A re-imagining of the only meeting of two great heroic figures of Britain’s war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.
The two great heroic figures of Britain’s war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France met only once. As Horatio Nelson rose to fame in the 1790s the future Duke of Wellington – then Sir Arthur Wellesley – was serving in India. Wellesley only returned to Britain in 1805, but it so happened that his visit to London to solicit a new command coincided with Nelson’s brief return home after his abortive pursuit of the French fleet from the Mediterranean to the West Indies and back.
When Nelson sailed again, it would be on the voyage that would culminate in his death at Trafalgar. The two men met for only a few minutes as they each waited to speak with the Secretary of State, Lord Castlereagh, and much of the detail of what they spoke about is lost.
Only afterwards, when his victories in the Peninsular and at Waterloo brought him to equal fame, did the significance of Wellesley’s meeting with Nelson become apparent. But for two great men to have been in the same place at the same time was an obvious inspiration for artists. A painting, now lost, by the artist John Prescott Knight first captured the scene.
This image then provided the basis for numerous engravings and other reproductions, such as this one. The original Knight painting seems to have been based on pre-existing portraits of the two men, which is hardly surprising since one of them was dead by the time that it was painted.
The result was a very stiff, formal, image in which the two men are not even looking at each other. This later re-imagining of the scene takes Knight’s basic composition but simplifies the background and has the two figures obviously engaging with one and other. Neither figure in this version bears more than a superficial resemblance to the man it is meant to depict, but at least they do seem to be in conversation.
Nelson left no record of what he thought of Wellesley, but in later life the Duke of Wellington gave his account of the meeting. He claimed that Nelson did not initially recognise him, and spoke in a light and superficial manner before leaving the room for a moment. When Nelson returned, however, someone had clearly told him whom he had been speaking to and his entire attitude changed so that the two men then spoke as equals for the remainder of their brief conversation.
It certainly suited Wellington to thus place himself on a par with his naval counterpart and imply that there was a mutual admiration between them, but even without this story it is clear from the public appetite for prints such as this one – which was produced a quarter-century after the meeting it depicts – that the popular conception of these two men as Britain’s heroes was already fixed.
Wellesley, Charles, Marquis of Douro, Wellington Portrayed (Unicorn, London, 2014)