British Provincial School
Height: 22in (57cm)
Width: 19in (48cm)
Framed height: 28in (71cm)
Width: 23½in (60cm)
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This head and shoulders portrait shows a man with a black cravat and top coat with a buttoned camel coloured waistcoat and white shirt below, oil on canvas, inscribed on the back ‘Robert [sic] Nicholson of Blyth , Chief Carpenter, aboard H.M.S. Bellerophon at Trafalgar [with] Nelson’ , in a later oak frame. British Provincial School, 19th Century.
Although portraits of naval officers and merchant captains abound, it is unusual to find a portrait of the lower ranks on board battleships. Originally from Northumberland, Richard Nicholson (not Robert as labelled on his portrait) was rated carpenter crew in Bellerophon at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, when he was aged 36. According to a history of his home town of Blyth ( John Wallace The History of Blyth, 1869), Nicholson used to boast that his ship fought two battles that day as, after the action closed and the carpenters were repairing the shot holes, Bellerophon was re-engaged by the French requiring them all to return to quarters. In acting Captain Pryce Cumby’s words, by the close of the day the ship was ‘so unmanageable that the remaining seaworthy ship’s boats had to be lowered to tow her clear of the prizes L’Aigle and Monarca.’ The fact that she managed to survive the four-day storm which followed the battle, then limp slowly to Gibraltar is testament to the skills of her exhausted carpenters who set up jury topmasts and repaired rigging in terrible conditions. Nicholson remained in the Royal Navy after the battle, eventually retiring to Blyth where he became celebrated and ‘fought his battles o’er again’ with a pot of rum.
Ship’s carpenters were also excellent cabinet makers. In ‘Britain on the High Seas: From Nelson to Churchill’ , (Wick Antiques, 2019, pp80-81) there is a fine satinwood and ebony naval cabinet made for Admiral Bingham, by carpenter James Carter, while crossing the Indian Ocean on Sceptre.
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