OF ALL NELSON'S ICONOGRAPHY, PERHAPS THE MOST FAMILIAR IMAGE OF THE NAVAL HERO APPEARS TO DERIVE FROM THE PRESENT WORK. IT IS FROM THIS PRELIMINARY PORTRAIT THAT ALL OTHER PORTRAITS OF NELSON BY LEMUEL FRANCIS ABBOTT (C.1760-1802) WERE COMPLETED.
Born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, on 29 September 1758, Horatio Nelson was the son of a clergyman, but it was his uncle, Maurice Suckling, a captain in the Royal Navy, who would shape his nephew's future. In 1770, the young Nelson, only twelve years old, joined his uncle aboard the Raisonnable during a dispute between Britain and Spain over the Falkland Islands, and by 1777 he was appointed second-lieutenant under Captain William Locker in the Lowestoffe. At this time Locker commissioned a portrait of his young protégé from the artist John Francis Rigaud (1742-1810), (now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). In 1797, shortly after Nelson lost his right arm in battle at Santa Cruz, Tenerife, the present portrait by Abbott was also painted for Locker. The production of an on-going heroic iconography was a necessary aid in Nelson's ambition to achieve glory in his profession.
For the autumn of that year, Nelson convalesced at his mentor's home in Greenwich, and was in considerable pain as recorded in an account by his contemporary, Lord Minto:
'His arm is ... by no means well owing to some awkwardness in operation. The ligature has not come away, and they are afraid that it has taken in the artery or even a sinew. They must wait till it rots off which may be a great while. If they should attempt to cut it (it is two inches up the wound), and they should cut the artery, they would be obliged to amputate again higher up, which is not easy, for the stump is very short already. He suffers a great deal of violent pain, and takes opium every night. He is impatient for the healing of the wound that he may go to sea again...'
According to Locker's grandson, Frederick Locker-Lampson, during this period of convalescence, Nelson's 'picture was painted at my grandfather's as a present from Nelson to my grandfather... and though Abbott repeated the portrait some 40 times or more, Lord Nelson only sat to him twice.'
The present portrait, the unique model painted from life, is further remarkable for its likeness, the copies invariably softening Nelson's features as Abbott 'adonized' his sitter (for which see R. Quarm in the exhibition catalogue Nelson and Napoléon, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 2005, p.258, no.305).
At the time of this commission, Abbott was at the peak of his artistic career. After studying under Francis Hayman (c.1708-1776) and possibly Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), the Leicestershire-born artist established a successful and prolific portrait practice in London. His patrons were mainly drawn from the professional classes, particularly the Navy. By 1797 he had already painted several naval officers of distinction including Sir Robert Calder (1744/5-1818). Horatio, Viscount Nelson, K.B, Vice-Admiral of the White, would prove to be his crowning laurel. However, Nelson was not the only man in the equation to be ill. Abbott's mental health had begun to deteriorate, and by 1798 the artist was certified insane and treated by Dr Thomas Munro (1759-1833), physician to Bethlem Hospital and King George III (1738-1820). Nonetheless, Abbott continued to paint and exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1800, two years before his early death at the age of forty-two.
The present work is known as the 'Kilgraston Sketch', on account of its early provenance. The picture was bought by Francis Grant, patron of Abbott, and Laird of Kilgraston, Perthshire, following its withdrawal by private agreement from the sale of the artist's effects at Christie's on 16 June 1804. His son, Sir Francis Grant, President of the Royal Academy 1866-1878, affirmed in correspondence with the National Portrait Gallery and on a hand-written label on the reverse of the portrait (as recorded above) that 'Abbott assured Mr Grant that this was the original from which all the other pictures of Nelson painted by him were completed. Mr Grant desired to own this picture ... [during the artist's lifetime, but] ... Abbott's answer was that no money would induce him to part with the original ...'.
Following scientific analysis at the National Maritime Museum in 1977, it was established that the 'Kilgraston Sketch' was painted over an old and seemingly unrelated portrait. As Richard Walker notes, 'Abbott has been described as penurious and prone to ill-judged parsimony, and it may be that ... he simply painted over an old re-primed canvas that had already been used...' (pp.40-41, op.cit.). Recent pigment analysis by Libby Sheldon at the History of Art Department, UCL, revealed that the identity of the pigments and the structure of the paint for both the underlying image and ultimate sketch of Nelson suggest that the paintings were indeed by the same hand, datable to the late eighteenth century.
The underlying portrait appears to have been the beginnings of a military rather than naval figure, with red paint at the collar, showing through the cracking at Nelson's neck. The time between the execution of both works cannot have been long, not only because the pigments are dateable to the same period, but also because Sheldon notes 'The cross-sections which reveal the layers of both versions show no interlayers of dirt or discoloured varnish'. It is not unfeasible, however, that Sir Francis Grant may have at a later date overpainted some areas of the final sketch to arrest deterioration of condition, as posited by Richard Walker (p.38, loc. cit.).