England's Pride and Glory

This picture-within-a-picture shows a naval cadet of about 1890 looking at what is perhaps the most famous image of Nelson, painted by Lemuel Abbott (see BHC2889) in the Naval Gallery in the Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital, to which it was presented in 1849. It remained on display there until 1936, when the Gallery collection as a whole was transferred to the care of the new National Maritime Museum. Nelson was regarded as the greatest British naval hero and so the narrative of the painting indicates that he is perceived as the real subject of the picture, conveying a patriotic message to the boy and the viewer.

The young woman with her arm on the boy's shoulder, possibly his mother, indicates what is expected of him as a young naval cadet through the example of Nelson. Nelson, through his likeness, spurs on subsequent generations to future deeds of greatness. These aspirations appear to be accepted by the woman, child and viewer, which is appropriate to the period in which this painting was produced. It was an era in which notions of empire and patriotism were regarded as paramount, and one in which Britain's longstanding dominance at sea was being gradually challenged by the rise of other naval powers.

The other two paintings in the picture are also of Nelsonic subjects and still in the care of the National Maritime Museum as part of the Greenwich Hospital collection. The large image to the left is the 'Victory of the Nile, 1 August 1798', by George Arnald (BHC0509), and the other is 'Nelson in Conflict with a Spanish Launch, July 1797', by Richard Westall (BHC2908). The latter, was one of a group by Westall and Benjamin West engraved in the first major biography of Nelson by Clarke and McArthur in 1809. All these were presented (with the Abbott portrait) to the Hospital in 1849. Since all three paintings depicted demonstrate the suffering and bloodshed associated with warfare, and Nelson's heroism and fatal wounding at the Battle of Trafalgar, it is difficult for the modern viewer to approach Davidson's picture without a hint of irony. Consequently it is open to different readings.

Davidson (1842 –1919) was born in Knightsbridge, London. His grandfather had established a successful military tailoring business, which his father inherited, and though one of many children he was always well-resourced. This was fortunate since he lost his hearing owing to scarlet fever aged four and barely learnt to speak save by sign language. He nevertheless became a successful painter, mostly specialising in historical and maritime subjects - many Nelson-related - and did much work to support the Royal Association for the Deaf.

He died at Walberswick, Suffolk, in November 1919, aged 77 and is buried there. His wife Charlotte, with whom he had six children, died in 1930, aged 79.

Object Details

ID: BHC1811
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Davidson, Thomas
Places: Greenwich; Greenwich Hospital
Date made: circa 1890; 1894
People: Nelson, Horatio
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Overall: 24 kg; Painting: 918 mm x 711 mm; Frame: 1197 mm x 991 mm x 110 mm

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