The Death of Nelson card

The Death of Nelson

WAG 2116

On display


On the quarterdeck of HMS Victory, amid the chaos of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Admiral Nelson has been shot by an enemy sniper. He lies with Captain Hardy and the ship's doctor - beside him the papers and writing-slate he dropped as he fell. Diagonally up to the left a sailor points at the sniper high in the rigging of the French ship Redoubtable - entangled with the Victory - so an officer can take aim. To either side the crew carry on, as they've been trained to - although the gun crews seem momentarily confused. They're all portrayed as individuals - appropriately, since Nelson knew each one by name. He trusted them - shaking all their hands after an engagement - and they in return, inspired too by his determination, passion and fearlessness gave him absolute loyalty. That loyalty, together with Nelson's skilful tactics, eventually won this battle. Nelson was told the good news just before he died. Napoleon's invasion was prevented, and Britain went on to rule the waves for a century. This theatrical painting is a finished study for a panoramic mural in the Houses of Parliament commissioned fifty years after the event by Prince Albert, at a time when Britain was celebrating national pride and identity. The artist, Irishman Daniel Maclise - caricaturist, illustrator of Charles Dickens and theatre-fan - went to great lengths to ensure every detail was historically accurate, even interviewing survivors. On the far left is another African sailor - the ship's cook. The Victory's crew records for 1805 state 'Two give Africa as birthplace'. Nelson's ships carried nurses and the wives of some of the men. They sometimes ended up fighting - though the Navy denied their existence. The women the Navy genuinely didn't know about were the few who enlisted officially - for a variety of reasons - disguised as men. The boy, about twelve, is a powder-monkey. His job is to constantly supply his gun-crew with gunpowder from the magazine deep in the hull. The outcome of a battle depended primarily on the speed with which the guns could be fired. So ultimately it depended on the powder-monkeys' speed - and ability to stay alive.