About the artwork
Some time in 1801, three years after his victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, Lord Nelson sat at a table with Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy of Arts.
Nelson had been remarking to another member of the party that he regretted never having acquired a taste for art. Then he turned to West. ‘But there is one picture’, he said, ‘whose power I do feel. I never pass a print-shop with your ‘Death of Wolfe’ in the window, without being stopped by it.’ He asked the painter why he had done no more pictures like it.
‘Because, my Lord, there are no more subjects’, meaning that there were no more subjects of comparable nobility in the modern world.
‘Damn it,’ replied Nelson, ‘I didn’t think of that.’
Then, referring to the extraordinary bravery bordering on recklessness in battle that had already lost Nelson his right arm and the sight of his right eye, West went on: ‘But, my Lord, I fear your intrepidity will yet furnish me with such another scene; and if it should, I shall certainly avail myself of it.’
‘Will you?’ said Nelson excitedly, ‘Will you Mr West? Then I hope I shall die in the next battle.’
At a quarter past one on 21st October 1805, about an hour after battle had been joined with the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar, Nelson was shot on the quarterdeck of HMS Victory by a sniper’s bullet fired from high in the rigging of the enemy ship Redoutable. He and Captain Hardy had been pacing the deck under heavy fire.
Hardy was a little way ahead and when he turned to walk back he saw Nelson down and supported by two seamen and a sergeant of Marines. The mortally wounded Admiral was carried down to the Orlop - the lowest deck, underneath the three gun decks – to an area at the stern called the cockpit. During battle this was where the surgeon tended the wounded. It was here that Nelson died about three hours later.
Just under six months later, Benjamin West had fulfilled the promise made to his dinner companion. His picture was the result of a lucrative business partnership between West and the engraver James Heath, on the following terms: West would retain possession of the painting and pay Heath two hundred guineas for engraving it.
Thereafter they would publish prints of the engraving and share the profits equally. Both painter and engraver had agreed from the outset that their 'Death of Nelson' would form a commercially successful companion piece to West’s 'Death of Wolfe', prints of which had already made a considerable fortune for another publishing firm.
West had taken great pains to ensure the accuracy of his depiction. A number of the fifty-odd portraits comprising the epic scene were drawn from survivors of the battle who visited his studio and recounted their experiences. One, Thomas Goble, was on hand for three months, offering technical advice. This did not however, place any constraints on the painter to execute a piece of slavish documentary realism. It was, as he admitted, a picture ‘of what might have been, not of the circumstances as they happened.’
Instead of showing Nelson, stripped of his uniform in the cramped, windowless cockpit, lit only by oil lamps, West showed him, fully dressed, expiring on deck, surrounded by a reverent crowd of onlookers for whom the battle – still raging in the background – appears to have come to a halt as though out of respect for the Hero’s death. West’s justification for this idealised treatment drew comparison with his earlier picture, of General Wolfe, a commander, like Nelson, who had died at the moment of victory:
‘There was no other way of representing the death of a hero but by an Epic representation of it. It must exhibit the event in a way to excite awe and veneration... and… show the importance of the Hero. Wolfe must not die like a common soldier under a bush; neither should Nelson be represented dying in the gloomy hold of a ship, like a sick man in a prison hole. To move the mind there should be a spectacle presented to raise and warm the mind, and all should be proportioned to the highest idea conceived of the Hero. No boy... would be animated by a representation of Nelson dying like an ordinary man. His feelings must be roused and his mind inflamed by a scene great and extraordinary. A mere matter of fact will never produce this effect.’
His picture was an immense success. He exhibited it in his studio and in the space of just over a month, thirty thousand members of the public came to see it, instinctively doffing their hats, as they approached the canvas. And if his own artistic preferences could be defined by what had attracted him in print-shop window displays, the late Lord Viscount Nelson also would undoubtedly have approved of Benjamin West’s effort.