Zoomable Image of Portrait of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson KB (1758-1805)

Portrait of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson KB (1758-1805)

Leonardo Guzzardi (Active 1798-1800)

Portrait of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson KB (1758-1805)

Leonardo Guzzardi (Active 1798-1800)

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Oil on canvas


27 ½ x 22 ½ in (69.9 x 57.2 cm)


Private collection, Italy; By whom sold to Thomas Gullick (Art Dealer), by 1882; By whom sold to Alfred Morrison (1821-97), by 1897; George M. Juergens, New York; Bought from the estate of the above by an American collector in 1987


C. Beresford and H. Wilson, Nelson and His Times, (London, 1897), p.107 (illustrated) R. Walker, The Nelson Portraits, (London, 1998), p.226, no. 87 (as ‘location unknown’) M. Downer, Nelson’s Lost Jewel, (Gloucestershire, 2017), illustrated, p.193

Although scholars have long been aware of the existence of this portrait through old photographs and notes in the National Portrait Gallery archives, its actual whereabouts has only recently come to light...

Our visual interpretation of history’s greatest heroes is dictated not only by their actions, but by their portraitists. It is therefore surprising that the portraits by Leonardo Guzzardi of Horatio Nelson, which are the most honest and revealing amongst the naval hero’s extensive iconography, are only now beginning to gain the recognition they deserve. Unlike the better-known portrait-types by Lemuel Francis Abbot (1797) and Sir William Beechey (1800-1801), which fuse Nelson’s character with an established tradition of romantic English painting, the Guzzardi portraits, by contrast, do not seek to air-brush reality or hide the painful physical costs of Nelson’s military encounters.

In this portrait Nelson is emaciated and battle worn, with a scarred head, a missing arm (undetectable in the rendering), a blood-shot eye, and largely missing eyebrow. The portrait is uncompromising, so much so that one past owner, no doubt discomforted by the broken eyebrow, had it painted in to match that on the right. The wound had happened during the heat of engagement with the French at the Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay in Egypt in August 1798, whilst standing on the quarter deck with Edward Berry. A shard of iron struck Nelson’s forehead, slicing the skin and leaving an inch of skull visible.[1] The piece of flesh, cut at jagged angles as seen in this portrait, hung down over his right eye, leaving him momentarily blinded. Such was the shock that Nelson, caught in the arms of Berry, famously cried out “I am killed. Remember me to my wife”. He was taken below deck, where the surgeon treated the wound with adhesive strips and gave Nelson opium to reduce the pain. His treatment, however, was supposedly interrupted by news that the French flagship L’Orient was on fire, at which moment Nelson ran back up on deck. This moment is captured by a theatrical portrait attributed to Guy Head [National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, BHC2903], in which Nelson is shown on deck with a burning ship beyond, blood dripping from his bandage onto the shoulder of his white shirt. The injury left Nelson disorientated and severely concussed, and the pain of the wound was such that he was forced to wear his hat tilted back, as seen in the present work, for some months.

Positioned conspicuously on top of his hat is the legendary Chelengk jewel. The jewel, made of diamonds, was gifted to Nelson by the Grand Sultan Selim III on 13 December 1798, in appreciation for saving Aboukir Bay (then part of the Ottoman Empire) from assault by Napoleon. The impressive jewel attracted wonder but also adverse comment, especially when Nelson took to wearing it - unofficially - on his naval uniform hat in a show of undaunted vanity. The gift also included a scarlet pelisse lined with sable fur and two thousand sequins (a type of small gold coin), to be shared amongst the wounded.

All of Guzzardi’s portraits of Nelson derive from a single head-type painted in early 1799 in Palermo, where the artist and subject had flown following the Jacobin revolt in Naples in December 1798. Guzzardi, about whom very little is known, was described at the time as a ‘Celebrated Artist at Palermo, Portrait Painter to the King’,[2] and although few of his works have survived, the existing examples reveal a highly distinctive style with a preoccupation for vivid flesh tones, bold colouring and sharp treatment of facial features.[3]

The first of Guzzardi’s portraits of Nelson is thought to be the full-length painting on display in the Admiralty Boardroom in London. It has long been thought that Sir William Hamilton instigated the Guzzardi commission, however recent research into the genesis of these portraits by scholar Martin Downer suggests the commission was in fact orchestrated by Queen Maria Carolina of Naples[4], who had requested a picture of her hero earlier in Naples, vowing to make her son stand in front of it every day to beseech: ‘Dear Nelson, teach me to be like you’.[5] This seems logical, not least because the King and Queen of Naples, critical allies in Britain’s lonely struggle against an all-conquering France, were in Palermo at that date under Nelson’s protection.

Such was the success of the full-length portrait that a number of versions and variants were subsequently commissioned from Guzzardi including bust-length versions, such as the present work, and several reduced-scale replicas of the full-length portrait. Some of these works were gifted to or acquired by the captains who fought at the Battle of the Nile, although a number were also given by Nelson to his close friends and family. The portrait was also copied by other painters once it arrived in England on 6 November 1800, although these works are noticeably inferior and lacking the veracity and realism of Guzzardi’s hand.[6]

The subsequent versions by Guzzardi can be divided into two types, depending on the number of medals and orders Nelson is shown wearing. The earlier portraits, painted prior to August 1799, show Nelson wearing the Star of the Order of the Bath and one Naval gold medal, whereas the later works add the Star of the Order of the Crescent on his right breast with Davison’s gold medal beneath it, and two Naval gold medals around his neck. At first glance it would appear that this portrait is one of the later variants, however on closer inspection it is clear that the Star of the Order of the Crescent, the Davison Nile Medal and the lower naval medal have all been added later, confirming it as an amended example of the earlier type. The lower Naval medal worn around the neck was painted over the top of the red sash of the Order of the Bath, the red hue of the sash noticeably showing through. Likewise the other medal shown on the left, which is supposed to be Davison’s Nile Medal, was also added later and was painted over the top of a section of gold braiding on the jacket. The fact that the Davison medal has been depicted incorrectly[7] suggests the painting had left the possession of the artist prior to August 1799 when the medal arrived in Palermo, and the amendments made by a different hand, unfamiliar with the design and perhaps working from a print - a not uncommon phenomenon with naval portraiture of the period given the constant accretion of orders and decorations by commanders as a result of French combats.

Although scholars have long been aware of the existence of this portrait through old photographs and notes in the National Portrait Gallery archives, its actual whereabouts has only recently come to light. In his seminal work ‘The Nelson Portraits’ published in 1998, Richard Walker notes the portrait as last recorded in 1897, when it was in the collection of Alfred Morrison and illustrated in ‘Nelson and His Times’ (see literature). Morrison was a major Nelson collector and also owned, amongst other important objects, the correspondence between Nelson and Emma Hamilton, which he published in 1883-4. Morrison acquired the portrait from the London art dealer Thomas Gullick, who in turn discovered it rolled-up in Italy in the early 1880s, its subject and artist then unknown. Prior to approaching Morrison, Gullick offered the portrait first to the then Earl Nelson (who it turned out already owned a Guzzardi portrait of Nelson), and then to the National Portrait Gallery. In a letter to the gallery director George Scharf dated 19 February 1882, Gullick put forward the argument that the present work preceded the prime full-length, and was thus the ad vivum likeness taken from life and from which all the other portraits of Nelson by Guzzardi derive.[8] Scharf was evidently interested and went to see the work in Gullick’s gallery, where he made a detailed sketch of the portrait, noting with precision the exact compositional elements, colouring and unusual dimensions.[9] Scharf’s reply to Gullick is now lost, although the gallery clearly decided against its acquisition, no doubt on the basis they already owned a likeness of Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott.

After Morrison died the majority of his collection was sold by his wife privately or through auction, and whilst many of these transactions are recorded, no mention of the present work has so far been found.[10] At some point the portrait then travelled to America, where it entered the collection of a George M Juergens in New York. When Juergens died in 1987 the portrait was acquired by a close friend, in whose possession it remained.

We are grateful to the Nelson scholar Martyn Downer for his help in cataloguing this portrait’s provenance and authorship.

[1] Medical journal of Vanguard. Quoted Dr A-M.E Hills, Nelson: A Medical Casebook, (Stroud, 2006), p.104

[2] Inscribed on ‘Horatio Nelson’ by John Young after Leonardo Guzzardi, mezzotint, published 1800. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D5334

[3] See for example the full-length portrait of King Ferdinand in the Sala dei Borboni di Napoli di Spagna e Francia at Caseta

[4] M. Downer, Nelson’s Lost Jewel, (Gloucestershire, 2017), p.80

[5] C. Knight, Autobiography of Miss Cornelia Knight, (2 vols. London, 1861), vol.2, p.286 in M. Downer, Nelson’s Lost Jewel, (Gloucestershire, 2017), p.80

[6] See copy by Matthew Keymer (b.1754) illustrated in R. Walker, The Nelson Portraits, p.85

[7] An example of Davison’s Nile Medal is in the collection at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich [MED0184], and shows a different composition with Peace standing on a rock beside the sea, supporting a medallion struck with Nelson’s likeness

[8] List of Portraits Submitted and Declined, National Portrait Gallery Archive (TSB XXIX 72; CLXI (5))

[9] ibid

[10] We are grateful to the descendants of Alfred Morrison for their assistance when researching the provenance of this portrait.

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