Soon after the news of the death of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, Joseph Boydell placed an advertisement for a picture of 'The Death of Lord Nelson' for which a prize of five hundred guineas was offered. Devis, took up the challenge and in preparation spent three weeks on board the Victory on which Nelson's body had been transported home preserved in a casket filled with alcohol. As soon as they had sailed out of the Solent, Dr. Beatty, the Victory surgeon, undertook an autopsy at which Devis was present and able to make sketches for a portrait of Nelson which Beatty had commissioned for himself. This was later used in modified form for his large composition of the Death of Nelson (now at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). First hand experience of the Admiral's features together with the advice of those on board who had known their commanding officer, allowed Devis to paint the most realistic of the posthumous portraits of Lord Nelson. The original portrait painted for Beatty, of which this is an autograph version, was probably the unfinished oil engraved by Scriven and used as the frontispiece in Dr Beatty's Authentic Narrative of the Death of Nelson. The artist painted several copies of the portrait: among others, for Captain Page, Captain Capel and Lady Hamilton. One of these portraits, which may be the copy made for Captain Page, is in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (Walker, no.197). The present portrait is in an identical frame to the version given by the Rev. Halliday, of Glenhorne, Devon, to the 3rd Earl of Nelson (Walker, op.cit., no 203, now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). Its early provenance is however uncertain.
The portrait shows Nelson wearing the green eyeshade recommended by Thomas Trotter, shortly before the Battle of Copenhagen, to protect his eyes from the glare of the seas. One of these shades can be seen in a case near the effigy in Westminster Abbey. Nelson is also shown wearing the Star of the Crescent inverted showing that even he was uncertain how it should be worn.