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Nelson boarding a captured ship, 20 November 1777

Fine art

Object connections:

Collection Fine art, Oil paintings, Maritime Art Greenwich
Gallery locationNot on display
PeopleDepiction: Nelson, Horatio
EventsAmerican War of Independence, 1775-1783

Object details:

Object ID BHC0421
Description An incident during the American Revolutionary War, 1775-83. In 1777 Captain William Locker sailed to the West Indies station in the frigate 'Lowestoffe', 32 guns, with the young Horatio Nelson as his second lieutenant. They arrived at Port Royal, Jamaica, in July with a convoy of 18 sail of merchantmen. When the 'Lowestoffe' captured an American merchant ship or privateer, on 20 November, a rough sea made the first lieutenant reluctant to try to board it and take formal possession. However Nelson volunteered for the task and succeeded in boarding the prize despite the heavy sea. The painting denotes the moment that Nelson leaves the 'Lowestoffe' for the ship's boat that will take him to the captured privateer. He is shown on the verge of the momentous departure, poised with one leg already firmly in the boat. In an exaggeratedly theatrical gesture, he bids farewell to Captain Locker and the other officers standing in the ship. Other figures crowd the deck in anticipation of the daring feat, their arms outstretched to hold the ropes and help steady the boat. The artist has accentuated the strong swell, bottom left, where the waves come up over the side of the boat. This has emphasized the effect by enclosing the action and by pitching the ship and the boat at the same angle in the heavy sea, with the sailors on the boat using the oars to fend off and prevent their gunwale being stove in against the frigate's side. The heavy sea demonstrates the tension and physical enterprise involves, and anticipates the potential danger ahead. The profile of the pitching ship implied in the distance at the extreme top left may be that of the American privateer. Westall has conveyed the staged effect by employing a dramatic language of gesture and expression. This painting of the incident was made in 1806. It was commissioned by John McArthur, as a plate for the first major biography of Nelson, 'The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, KB', which he published with James Stanier Clarke in 1809. Engraved by R. Goulding, it formed part of a series of five painted by Westall for the book and intended to show Nelson's life as a series of heroic acts. With two by West, also used in the same way (BHC0566 and BHC2905), and Lemuel Abbott's best-known portrait of Nelson (BHC2889) all were presented to Greenwich Hospital in 1849 'by Jasper de St Croix, Esq., and several other patriotic individuals'. The artist came from an English family of painters and illustrators. He was apprenticed in 1799 to John Thompson, a heraldic engraver in London, in 1779. In his spare time he studied drawing at the Royal Academy schools in 1785, became an ARA in 1792 and RA in 1794. He was a book illustrator and turned to painting historical subjects, his last employment being as drawing master to Princess Victoria. Although his output was prolific, Westall's unfortunate picture dealings led to poverty. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807 with the title, 'Lord Nelson, when second lieutenant of the Lowestoffe frigate, 32 guns, Captain Locker, going to take possession of an American [letter of] marque [i.e. privateer], during a strong gale of wind, and a heavy sea; the first lieutenant having returned, and declared it impracticable'. It is signed and dated 'R.W. 1806'. See also BHC0498, and BHC2908.
Date made 1806

Artist/Maker Westall, Richard
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Materials oil on canvas
Measurements Painting: 890 x 735mm; Frame size tbc
  • Nelson boarding a captured ship, 20 November 1777 (BHC0421)
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