Height 28.50 inch. Width 32.25 inch.
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This oil on canvas shows the wounded Nelson on his quarterdeck supported in the arms of an officer and two sailors whilst the battle rages around them. Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy brings news of the Battle of Trafalgar, pointing his sword at the stern of a surrendering French ship. In the foreground two gunners continue their bombardment, crouching beside the Admiral’s discarded hat and sword. English, 1805.
This vivid image might be considered the earliest artistic reaction to the death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, news of which reached London in early November. Aware of its commercial possibilities, painters and their engravers in London had eagerly awaited details of this seismic event. However, it seems none was quicker to his canvas than Samuel Drummond, a seaman turned artist who, familiar with life in a British warship, grabbed the chance to steal a march on his rivals. Drummond would return repeatedly to this profitable subject over the next twenty years, yet it appears that this is his very first and, in many ways, most interesting effort. Urgently sketched in oils, the painting contains telling errors hurriedly discarded as more accurate accounts of the action filtered back to England with returning officers.
Self-taught and from rebellious origins – his father had distinguished himself in the Jacobite cause – Drummond was often at odds with the artistic establishment. John Constable referred to him as ‘the king of a Pot House, [with] such low habits & notions that he seemed unfit to be associated with men of rank’. Yet he carved out a successful reputation in portraiture assisted by a natural facility but also by his speed of working which could see him complete a portrait in oils at one sitting, at low cost to his customers. Prior to Trafalgar, he exhibited many portraits at the Royal Academy including of naval officers such as Captain Sir Sidney Smith (1795) and Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren (1798). In 1813, he would show a portrait of Nelson’s daughter Horatia indicating a connection with her mother Emma, Lady Hamilton, who may have accepted this representation of the death of her lover. Not withstanding modest commercial success in portraiture, it was as a history painter that Drummond wished to be remembered despite having no patrons and lacking a formal education. Trafalgar offered him the perfect opportunity. Aged fourteen, Drummond had gone to sea in the merchant service although it was claimed he also saw action with the Royal Navy during the American War. His experience had already been recalled for a series of dramatic shipwreck paintings, including The Drowned Sailor (exhibited 1804), and it gave his depiction of the death of Nelson a vital, visceral credibility lacking in the efforts of his competitors.
Provenance: Provenance: Private collection, Somerset.
Exhibitions: Probably Royal Academy, London, Summer 1806 (catalogue number 505), as Sketch for a death of Lord Nelson.
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