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Horatio Nelson

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Horatio Nelson

by Guy Head
oil on canvas, 1798-1799
87 3/4 in. x 66 1/2 in. (2229 mm x 1689 mm)
Purchased, 1976
Primary Collection
NPG 5101

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Guy Head (1753-1800), Artist. Artist associated with 9 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Coming from a modest background, the Nelson of popular imagination was a humane commander who had the common touch and ignored the divisions of rank or faction. In this portrait of 1798-9 he appears with one of his midshipmen at the moment of victory during the famous Battle of the Nile (1798). The younger man hands over the French admiral's sword wrapped in a captured French flag. In the background two battle-scarred ships fly white ensigns hoisted over French tricolours under a dramatic stormy sky. The portrait, which commemorates one of the most decisive victories in English naval history, is based on life studies made by Guy Head, who met Nelson in Naples soon after the event. The portrait shows Nelson's earlier loss of an arm but the artist has taken the licence of showing Nelson otherwise unscathed, though in truth his forehead should have been bandaged as a result of the serious wounds he received. By the end of battle, Nelson had been wounded above his right eye, was bandaged, bloodstained and exhausted and far from the polished officer at ease on his quarterdeck.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Cooper, John, Great Britons: The Great Debate, 2002, p. 90
  • Holmes, Richard; Crane, David; Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantics and Revolutionaries: Regency portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, 2002, p. 105
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 455
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 68, 166 Read entry

    Gilt compo on pine, mitred and keyed with corner blocks, the frame made in five sections, namely the back edge, the main section including the prominent hollow in which the Carlo ornament is planted, the top edge, the main flat and the sight edge, the flat areas and the hollows originally water gilt on plum bole but regilt in oil, the tooth sight edge applied in 4 or 5 inch lengths, the Carlo ornament in 12 5⁄ 8 inch lengths. 8 inches wide, 6 1⁄ 4 inches deep.

    Guy Head's portrait of Nelson at the Battle of the Nile was painted between Nelson's arrival in Naples in September 1798 and Head's departure for England in May 1799. The portrait was framed in England and given by Nelson to Lady Hamilton, as the apparently original tablet on the frame records.

    Two letters written to Emma Hamilton suggest that the frame is likely to have been made by a Mr Brydon, presumably John Brydon, carver, gilder, print seller and looking-glass manufacturer, of no.7 Charing Cross. Nelson himself wrote on 8 February 1801, 'Pray, have you got any picture from Mrs Head's? I hope Mr Brydon has executed the frames to your satisfaction; the bill he is directed to send to me'.1 This order may not have been completed for some years, perhaps due to Brydon's bankruptcy in June 1801, since a letter from Sir George Rose, Nelson's friend, on 17 November 180, mentions 'a picture by Mr Head being framed at Brydons'.2 In style, the frame, with its heavy ribbon-and-reeded top edge and residual Carlo ornament in the deep hollow, is characteristic of the early years of the nineteenth century. It is an early example of a frame which is both very wide and very deep.

    1 Harris Nicolas, Nelson’s Dispatches and Letters, 1844-6, vol.IV, pp 284-5.

    2 Richard Walker, Regency Portraits, 1985, p 360.

  • Simon, Robin, The portrait in Britain and America : with a biographical dictionary of portrait painters, 1680-1914, 1987, p. 188 number 145

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1798back to top

Current affairs

To meet war costs, William Pitt introduces a Finance Bill which levies income tax for the first time.

Art and science

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge publish Lyrical Ballads; a key publication for the romantic movement in poetry. Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner opens the volume.
Publisher and printseller Rudolph Ackermann establishes his popular 'Repository of the Arts' shop, gallery, library and social centre on the Strand.


Uprising of the United Irishmen: a republican rebellion which attempted to achieve Ireland's total independence by force with the aid of a French invasion. It was only narrowly defeated.
Battle of the Nile. Napoleon's visionary Egyptian campaign offers British first major victory as Nelson destroys the French fleet.

Tell us more back to top

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Ann johnson

06 October 2016, 21:20

The story in our family is that we are related to Guy Head. He came from Carlisle, where his artistic talent was spotted by a businessman who paid for him to have training in Rome. When Rome was under threat from Napoleon Guy Head was saved by Nelson who took him on board for England. On the way home in gratitude Guy Head painted Nelson's portrait.

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