Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805

A half-length portrait depicting Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805, when a rear-admiral, facing forward with his head turned to the left. He wears rear-admiral's undress of 1795-1812 pattern, with gold epaulettes, the Nile decorations, and in his hat the distinctive diamond chelengk given to him by the Sultan of Turkey. On his jacket he wears the star of a Knight of the Bath, granted to him on 27 September 1797, together with the Neapolitan Order of St Ferdinand and of Merit, and the Turkish Order of the Crescent. His empty right sleeve is pinned across the front of his coat, a reminder that he lost his right arm at Santa Cruz, in July 1797. This portrait was commissioned in about 1800 by John McArthur, Nelson's biographer, in Nelson's absence abroad. It was based on a study made by Abbott at Greenwich Hospital in 1797, while Nelson was convalescing from the loss of his arm and staying there with his former captain, the Lieutenant-Governor, William Locker. This is shown by the ribbons on his slit upper right sleeve, which at that time helped accommodate the dressing on the stump of his arm, but were removed from his uniforms once the wound had healed. McArthur seems to have felt that Abbott’s portrait was too idealised, for in December 1800 he wrote to Nelson, imploring him to sit to Abbott for ten minutes and adding that, ‘the instant after [the sitting], I should take the Portrait from poor Abbot’s [sic] presence, that he might not have an opportunity of making a second attempt to adonize [beautify] it.’ (This letter is now in the National Maritime Museum archive, see CRK/8/149.) A stipple engraving by Piercy Roberts of the finished portrait was used to illustrate a short memoir of Nelson published in the 'Naval Chronicle' (Vol. III, 1800, pp. 157-191), of which McArthur was editor. This portrait was also engraved in Clarke and McArthur's 1809 biography of Nelson, along with others by Richard Westall and Benjamin West. The original paintings by Abbott, Westall and West were subsequently presented to Greenwich Hospital by Jasper de St Croix and others in 1849. 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 BHC2887 and BHC2888. (Updated April 2019.)

Object Details

ID: BHC2889
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Nelson, Navy, Nation Gallery
Creator: Abbott, Lemuel Francis
Date made: 1799
Exhibition: Nelson, Navy, Nation
People: Nelson, Horatio; McArthur, John St Croix, Jasper de
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Painting: 762 mm x 635 mm; Frame: 955 mm x 825 mm x 75 mm; Overall: 19.6 kg

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