Nelson and the bear

In 1773 Horatio Nelson served as a midshipman in the 'Carcass', Captain Skeffington Lutwidge, which sailed under Captain Constantine Phipps in the 'Racehorse' on a Polar expedition to try to find a north-east passage to the Pacific. These two strongly built bomb-vessels were both obliged to return when they found their way impenetrably barred by ice to the north of Spitsbergen. During the attempt, Nelson set off with a friend to stalk a polar bear. His musket misfired and he attacked the bear with the butt-end until saved from harm by a rift in the ice, which separated him from the animal. A gun was also fired from the ship to scare the bear off and Nelson justified his action to a furious Captain Lutwidge by stating that he wished to kill the bear to take its skin home to his father.

In this imaginary reconstruction, Nelson is shown without his unnamed companion in the episode, dressed as a midshipman. Wearing his dirk on his left, he raises his musket in an attempt to strike the bear. They confront each other and make eye contact, Nelson standing on one part of the ice with the bear just separated from him by a fissure. The bear has one paw raised and bares his fangs as he turns towards Nelson in a threatening gesture. The painting draws attention to the unequal struggle between the two in which Nelson, despite being at such a disadvantage, is shown as fearless in an extremely narrow escape. The 'Carcass' can be seen sketched in the background to the left, firing the gun which frightened the animal away.

Despite the greyness and inhospitable surroundings, the artist cannot avoid the artificiality of the account. Its incongruity is highlighted by the neatness of Nelson standing with no coat in buckled shoes to confront and tame nature. The symbolism of his bare hands accentuates the interpretation and highlights the contrivance. Furthermore, Nelson is silhouetted against a white shaft of light and stands in clean profile against the yellow polar bear.

This painting of the incident was commissioned by John McArthur, as a plate for 'The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, KB', which he wrote with James Stanier Clarke in 1809, and which was the first major biography of Nelson. Engraved by John Landseer in 1809, it formed part of a series of five painted for the book by Westall, all intended to show Nelson's life as a series of heroic acts. With two by West, also used in the same way (BHC0566 and BHC2905), and Lemuel Abbott's best-known portrait of Nelson (BHC2889), all were presented to Greenwich Hospital in 1849 'by Jasper de St Croix, Esq., and several other patriotic individuals'.

The artist came from an English family of painters and illustrators, and was a book illustrator who turned to painting historical subjects. He was apprenticed in 1779 to John Thompson, a heraldic engraver in London. In his spare time he studied drawing at the Royal Academy Schools in 1785, became an ARA in 1792 and an RA in 1794. His last employment was as drawing master to Princess Victoria. Although his output was prolific, unfortunate picture dealings led him to poverty.

Object Details

ID: BHC2907
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Nelson, Navy, Nation Gallery
Creator: Westall, Richard
Events: Arctic Exploration: North Pole expedition, Phipps, 1773
Date made: circa 1809; circa 1806
People: Nelson, Horatio; St Croix, Jasper de
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Frame: 546 mm x 724 mm x 75 mm;Painting: 368 mm x 558 mm

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