Lemuel Francis Abbott painted the following portrait of Horatio Nelson in 1797, eight years before Nelson’s death at Trafalgar. 2014 will mark the 209th anniversary of that famous victory and on October 21 many around the world will drink a toast to Nelson’s “immortal memory.” (The original painting belongs to the National Portrait Gallery in London and I am using it through a creative commons license.)
Nelson was a Rear Admiral when he sat for Abbott and battle wounds had already cost him his right arm and the sight in his right eye. His hair is prematurely grey, although Nelson is only 39 at the time of the portrait. Nonetheless, Nelson cuts an impressive figure on Abbott’s canvas. By all accounts, he had that same effect in life, despite his ill health, small stature and pale countenance. Abbott apparently copied this portrait around 40 times and sold it to many of Nelson’s friends and his admirers. That was only the beginning of a vast commercialization of Nelson that happened during his life and after his death.
Nelson is a fascinating and contradictory character, all the more so because he was very human despite the heroic image that even now, as one biographer says, strikes “deep and ancient chords in the human psyche.” That’s true enough, but there are also parts of Nelson that are hard to admire, even from a more tolerant 21st century perspective. An artist, who declined to paint Nelson, said, “there is such a mixture of humility and ambition in Lord Nelson’s countenance that I dare not risk the attempt.” He had additional contradictory character traits — grasping, yet self-sacrificing; religious, yet morally unconventional; rebelliously innovative, yet able to thrive in a top-down, tradition-bound Royal Navy; ruthless in war and enforcing discipline, yet adored by his officers and sailors; self-centered and emotional, yet a great planner and tactician. I admire him despite his contradictions because he epitomizes the signal virtues that have characterized the best of the Royal Navy (historical and fictional) during and after his time. In a similar way I admire the literary world Patrick O’Brian created around the Nelsonian Navy notwithstanding the deep and troubling contradictions in O’Brian’s life and character.
I have a Nelson library and have followed his life and career from the time I was a teen and wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. I read C.S. Forester’s Hornblower saga several times and have since read and re-read O’Brian and listened to Simon Vance’s recordings of the Aubrey-Maturin canon. My dog is even named Aubrey. I’ve read many books on Cochrane, Pellew, John Paul Jones, Jellicoe, Beatty, Vian, Cunningham and other nautical figures.
When a sabbatical gave me the opportunity to travel this year, I decided to follow Nelson’s trail from England through several of the Mediterranean venues where he made history. This also gave me the opportunity to visit locations chronicled by Patrick O’Brian and immortalized by the Royal Navy from Nelson’s time to the present. What follows in these blog posts are my photographs from that trip and some accompanying commentary. Except for the paintings, the photographs are all mine.