The large-scale oil on canvas, 3ft 4in x 4ft (1.01 x 1.24m), by the US-born portraitist Mather Brown (1761-1831) was painted in London c.1805-07 for a 500-guinea art competition launched by printmaker and publisher Joseph Boydell. The hotly contested prize attracted entries from Benjamin West and Samuel Drummond and was eventually won by Arthur William Devis, whose painting is now in the National Maritime Museum collection.
According to dealer and Nelson specialist Martyn Downer, however, Brown’s picture comes top of the pile for its depiction of the British hero. While many similar scenes show the admiral dead or dying, this one captures him at the moment he is shot while his face is still animated.
“Apart from the drama and scale of the painting, it’s one of the most important portraits of Nelson to go on the market in years,” Downer says. “Brown moved in the same circles as Nelson and the picture shows an intimate knowledge of him.”
Although Nelson was widely portrayed in his lifetime, Downer believes there is a freshness to the painting that will make it particularly satisfying to Nelson-enthusiasts today. Published just once in 1970, it was subsequently believed to have been lost.
“It now belongs to an eagle-eyed American collector who bought it uncatalogued during lockdown,” Downer says. He will offer it at the fair on the collector’s behalf.
Following the competition, Brown – who may have been disqualified as the prize was aimed at British painters – considered raffling the painting but ultimately sold it, probably to one of his sitters, John Bridge Aspinall, one-time mayor of Liverpool. Though in a memoir Brown mentions the scene was subsequently engraved, no print has been found.
The painting is available for £350,000 and will be on offer at the Chelsea Antiques and Fine Art Fair. Read more about the fair in Dealers' Diary this week.