The Death of Nelson - spotlight display
Commemorating the death of a hero
4 October 2005 - 11 December 2005
Lord Nelson’s death is probably the most commemorated of British history. Artists from Benjamin West to JMW Turner were inspired by the events of the Battle of Trafalgar where Nelson lost his life on 21 October 1805.
Many people were quick to recognise the commercial opportunities arising from a fallen hero. Paintings, prints, plays, souvenirs, statues and public monuments followed. In these images Nelson is presented like a martyr, a savior of the British people. His demise is treated with the same magnitude that artists have given the dying Christ. Benjamin West said:
"No boy would be animated by a representation of Nelson dying like an ordinary man."
The popularity of paintings of Nelson
Artists including West, Daniel Maclise and Samuel Drummond found out as much detail as possible about the battle. They knew that the mourning public would scrutinize their pictures. However, the right combination of facts and artistic talent could be highly profitable.
In response to a print publisher’s offer of 500 guineas for a painting, Arthur William Devis spent a week on board the Victory when it reached Portsmouth. He sketched the sailors, the spot where Nelson died, and even his body during the autopsy. By August 1806 800 people had subscribed to his print before it was even published.
In one month 30,000 people flocked to see West's painting when he exhibited it at his home. The decision to use Nelson's death as one of the huge frescoes in the new Houses of Parliament over fifty years after the Battle of Trafalgar is a testament to his celebrity.
Displays at the Walker
Picture of the Month
The Walker has two well-known paintings on the subject, The Death of Nelson by Benjamin West and The Death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise. Both paintings were the joint focus of Picture of the Month for October 2005.
Rarely seen sketches
As part of the Trafalgar Festival of events at the gallery, three rarely seen sketches made in preparation for these paintings are being shown in a spotlight display, as well as a miniature of Lord Nelson by another artist.
The following two items from the Walker's collection cannot currently be put on display for conservation reasons. The Samuel Drummond painting is represented by a photograph in the display at the Walker and the Maclise sketch can only be seen here on the website.
Our special Trafalgar Festival events to commemorate the death of Nelson during 2005 included a special display of archive items from the Age of Nelson at the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the conservation of Liverpool's Nelson monument.
National Maritime Museum's Nelson collections
You can also find out more about paintings commemorating Nelson’s death in the National Maritime Museum's Nelson collections online feature. The following paintings from their collections are of particular interest in relation to the Walker’s paintings. Each of these links opens in a new browser window.