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Martyn Downer talks about his book Nelson’s Purse

Readersvoice.com aims to give people a few good reading tips.You might want to check out previous issues, too, for other interviews and reading suggestions.For this issue I caught up with some outstanding animators, like Adam Elliot, creator of the 2004 Academy Award winning short film Harvie Krumpet. Also, I spoke to animators Bill Plympton and Frank and Caroline Mouris, and got the titles of some of their favorite books.First up, though, an interview with Martyn Downer, author of an intriguing book, Nelson's Purse. (Bantam Books).

In 2002, Martyn Downer, the then head of Jewellery at Sotheby’s in London, was doing valuations on the continent when a middle-aged couple showed him a large brooch, shaped like an anchor and covered in plump, white diamonds.
The style and feel of the brooch told Martyn Downer the brooch had been made in the early 19th century, and that it was worth more than 100,000 pounds.
Then he saw the initials H and N drawn in tiny diamonds on the anchor.
This started him on an intriguing journey, recounted in his fascinating and well-researched book Nelson’s Purse (Bantam Press).
The diamond anchor-shaped brooch shown to Martyn Downer in 2002 had belonged to the owner’s ancestor Alexander Davison.
Alexander Davison was the agent and best friend of Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Martyn Downer returned to London to research the piece and Davison.
Then the owner of the brooch said they had some of Davison’s personal papers, too.
So Martyn Downer returned to the continent, traveling to a remote castle to examine the papers for clues about the brooch.

A locked box was brought down from the castle’s attic.

It held more than 800 documents including 70 letters to Alexander Davison.

Most were from Nelson’s jilted wife Fanny, and there were others from Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton.

Lady Hamilton, a former prostitute and wife of the British Ambassador in Naples, was Nelson’s lover.
The letters gave a previously undiscovered insight into the relationships between these historic figures.

The owner showed Martyn Downer some other treasures, too, which had been kept around the castle for the previous 200 years and passed down the generations of Davison’s family.
These included medals, a sword owned by Nelson, and Nelson’s blood-stained purse containing gold guineas.

The gold coins had been placed in the purse on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the historic sea battle in which the victorious Admiral Nelson was killed.
The subsequent auction of the purse drew great media attention.
It all makes for fascinating reading.
Nelson’s Purse is a well-researched history of the time of the Napoleanic wars, and provides excellent details of life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as the stories of the lives of people like Lord Nelson.

The book is beautifully presented, too, and includes glossy color photographs of the diamond brooch, Nelson’s purse and gold coins, and paintings of sea battles and the leading players in the story.

I asked Martyn Downer about Nelson’s Purse and his favorite books.

READERSVOICE.COM: Can you list your five favorite books of all time, whether fiction or non-fiction, and maybe say a bit about why you liked them?
MARTYN DOWNER: Very difficult. Books mean different things at different times of our lives. Nevertheless, if forced to choose I would select the following books (in no particular order):

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser (London, 1978) which I read as a child and was the first book which brought the past vividly to life for me.
Rich by Melvyn Bragg (London, 1988) a wonderful account of the life of Richard Burton – a complex and attractive figure whom I much admire.
Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd (London, 1987) anything by Peter Ackroyd would do but I’ll plump for his evocative telling of the tragic story of Thomas Chatterton, the Romantic poet who took his own life aged 18.
Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller (London, 1997). I’ve only recently come across Miller’s work but this story of a boy who can feel no pain, and Miller’s evocation of the eighteenth century, is absolutely spellbinding – a tour de force.
Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (Penguin edition, 1983, first published 1904) – Conrad’s world, by turns sinister then vibrant, is bewitching – anything would do. I’ll choose that book, which is widely reckoned to be his masterpiece.