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The Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar

Date: 1876
Overall: 640 x 1480 mm
Display Dimensions: 640 x 1480 x 50 mm
Medium: Paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Engraving
Object No: 00015900
Place Manufactured:London

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    This engraving by Charles W. Sharpe in 1876 is based on a painting completed by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1864. The image depicts the death of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The image shows the fatally wounded Nelson on the deck of HMS VICTORY in the arms of Captain Hardy with members of the crew surrounding him.
    SignificanceThis engraving is an example of the idealisation of Nelson's heroic death on HMS VICTORY, and the popularity of the subject for artists in the 19th and 20th centuries. Horatio Nelson continues to be one of the most celebrated figures in British history.
    HistoryIn July 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte secretly left Milan and hurried to Boulogne, where his Grande Armée waited to cross the Channel and invade England. He only needed Admiral Villeneuve to bring the French and Spanish Fleets from south-western Spain into the Channel to enable the invasion to take place.

    The British First Sea Lord appointed Admiral Lord Nelson as Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet to attack the French and Spanish ships. Nelson selected HMS VICTORY (under the command of Captain Thomas Hardy) as his flagship and sailed south towards Gibraltar. As each British ship intended for the Fleet was made ready they sailed to join Nelson.

    In October 1805 Villeneuve was still in the harbour of Cadiz. He received a stinging rebuke from Napoleon accusing him of cowardice and so made ready to leave harbour and make for the Channel. He believed that there was no strong British Fleet nearby and that Nelson was still in England. Other than picket frigates watching the harbour, Nelson had strategically kept his main fleet well out to sea.
    On 19 October 1805 HMS MARS relayed the signal received from the watching frigates that the Franco-Spanish Fleet was leaving Cadiz.

    The battle of Trafalgar commenced at dawn on 21 October 1805 using Nelson's unorthodox battle plan that called for his ships to attack the enemy broadside in two parallel lines, break into the enemy's formation to blast his opponents at close quarters. Nelson's captains understood fully what was required of them; he had explained his tactics over the previous weeks until every ship knew her role.
    Ships were cleared for action with cooking fires thrown overboard, the movable bulwarks removed, the decks sanded and ammunition carried to each gun. The gun crews took their positions.

    The French and Spanish Fleets were sailing in line ahead in an arc-like formation. The British Fleet attacked in two squadrons; the windward squadron led by Nelson in VICTORY and the leeward headed by Collingwood in ROYAL SOVEREIGN. Nelson aimed to cut the Franco-Spanish Fleet at a point one-third along the line with Collingwood attacking the rear section. In the light wind, the Franco-Spanish Fleet would be unable to turn back and take part in the battle until it was too late.

    Nelson appears to have been entirely confident of success. He told his Flag Captain Hardy, he expected to take 20 of the enemy's ships. He was also convinced of his impending death in the battle. Nelson told his friend Blackwood, captain of the EURYALUS, who came on board VICTORY, "God bless you, Blackwood. I shall never see you again."

    As Nelson watched from the deck of HMS VICTORY the battle soon turned into a confused melee of combat between individual ships. The fighting was at such close quarters that VICTORY became entangled with the French ship REDOUBTABLE. Locked together, each ship blasted its enemy at point-blank range. Nelson - despite protests from his men - wore dress uniform with his decorations, making him a conspicuous figure on the quarterdeck of VICTORY.

    From his perch in the upper rigging, a French sharpshooter took aim at the prized target on the deck of VICTORY, fired and sent a musket ball into Nelson's left shoulder. Continuing its journey, the bullet tore a path through the Admiral's upper body before smashing into his lower back. It was a mortal wound.

    Nelson was carried below decks while the battle raged on. He lived long enough to hear the news of his fleet's victory after some five hours of combat.

    The original painting was the finished study for a picture designed to decorate the walls of Westminster Palace. Maclise presented this event in a theatrical way to arouse sympathy not only for Nelson, but for all of the wounded and killed. He included two black crew members to make sure the painting was historically accurate. The black seaman in the centre of the picture is particularly important as he points to Nelson's assassin.

    Maclise researched his painting thoroughly, interviewing survivors of the battle, researching naval weapons and equipment and reading through the records of the VICTORY. The painting was produced between 1859 and 1864 at a time when Victorian Britain chose to celebrate moments of national pride, over fifty years after the event took place.

    Additional Titles

    Web title: The Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar

    Primary title: The Death of Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar from the original wall painting in the Palace of Westminster

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