The bust-length portrait, re-discovered by Philip Mould & Co., is a missing work painted in Italy in 1799 by Leonardo Guzzardi (active 1798-1800), a Neapolitan artist who captured the admiral in a series of vivid portraits six years before the fateful battle of Trafalgar.
The image is a painfully honest portrayal of the naval hero following the recent amputation of his arm, the loss of sight in one eye, and the severe head wound at the battle of the Nile just weeks before which forced him to wear his hat thrust back to lessen the pain. The wound, and his subsequent concussion, has been blamed for altering Nelson’s behaviour in the months which followed when he assisted in the brutal suppression of revolt at Naples and embarked on his passionate affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton.
The artist, unaffected by the adoration of Nelson’s later portraits, did not hold back from expressing the emaciated and battle-worn figure presented to him, although part of the livid head wound he depicted was later hidden beneath overpaint in an attempt to improve the image of the hero .
Now the original painting - and the full extent of the wound – has been re-revealed in Nelson's Lost Jewel by Nelson scholar Martyn Downer (The History Press, 2017) which tells the story of the famous diamond “Chelengk” presented to Nelson by the Sultan of Turkey after the battle of the Nile, visible on the admiral’s hat in Guzzardi’s painting. Indeed, the portrait will be exhibited alongside the newly commissioned replica of the Chelengk, made in diamonds and with a clockwork mechanism. The dazzling jewel will be displayed in the gallery on replica of Nelson’s bicorne hat, made to his exact specifications by Lock & Co. Hatters of St James’s, who made the original in 1800.
© David Botwinik / NMRN
The picture was first discovered rolled up in Italy in the 1880s by an English art dealer. He brought it to England where it was inspected by both the then Earl Nelson, great nephew of the Admiral, who commented on its veracity as a likeness; and also the National Portrait Gallery who recorded its appearance in a pencil sketch. It was then bought by the renowned collector Alfred Morrison who also owned the celebrated correspondence between Nelson and his beloved mistress Emma. The painting was last seen in 1897 when it was published in a newspaper serial called ‘Nelson and His Times’ following which it is was sold and shipped to America.
Sometime in the twentieth century a restorer unwittingly painted in Nelson’s lost right eyebrow - most likely thinking it was an artistic error or blemish. However, the eyebrow’s absence was due to the head wound inflicted by flying metal at the Battle of the Nile and was a crucially significant part of Guzzardi’s original characterisation.
Spotting the painting’s potential and its great importance, Philip Mould & Co. recently returned it to England where it has been restored and researched and its identity as the lost portrait of Nelson by Guzzardi confirmed.
Philip Mould says: “This was like reversing plastic surgery to reveal lost history. Seeing the scar emerge was a remarkable moment –Nelson the human replaced the more heroic projection. It was not uncommon for unsophisticated restorers in the last century to believe they were “improving” original works with their own paint brush, only to disguise their authenticity and distinction in the process. The provenance that was then discovered by our head of research, Lawrence Hendra, then clinched its identity as the missing painting."
Martyn Downer says: “The rediscovery of the long-lost Morrison Nelson is of huge significance and adds to our understanding of Nelson’s troubled state of mind in the months after the battle of the Nile when he embarked on a scandalous love affair and became embroiled in a violent and bitter revolution. For me, it is the most psychologically satisfying and rewarding of all the very many portraits of the admiral. That it should emerge whilst I was researching the very jewel worn by Nelson in the painting is quite extraordinary and I was delighted that the owner allowed me to publish it for the first time in over a hundred years in Nelson's Lost Jewel.”