The Nelson Portrait

Oliver Warner traces the cultural footprints left by a national hero.

“There was a sort of heroic cast about Nelson that I never saw in any other man. ... In many points a really great man, in others a baby.”

Lord Minto

In 1795 Nelson’s wife, “poor Lady Nelson” or “the little Viscountess” as the family called her in her widowhood, commissioned an unknown Leghorn miniaturist to paint her husband, who was then far from her. While she lived, she would never be parted from the picture, which is now at Greenwich, as are so many Nelson relics. It represented the man as she knew him, and no one knew one side of him better. This was the private person who had spent five years with her in Norfolk on half pay; the man who gardened erratically; the man she hoped would leave dangerous exploits to others; the step-father who was so good to the rather oafish boy she had had by her first husband. If its history were not authenticated, it would be hard to credit that the character within the frame was indeed Nelson, and not some undistinguished post-captain whose name had long been forgotten.

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