After the French were defeated at the Battle of the Nile (1 to 3 August 1798), Nelson returned to England in 1800 to a hero’s welcome. Artists quickly responded to increased demand for portraits of the naval officer. When the city of Norwich decided to honour Norfolk-born Nelson with a portrait, painter William Beechey, who had married a Norfolk woman and had already painted Nelson’s father, seemed an obvious choice. A full-length portrait (now at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery) was commissioned from Beechey by the Chamberlain of the city. The artist and sitter were soon on friendly terms and Nelson became honorary godfather to Beechey’s son, Charles, presenting the boy with the cocked hat he had worn at the Nile.
Several other autograph copies and versions of the portrait by Beechey exist. This mezzotint is based on a version at the National Portrait Gallery, London, which was probably a preliminary sketch for the full-length portrait. The sketch was in the collection of the Earl of St Vincent at the time it was engraved by R. Cooper in c.1815. However, it was bought back by the artist, after St Vincent’s death in 1823.
Sir William Beechey was born in Burford, Oxfordshire. After his father’s death (1789) he was raised by his uncle and initially apprenticed to a firm of solicitors. In 1772 he moved to London to enter the Royal Academy Schools. He soon married and his children include painter and explorer Henry William. From c.1782 he worked in Norwich, returning to London in 1787. Beechey was a widow by 1793, when he married miniature painter Anne Phyllis Jessop. In 1794 he became a member of the Royal Academy, received a knighthood and exhibited ‘His Majesty Reviewing the Third Dragoon Guards’, his most celebrated work. He was named portrait painter to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and Principle Portrait Painter to William IV before his death aged 85.
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