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1866 Here Nelson Fell

The undoubted centrepiece of the 1866 Exhibition was one of two works submitted by Daniel Maclise.1 The painting, which The Daily News reported, “worthily occupies the chief place on the side wall of the large room”, was a 3.5 metre wide representation of Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (Fig. 1). At the centre of the expansive composition is the dying Nelson supported by Captain Hardy, with Dr Beatty and other sailors gathered around him. These figures take their place in a frieze-like composition in which between sixty and seventy figures are spread across the canvas.

Maclise was a Senior Academician, having been elected as an Associate in 1840, but he had not exhibited since 1859. Between 1857 and 1865, he had worked exclusively on a single enormous project: the painting of two immense frescoes for the Royal Gallery in the rebuilt Palace of Westminster in London (Fig. 2). These paintings, each almost 14 metres long, took as their subjects the greatest British military and naval victories of the early nineteenth century: the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.2

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The painting he exhibited at the Royal Academy was the study in oils for his recently completed fresco The Death of Nelson, even though it was exhibited under the title Here Nelson Fell, a phrase taken from the inscription on the quarterdeck of HMS Victory.3 Maclise’s paintings of Trafalgar and Waterloo inscribed him firmly in the lineage of great history painters associated with the Academy, an organisation which since its foundation in 1768 had insisted that history painting represented the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Indeed, Maclise’s The Death of Nelson seems to reference Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770), while his labours over the Westminster project invite comparisons with another Irish Academician, James Barry, and his extraordinary murals for the Society of Arts.

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, hopes of cultivating a school of British history painting had long since dissipated, and artists eschewed the heroic subjects favoured by West and Barry to depict more anecdotal and humorous subject matter. As far as The Art-Journal was concerned, Maclise’s fresco of The Death of Nelson was an outlier, “the only picture which we yet possess entirely worthy of our naval history”.4

The scheme to decorate the new Palace of Westminster dated back to the early 1840s, led by Prince Albert (who commissioned eight British artists to execute frescoes for the Garden Pavilion at Buckingham Palace in 1842) and the influential painter and arts administrator Sir Charles Lock Eastlake.5 Over the course of the project, doubts about the cost of the scheme and the quality of the frescoes led to its abandonment after Albert’s death in 1861. Maclise was originally contracted to paint sixteen further panels in the Royal Gallery, but his contract was cancelled in 1864.6 Eastlake, the President of the Royal Academy since 1850, then died in Italy on Christmas Eve of 1865, triggering an election to choose his successor as President.7

At the Council meeting held on 24 January 1866, Sir Edwin Landseer received by far the most votes, but he declined the presidency. Maclise, who received four votes, might well have been chosen in the second election, held on 1 February 1866, had he not withdrawn from the contest. Instead, the portrait painter Sir Francis Grant (who received only two votes in the first vote) was elected President by an overwhelming majority.8

The most significant event of Grant’s presidency was undoubtedly overseeing the Academy’s move from Trafalgar Square to Burlington House in 1868, despite Queen Victoria favouring an alternative scheme to site the Academy on the Kensington Gore estate.9 In terms of exhibitions, meanwhile, Grant boosted the presence and visibility of portraiture (for instance, by lifting the ban on whole-length and half-length portraits being hung at eye level in 1868).10 This preferential treatment of portraiture was already in evidence (and widely criticised) in 1866, with The Birmingham Daily Post critic writing of the quantity of portraits such that “imbeciles stare at you like guns in a three-decker”.11 The effect of Grant’s interventions, wrote the genre painter G.D. Leslie, was that: “the patronage hitherto given to subject-pictures began to fall lamentably, and in consequence of this a great number of distinguished painters, who formerly produced important works of figure subjects, began to take to portraiture.”12 It is interesting to speculate how the Academy under the presidency of Maclise might have done more to support history painting.

The critical response to the 1866 Exhibition was lukewarm on the whole, meaning that Maclise’s picture gained a certain amount of approbation merely faute de mieux. The Birmingham Daily Post summed this up this state of affairs best in concluding: “the picture of the year is—well, there is no best picture”.13 The works which Sir Edwin Landseer submitted after a long absence were generally praised, but reviews frequently lamented the absence of artists including George Richmond, Charles Landseer, Alfred Elmore, John R. Herbert, and above all Millais.

Maclise’s own wish for his Westminster commissions was to paint in oils on panels in his studio and to deliver them to the palace upon completion. It was only with great reluctance that he executed the works in situ, employing the water-glass technique (developed in Germany) recommended by Prince Albert.14 In exhibiting his oil study for The Death of Nelson in an exhibition environment, Maclise may have intended to draw attention to the design and colouring of his work—qualities that the enormous size of the fresco inevitably obscured. Indeed, some critics preferred the oil study to the fresco because they felt the work as a whole could be comprehended more readily.15 Others, however, criticised its composition as cluttered and incoherent. This point was made most forcefully in The Pall Mall Gazette:

A picture is not a panorama. It is a complete whole in itself … Here, then, is the primary mistake in the general laying out of the “Death of Nelson”. It is in reality three pictures in one. It is a piece cut out from a panorama, and not a single painting, so enormously are its innumerable figures and groups extended side by side.16

So the exhibiting of Here Nelson Fell, rather than a triumphant return to Academy for Maclise, instead marked the point at which, to quote Christopher Wood, “the Westminster Decorations, the most grandiose commission of the Victorian era, came to an ignominious and disappointing end.”17 Maclise, having dedicated almost a decade to his greatest works, returned in his final years to some of his “earlier, more frivolous subjects”, themes more palatable to Victorian tastes.18

  1. “Fine Arts”, The Daily News, 10 May 1866. Maclise’s other work was a portrait of Doctor Quain.↩︎

  2. Maclise worked on Waterloo between 1857 and 1862, and The Death of Nelson between 1862 and 1865. Peter Murray, Daniel Maclise: Romancing the Past (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 2008), 227–228.↩︎

  3. The painting was purchased by The Art-Union straight from the Exhibition as part of an agreement including the rights to reproduce the painting in engraved form. The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool acquired the painting in 1892.↩︎

  4. The Art-Journal, 1 October 1864, 302.↩︎

  5. Nancy Weston, Daniel Maclise: Irish Artist in Victorian London (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001), 176.↩︎

  6. Annette Wickham, “A Magnificent Work of Art”, in Annette Wickham and Mark Murray-Flutter (eds), Daniel Maclise: The Waterloo Cartoon (London: Royal Academy Publications, 2015), 18.↩︎

  7. It was presumably as a form of memorial that a quotation from Eastlake’s writings was the motto chosen to preface the 1866 Exhibition catalogue.↩︎

  8. Weston, Daniel Maclise, 267; Sidney C. Hutchison, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1986 (London: Robert Royce, 1986), 106.↩︎

  9. Hutchison, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1986,107.↩︎

  10. A. Cassandra Albinson, “Sir Francis Grant” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/11257(accessed 29 April 2018).↩︎

  11. Unsigned, “Royal Academy: First Notice”, The Birmingham Daily Post, 14 May 1866, 1. See also unsigned, “The Royal Academy Exhibition: [Concluding Article]”, The Pall Mall Gazette, 16 May 1866, 1577.↩︎

  12. B. Denvir (ed.), The Late Victorians: Art, Design and Society, 1852–1910 (London: Longman, 1986), 35.↩︎

  13. “Royal Academy: First Notice”, The Birmingham Daily Post, 14 May 1866, 1.↩︎

  14. The water-glass technique entailed the addition of a coat of potassium silicate or sodium silicate to repel damp—a necessary measure in counties such as Germany and Britain. See Wickham, “A Magnificent Work of Art”, 18.↩︎

  15. “The Royal Academy”, The Birmingham Daily Post, 5 May 1866; “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Standard, 5 May 1866, 6.↩︎

  16. “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Pall Mall Gazette, 7 May 1866, 1465.↩︎

  17. Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting: In Oils and Watercolours (London: ACC Art Books, 1999), 29. By 1866, all outstanding commissions on the project had been cancelled other than that of C.W. Cope, who completed his Civil War scenes in the Peers’ Corridor that year.↩︎

  18. Annette Wickham, “Daniel Maclise RA (1806–1870)”, “gentlest and most modest of men”, in Wickham and Murray-Flutter (eds), Daniel Maclise, 6.↩︎

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