About the artwork
This very large painting was the finished study for a picture designed to decorate the walls of Westminster Palace. It commemorates the death of Admiral Lord Nelson at the battle of Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson was shot by a sniper on board the French ship Redoubtable. He must have been an easy target in his undress uniform of Vice Admiral, despite the smoke of battle.
Trafalgar was an important victory for the British over the French and Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars. Maclise presented this event in a theatrical way to arouse sympathy not only for Nelson, but for all of the wounded and killed.
He included two black crew members to make sure the painting was historically accurate. The black seaman in the centre of the picture is particularly important as he points to Nelson's assassin. Maclise researched his painting thoroughly, interviewing survivors of the battle and reading through the records of the British ship Victory.
The painting was produced between 1859 and 1864 at a time when Victorian Britain chose to celebrate moments of national pride, over fifty years after the event took place.
Daniel Maclise was a painter whose talent and charm won him patrons and friends in the Irish and English intellectual and literary world. He initially trained in the Cork Institute of Arts and became involved in the revival of Irish culture.
He launched his career as a portrait painter in Ireland after the success of his portrait of the novelist Sir Walter Scott who visited Cork in 1825. Maclise moved to London in 1827 and entered the Royal Academy schools in 1828. As a student he supported himself first through portraiture and then as a subject painter.
Maclise's skill as a portrait painter led to an invitation to contribute a series of caricatures to "Fraser", a popular magazine founded in the 1830s. In 1831 he won a gold medal in the Royal Academy's competition for history painting with "The Choice of Hercules", now in a private collection.
From the 1830s onwards much of Maclise's work was based on historical, literary and Shakespearean themes and had a strong emphasis on gestures, expressions and details. Later on his historical work became less concerned with realistic details and took a much more symbolic and grand tone.
The most important point in Maclise's career was in 1844/1845 when he was commissioned to decorate part of the House of Lords with two paintings, "The Spirit of Chivalry" and "The Spirit of Justice". This was at a time of Queen Victoria's reign when public art was a means of celebrating the history and achievements of Britain, inspired by analogous schemes abroad, especially in Germany.
"The Death of Nelson" is the finished study for one of the paintings decorating the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, and was commissioned in 1857. "The Death of Nelson" and its companion piece the "Meeting of Wellington and Blücher at Waterloo" were chosen because they commemorated the two most important victories of Britain against France in the Napoleonic Wars.
Lord Nelson died in 1805 on the quarter deck of the Victory three hours after the battle in which the British navy defeated the French and Spanish at Cape Trafalgar. Musket fire from a sniper on board the French ship Redoubtable delivered the fatal shot. Nelson stood out as a distinct target in his Vice Admiral's undress uniform.
Maclise arranged the scene as a frieze, integrating the figures in a long narrow format. The wounded Nelson supported by Captain Hardy with Dr. Beatty and other figures bending over him form the centre of the composition. The rest of the figures in the painting are not arranged parallel to the centre of the composition, but spread to two diagonals.
Despite the crowded composition, Maclise took great care to depict individuals' postures and expressions. Determined to present details that were both convincing and accurate, he talked to survivors of the battle and tracked down naval equipment used at the time.
The inclusion of two black people in the scene - a seaman in the centre of the painting and a cook to the left - was in part a matter of historical accuracy. The Victory's master book of 1805 refers to a small number of foreigners amongst crew members and mentioned that "some must have been Negroes … Two give Africa as their birthplace".
The black seaman plays a key role in the painting not just because he is in the centre, but because he points to Lord Nelson's assassin as well. The black seaman is not a symbol of "otherness" or difference of identity and culture; rather his presence serves to strengthen British identity.
Like other historical paintings, "The Death of Nelson" not only commemorates an important event, but also fulfils a didactic purpose: the representation of black people and women together with Lord Nelson suggests that Victorian society was a harmonious whole, despite its class divisions and inequalities.
In reality 19th century black sailors in British fleets were poorly treated. Although they usually worked in the lower ranks of the ship's company as cooks, deck hands or stewards, they were not slaves but free sailors. The hardship of living at sea meant that the life of a sailor was less attractive and for this reason black people were easily accepted.
It is believed that towards the end of the 19th century a quarter of all seamen in the merchant navy were black. Black people at sea were not isolated by their white shipmates, but mixed both in work and in leisure time. Black seamen from West Africa, the West Indies and the United States were a particularly common sight in Liverpool.
The painting was bought from the Art Union of London in 1892 on the proceedings of the Liverpool Naval Exhibition.