Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson 1758-1805, 1st Viscount Nelson

Half-length facing left in rear-admiral's undress uniform, 1795-1812 pattern, wearing the St Vincent medal and the star of a Knight of the Bath. Nelson’s empty right sleeve is pinned across the chest. The upper part of the sleeve is closed with ribbons, having been slit open to accommodate the dressing on Nelson’s stump after he lost his right arm at Santa Cruz, Tenerife, in July 1797. This portrait is one of many replica portraits made by Abbott, all of which were based on an oil sketch that the artist made from the life while Nelson was painfully recovering from the amputation of his arm and staying with his old commander Captain William Locker, by this time Lieutenant-Governor of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich. Nelson gave Abbott two sittings, resulting in an oil study (the so-called ‘Kilgraston Sketch,’ now in the British portraits collection at Compton Verney, Warwickshire), upon which the artist based up to 40 subsequent versions. The first finished version of the portrait was presented by Nelson to Locker and the second was painted for Lady Nelson. Locker’s version is in a private collection and Lady Nelson’s has been in the National Portrait Gallery since 1874. This painting is the third finished version. It was presented by Nelson to his prize agent, Alexander Davison, whose grandson, Sir Walter Davison, bequeathed it to Greenwich Hospital in 1873. In this version, a ship is introduced in the lower left corner, which flies a blue flag at the mizzen, indicating a rear-admiral of the blue – Nelson’s rank at the time of depiction (he subsequently became rear-admiral of the red in February 1799, vice-admiral of the blue in January 1801 and vice-admiral of the white in April 1804). Since the artist included the star of the Order of the Bath, the portrait must postdate Nelson’s installation as a Knight of the Order on 27 September 1797 but it predates the Battle of Nile in August 1798, which brought Nelson future decorations (as included in later versions of Abbott’s portrait). This version of the portrait was engraved in mezzotint by Richard Earlom and published in December 1798. The artist, Abbott, had established his first studio in London around 1780. He painted relatively few women and seems to have specialised in male portraiture, finding particular favour among naval officers. Standing unsuccessfully for election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1788 and again in 1798, Abbott failed to gain admission to the inner circles of the artistic establishment but he was recognised for his remarkable skill in capturing likenesses. In his ‘Anecdotes of Painting’ (1808), Edward Edwards wrote that ‘the heads of [Abbott’s] male portraits were perfect in their likenesses, particularly those which he painted from the naval heroes of the present time.’ Suffering from mental illness, Abbott was certified insane in July 1798 and died in what was described by the diarist Joseph Farington as ‘a state of insanity’ in 1803. His portraits of Nelson are among his most famous works. For other versions of this portrait, see BHC2888 and BHC2889. (Updated April 2019.)

Object Details

ID: BHC2887
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: Abbott, Lemuel Francis
Date made: 1798
People: Nelson, Horatio; Davison, Alexander Abbott, Lemuel Francis
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Frame: 938 mm x 815 mm x 85 mm;Painting: 762 mm x 635 mm;Weight: 11 kg

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