Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Relic of Vice Admiral Admiral Horatio Nelson ( 1758 - 1805) 1805

 English School 

Relic of Vice Admiral Admiral Horatio Nelson ( 1758 - 1805),  English School
19th Century
11 x 6 x 4 inches 28 x 15.5 x 10cm
The small bronze bust of Nelson is mounted on an oak plinth said to be carved from wood from HMS Victory. Other than the apparent date of the object and the nature of the plinth - which both would support this tradition - there is no certain means of ascertaining whether this is indeed the case. The immediate popularity of Nelson, the irresisitible combination of victory and death of one whose entire life could be read as a progression towards this heroic martyrdom, produced an unprecedented popular enthusiasm, and a ready market for relics of the Admiral.

After the Battle of Trafalgar in October Victory was severely damaged and a contemporary description records a catalogue of injuries:

The hull is much damaged with shot in a number of places, several along the water line. Several beams and riders, knees shot through, and a broken starboard cathead. Timbers of the Head and Stem full of shot with lots of parts damaged. Chains and Channels shot away, the Mizzen mast shot away nine foot above the deck, bulwarks shot away, the main mast was full of shot and sprung, the Main Yard gone, the main Top-Mast cap shot away. The Main Topsail mast yard shot away. The Foremast shot through in many places, the Foreyard shot away, Bowsprit, Jib Boom and cap shot-away. Spritsail yards and Flying-jib boom gone. Fore and Main Tops shot away and the ship taking in 12 inches of water an hour1

Although it was soon to become a relic, Victory remained a flagship in the war against Napoleon, serving in the Baltic and Peninsular campaigns. During this time she was fully refitted and repaired several times - in 1813, for example her figurehead was removed and recarved - and so the opportunities to acquire discarded wood from the ship were considerable. Recognising the unique position that Victory and her commander occupied in the national imagination the Admiralty decreed that she be moved to her present, permanent moorings in May 1816, although the ship''s full, commemorative function began in January 1824 when two hundred men were drafted on board with twenty guns for making ceremonial signals. In that same year the Trafalgar Anniversary Dinner was instituted on board.

It remains, therefore, most possible, but unproveable, that the wood of the plinth that supports this small bust does indeed come from one of the nearly six thousand oak trees that were felled to build the Victory to the designs of Thomas Slade, the Senior Surveyor of the Navy, between the laying of her keel in Chatham on 23 July 1759 and her launch on 7 May 1765, or from one of the many repairs made to her since that date.

1. Contemporary account Ministry of Defence
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.