board in the past few years, but which the admiral himself would find very familiar. Visitors will be able to see more of Victory than ever before, and what they do see will be more accurate than at any point in the past century. We’re working really hard to deliver this for Easter 2016.

In addition to the changes at HMS Victory, the Mary Rose will also undergo a major makeover. The Mary Rose’s long and remarkable history will enter an exciting new phase as the wall that has previously separated visitors from the ship will be replaced with glazing, providing remarkable unrestricted views of the ship. Removing the walls will open up spectacular views of the hull where visitors will be able to experience the full magnitude of the Mary Rose for the first time since it was raised from the Solent in 1982.

HMS Victory repaint
Victory as it looked prior to the repaint

Furthermore, the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard plays host to an incredible new blockbuster exhibition ‘36 hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won The War’ to mark the momentous centenary in May. As well as being a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together material from across the UK and Germany, the exhibition is linked to the other significant NMRN launch in 2016, namely the restoration of the last surviving ship from the World War I battle, HMS Caroline, and her opening to the public in Belfast in May 2016.

Learn more about the ship on the Historic Dockyard’s website.

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