James B. Beech (fl.1830-39)
This miniature perfectly encapsulates the compassion, stoicism and loyalty that were such admirable hallmarks of Fanny’s character...
The sitter of this portrait miniature has recently been identified as Frances, Viscountess Nelson. Frances – or Fanny as she was known to her friends – was the only wife of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the great naval hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Often forgotten by historians in favour of Nelson’s more glamorous love, Emma Hamilton, and when remembered much maligned, Fanny’s reputation has undergone a recent historical reassessment that has shown her to be a truly sympathetic and even tragic character in Nelson’s life.
Fanny had already been married once when she first encountered the dashing Captain Nelson of the Boreas in 1785. The daughter of a wealthy planter on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Frances had first been married to Josiah Nisbet, a doctor (an important profession given the danger that was posed to westerners by life-threatening tropical diseases). However, in the first marital misfortune that was to befall Fanny, Josiah died but two years after their marriage in 1779, leaving her with an infant son, also Josiah.
Attractive, sophisticated and with strong family links to the most important planters on the island, Fanny made a good marriage prospect. Nelson, by contrast, was a marked man in the Caribbean. Having enforced a trade embargo with the newly-independent American colonies with the single-mindedness that was eventually to make him a national hero, Nelson had incurred the wrath of local planters who, deprived of vital resources, had made Nelson the subject of so many law suits that he spent many months unable even to set foot on terra firma. Fanny, however, was seemingly charmed by the unconventional captain and was advised by friends that she ‘might makes something of him’ as she had ‘been in the habit of attending to these odd sort of people’.
After a brief courtship – much of it conducted by letter – Nelson was married to Fanny in 1787, with his friend, none other the future King William IV, acting as best man. Following this, the newly-married couple again took to the seas. Norfolk, however, might not have been Fanny’s first choice of honeymoon destination. Used to the heat and luxury of the tropics, Fanny understandably hated life in the draughty parsonage that had been Nelson’s home and to which he returned following peace with America. The following five years were to be frustrating for the couple. Fanny was unable to bear Nelson children and Nelson could find no outlet for his almost superhuman ambition.
Yet, when war finally broke out with revolutionary France and Nelson achieved the first of his great successes at the Battle of Cape Vincent in 1797, Fanny worried constantly about both her husband and her son Josiah, whom Nelson had started on a naval career. This concern was not ill-founded. Later that year, Nelson’s arm was shattered in a botched landing attempt; it was thanks only to Josiah’s quick thinking that his life was saved and his arm swiftly amputated. His convalescence marked perhaps the high-point in his marriage, with Fanny both assuaging Nelson’s self-pity and performing the somewhat grizzly task of changing his bandages. When Nelson embarked again, the two seemed to outsiders to be quite in love. Indeed, when he was yet again injured at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, he cried out ‘I am killed. Remember me to my wife’.
This affection was not to last. When he arrived in Naples the next month, Nelson fell in love with the great beauty Emma Hamilton – who lavished on him the adulation he so badly craved -- and the two embarked on their famous affair, living in a ménage à trois with Emma’s husband, English ambassador Sir William Hamilton. News quickly got out and society both in Naples and at home was scandalised. When he returned to England, Nelson quickly severed ties with Fanny. Heartbroken and humiliated, his wife desperately sought a reconciliation whilst the Nelson and his family mercilessly began to mock her behind her back. Her last letter to him was returned and marked ‘opened by mistake by Lord Nelson but not read’.
Despite the cruelty of Nelson’s treatment of her, Fanny seemed to bear her husband no ill will. As their marriage began to collapse, Fanny even commissioned a miniature of herself seated by a bust of her errant husband that was later to be moved to Nelson’s new home with Emma. Following Nelson’s death at the hour of his greatest victory at Trafalgar, Fanny behaved with a dignity and composure that was severely lacking in the behaviour of her former love rival, whose life began to degenerate as she turned to the bottle.
This miniature perfectly encapsulates the compassion, stoicism and loyalty that were such admirable hallmarks of Fanny’s character. Shown in mourning, she wears two mourning rings – one for Josiah, who had died the year before, and one for Nelson. She wears further souvenirs of the two men that she loved the most – a jewel in her bonnet with a fouled anchor and the letter ‘J’ and, on her wrist, a profile portrait of Nelson by James Tassie, set in a gold bangle. The ermine-lined robes allude to her status as Viscountess, a title that she was awarded as, for all his bravado in the field of conflict, Nelson never managed to divorce her. It might be poignant to reflect that Tassie’s portrait might be the one that Fanny’s granddaughter, Fran, remembered her kissing and saying that ‘when you are older, little Fran, you may know what it is to have a broken heart’.
In a sense, Fanny had the last laugh. Dying in 1831, the year that this miniature was painted, she outlived both her husband and his lover and, as is immortalised in this image, bore all of the misfortunes of her life with a quiet dignity.