Beauty in the Eye of an Admiral

April 26, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

UNBLEMISHED: An unscathed Horatio Nelson portrait painted by Lemuel Francis Abbott in 1800. 'Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson,' oil on canvas, 1800. (Artrenewal.org)
UNBLEMISHED: An unscathed Horatio Nelson portrait painted by Lemuel Francis Abbott in 1800. 'Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson,' oil on canvas, 1800. (Artrenewal.org)
The painting of Admiral Horatio Nelson was one of Lemuel Francis Abbott’s finest. As an English painter, he had the privilege of painting the portrait of one of England’s most celebrated heroes during the Napoleonic Wars.

The painting of first Viscount Horatio Nelson displays a vibrant, youthful face. Lemuel Francis Abbott (1760–1802) had finished the painting of Admiral Nelson five years before Nelson had been mortally wounded by a French sharpshooter at the battle of Trafalgar.

By all accounts, Nelson’s face had weathered well beyond his years. He was a man with 29 years of experience at sea and had endured numerous battles in the service of the Royal Navy.

Abbott depicted Admiral Nelson with ravishing good looks, when in reality, at the time of his portrait, Nelson’s skin resembled the splintered, sunbaked planks of his ship.

It was common practice to smudge over imperfections in 18th century portraitures. Abbott had gone a step further, extolling Nelson by painting a portrait that did not resemble Nelson in the least.

Admiral Nelson was a man obsessed with his own legend, however. His every word and action had been calculated to give him the appearance he desired, and one that he hoped would stake his place in the chronicles of history as a man who would never be forgotten.

Had Abbott been directed to paint Nelson to Nelson’s liking? That could be one case. Nelson was blind in his right eye and often wore an eye patch. He had sustained his injury in 1794, six years before Abbott began working on the painting. Why had Abbott removed Nelson’s injury?

Purity and Utility

Another possible answer may be found in the philosophy of Roger Scruton, a professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College in London. In his documentary, “Why Beauty Matters,” Scruton notes, “At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art, or music, they would have replied, beauty.”

The aim of portraitists may not have been to paint an accurate depiction of the person, with a utilitarian purpose. As Roger Scruton puts it, “Beauty is a value.” In modern times, utility usually always comes before beauty. In previous centuries, painstaking effort went into making nearly every facet of life beautiful.

In light of this, it may not have been important to portray what Nelson looked like. It was completely unheard of in the late 18th century to paint imperfections in a human being. Abbott may have been upholding a value of beauty that by today’s standards may seem somewhat dishonest, though then, would have been commonplace.

Admiral Horatio Nelson is depicted in the painting as a venerable and timeless hero. If that is who he was, the painting may be fully accurate, at least in spirit, and everlasting like Nelson’s legend.