Horatio Nelson must be one of the most recognisable faces in British history. This is largely due to the number of portraits, engravings and statues that were created both during and after his lifetime. On a recent trip to the Isle of Wight, I was delighted to find a copy of Richard Walker’s Book The Nelson Portraits (Royal Naval Museum Publications, 1998) in a second-hand bookshop. Walker catalogues 238 portraits, their provenance, the collections that hold them, and the background to their creation. In the book’s introduction, Richard Ormond, the then Director of the National Maritime Museum, notes that We all have an idea of what England’s greatest naval hero looked like, slight, attractive and romantic: not a conventional sea dog, but someone sensitive as well as formidable.
One of the most famous portraits was painted in 1800 by Sir William Beechey and is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London*. The portrait was commissioned by the City of Norwich, who wished for a formal portrait to celebrate their most celebrated son.
I seem to have known the Beechey portrait of Nelson since childhood. I was given a National Portrait Gallery calendar when I was about ten, and I remember that it contained this picture. I can’t recall which month featured Nelson (I would hazard a guess at October) or any of the other eleven people featured, but I was fascinated and disturbed in equal measure by the Nelson picture. There was something about the colour that, as a child, I really disliked, but I also felt guilty about being insufficiently enthusiastic about Nelson’s portrait. I knew from Blue Peter and Ladybird books that Nelson was England’s Hero, so why couldn’t I just accept the portrait?
Of course I now feel differently – the Nelson Quilt is based on the Beechey portrait. I’ve studied the portrait in some detail while working on the quilt and never tire of looking at it. I learned that the strange line around the head, which gives a halo effect, resulted from Beechey altering the shape of Nelson’s hair, to give it the same shape as that shown in a subsequent full length portrait. Nelson is shown with brown eyes although he himself said they were blue. He didn’t seem to mind: during the sittings for the portrait and its five preliminary sketches, Nelson and Beechey became friends. Nelson was honorary Godfather to Beechey’s son, Charles, and gave Charles the cocked hat he wore at the Battle of the Nile (Charles Beechey, perhaps unsurprisingly, went on to become a Naval officer).
Unfortunately, the original Beechey portrait isn’t on display at the National Portrait Gallery at present. I visited a few weeks ago and asked an attendant where I would find Nelson. The answer was impressively quick: “He’s in Room 17, next to Lady Hamilton.” Alas it was another portrait of Nelson: a painting from 1800 by Heinrich Fuger and the only known portrait of Nelson in civilian dress which was hanging next to a picture of Nelson’s “dearest beloved Emma.” Given that the Gallery holds 85 portraits in which Nelson appears as a sitter, it is fair enough that a variety of them get an airing. I’ll just have to make a special appointment to see the Beechey portrait when the Nelson Quilt is finished.
In the meantime, a reproduction of the Beechey portrait can be seen in the everyday bustle of the Southbound Bakerloo Line platform at Charing Cross Station. Among the various faces that represent the nearby National Portrait Gallery, there is Nelson, in black and white, next to various Plantagenet and Tudor Kings and Queens. It’s always quite a shock to see Nelson there, watching the trains go by.
* The Portrait of Nelson by Sir William Beechey is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, and is reproduced here under the terms of the Creative Commons license.