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Horatio Nelson

Horatio Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1797 -NPG 394 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Regency Portraits Catalogue

Horatio Nelson

by Lemuel Francis Abbott
29 1/2 in. x 24 1/2 in. (749 mm x 622 mm)
NPG 394

This portraitback to top

The many portraits of Nelson by Lemuel Abbott, perhaps the most widely recognised of the whole Nelson iconography, originate from the desire of his old friend and mentor, Captain William Locker, Lieutenant-Governor of Greenwich Hospital, to add Nelson to the collection of his 'younkers' in the dining-room at Greenwich. According to Locker's grandson, the poet Frederick Locker-Lampson, 'this picture was painted by Abbott at my grandfather's as a present from Nelson to my grandfather. He afterwards sat to Abbott for a similar sized picture for Lady Nelson and though Abbott repeated the picture some 40 times or more, Lord Nelson only sat to him twice' (inscription on the back of Locker's version reprinted in F. Locker-Lampson, My Confidences, 1896, p 39).
The first sketch was painted at Greenwich in the autumn of 1797, Captain Locker's daughter delighting to tell the next generation how she used to help Nelson on and off with his coat before and after the sittings. This first sketch was kept in Abbott's studio until its purchase at his death in 1803 by Francis Grant, Laird of Kilgraston and father of Sir Francis Grant PRA; it is probably the controversial and dilapidated wreck sold at Sotheby's 23 March 1977 (91a). From it was painted Locker's own version which remained in the family till 1923, re-appearing at Christie's 22 June 1979 (133) and now in an English private collection. The next copy was made for Lady Nelson, engraved by Barnard and the subject of several anxious letters from the owner during the engraving process (G. P. B. Naish, Nelson's Letters to his Wife, 1958, pp 429-41); it finally arrived at Roundwood in July 1798 when Lady Nelson wrote: 'My dearest Husband - I am now writing opposite to your portrait, the likeness is great. I am well-satisfied with Abbot ... It is my companion, my sincere friend in your absence ...' (G. P. B. Naish, Nelson's Letters to his Wife, 1958, p 441). Its subsequent history after Lady Nelson's death in 1831 is not clear but at its re-appearance on offer to the NPG in 1874 Sir Francis Grant, then a Trustee, recommended its purchase 'for the very reasonable sum of £150 - I think it is the best of the many replicas I have seen done by Abbot - from the original sketch in my nephew's possession' (letter from Grant 14 May 1874, in NPG archive).
The original sketch and its two prime copies made for Locker and Lady Nelson were followed by a sequence of copies gradually declining in quality as the artist sank into his final insanity. Captain Locker's grandson mentions 40 or more copies. The best of these were commissioned for Nelson's prize agent, Alexander Davison (now in the National Maritime Museum), for his friend Collingwood (now in the Scottish NPG), for his family descending through the Bridports and now in the USA, and probably another for his family acquired by Huson Morris in about 1830 and sold by his descendants in 1941 as part of their war effort against the U-Boat menace (now National Maritime Museum). Before Abbott was overcome by madness he was commissioned by Nelson's biographer John McArthur to paint a final version with the hero wearing the uniform cocked hat and the chelengk awarded by the Sultan after the Battle of the Nile. This is the subject of a plaintive letter from McArthur imploring Nelson to give Abbott another ten minutes' sitting to prevent him from touching up the portrait beyond recognition; '... the instant after, I should take the Portrait from poor Abbot's presence, that he might not have an opportunity of making a second attempt to adonize it ...' (letter dated 1 December 1800 in National Maritime Museum). Undoubtedly the best of all these copies and versions is that belonging to Captain Locker; the remainder, even Lady Nelson's copy, lack the original severity of expression plainly visible to all who saw Nelson enduring the agony of an 18th century amputation and its even more painful aftermath caused by poisoning in the ligatures. The softening or 'adonizing' process deplored not only by McArthur but also by Nelson's family is all too evident in Abbott's subsequent versions.

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length in rear-admiral's undress uniform, Star of the Bath with the Ribbon just visible beneath the uniform coat, one Naval Gold Medal (St Vincent in obverse) on a white ribbon with blue borders, epaulettes sketchily painted; right sleeve empty and pinned or tied to a button below the medal; three black ribbons securing the wound opening in the sleeve between elbow and shoulder; white waistcoat with two brass buttons and edge of Bath Ribbon; shirt-frill sketchily painted, black neckcloth flat and rubbed; face and expression slightly softened from earlier versions, hair powdered light grey, eyes clear blue with no trace of abnormality in the pupils though with pterygia at the inner aspects; plain brown background.

Provenanceback to top

Lady Nelson, then either Dr Sherson (d. 1821) or his son Rev Robert Sherson; Mrs Catherine Theyts (formerly Mrs Sherson) and sold by her to the NPG after lengthy negotiations, J. C. Horsley RA acting as a rather unreliable agent, in 1874.

Exhibitionsback to top

'British Painting 1660-1840', British Council, Milan, 1975.

Reproductionsback to top

(1) Whole-length mezzotint by Barnard, left hand holding hat and sword, Santa Cruz in background, published 25 May 1798 (John Chaloner Smith, British Mezzotint Portraits, 8).
(2) Three-quarter-length mezzotint by Barnard, similar but without hat and sword, smoke and furled sail in background, lettered ... From the Original Picture in the Possession of Lady Nelson ..., published 1 November 1798 (John Chaloner Smith, British Mezzotint Portraits, 9).
(3) Whole-length mezzotint by Barnard, similar to (1) but with Battle of the Nile in background, published 1 June 1799 and dedicated to Lady Nelson. (Not in John Chaloner Smith, British Mezzotint Portraits who records two later impressions, the face altered to look older, published 1806.)
(4) Half-length mezzotint in colour by Arthur Hogg issued by Messrs Frost & Reed Limited in 1923.
For other engravings by Shipster, Valentine Green, Earlom, Syer, Wedgwood, Roberts, Heath and Golding, made from other Abbott copies, see R. J. B. Walker, The Nelson Portraits (forthcoming).

This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Walker, Regency Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, 1985, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

View all known portraits for Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson


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