X-ray reveals the young Nelson

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The Independent Online
Portraiture/ hidden image

THE MOST famous portrait of Lord Nelson hides the image of a younger and less important Nelson underneath, restoration work at the National Maritime Museum has shown.

The "promotion" of the portrait - from a hatless figure to hatted, and from a lieutenant's uniform to a captain's - followed the sudden rise in Horatio Nelson's fortunes as a young naval officer.

Both images were painted by John Francis Rigaud at the request of one of Nelson's early commanders, Captain William Locker, more than 20 years before Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The earlier portrait, discovered when curators X-rayed the painting, shows a young man with a chubby face, a pigtail and a hat under his arm. He is wearing a plain lieutenant's coat and strikes the casual pose of a young, untried officer. In the later portrait, painted on top of the earlier one after Nelson had proved himself in battle, he is a leaner, more self-assured figure wearing a formal captain's uniform with epaulettes, gold braid and a tricorn hat.

The hidden portrait was commissioned in 1777 when Nelson was an obscure 18-year-old lieutenant, and changed four years later into the much grander work after Nelson returned victorious from the Nicaraguan "San Juan" campaign against the Spanish. By the age of 21, Nelson had been appointed a captain and put in charge of his own frigate.

It is thought that Captain Locker, anticipating that Nelson would go far, asked that the work be updated and formalised.

Curators discovered the earlier portrait when they took the painting down for cleaning last month. It is one of the best known of Rigaud's paintings and is considered one of the best likenesses of the admiral. The museum bought it for a few hundred pounds from Earl Nelson, the admiral's descendant, in 1948. It will be re-hung in an exhibition on Nelson's life later this year.