Coming from a modest background, the Nelson of popular imagination was a humane commander who had the common touch and ignored the divisions of rank or faction. In this portrait of 1798-9 he appears with one of his midshipmen at the moment of victory during the famous Battle of the Nile (1798). The younger man hands over the French admiral's sword wrapped in a captured French flag. In the background two battle-scarred ships fly white ensigns hoisted over French tricolours under a dramatic stormy sky.
The portrait, which commemorates one of the most decisive victories in English naval history, is based on life studies made by Guy Head, who met Nelson in Naples soon after the event. The portrait shows Nelson's earlier loss of an arm but the artist has taken the licence of showing Nelson otherwise unscathed, though in truth his forehead should have been bandaged as a result of the serious wounds he received. By the end of battle, Nelson had been wounded above his right eye, was bandaged, bloodstained and exhausted and far from the polished officer at ease on his quarterdeck.