This small collection of letters provides a wonderful chronological thread, not to the battles for which Nelson is renowned, but to his personal life, physically and emotionally.
They begin with a rare right-handed letter (lot 84) written during one of the assaults on Corsica where in July he was to lose the sight of his right eye. Three years later, after the Battle of Cape St Vincent in February 1797 had made him famous, he was also to lose his right arm, which was amputated during an unsuccessful assault on Tenerife on 25 July that year. Only six weeks after that, he was already writing with his left hand in a remarkably legible way (lot 85). He was, however, in acute pain for some months until December when the stump started to heal and he wrote his historic note to the Rector of St George’s in Hanover Square (lot 86), evocatively thanking God for his recovery from the wound.
Ten years before, in 1787, he had married Frances (Fanny) Nisbet. However, after the Battle of the Nile in August 1798 and his warm welcome to Naples from the British Envoy, Sir William Hamilton, he began a burgeoning relationship with Sir William’s wife, Lady Emma, such that by April 1799 he was having to write to Fanny (lot 87) in order to dissuade her, most insistently, from leaving England to come out to see him in Sicily where he was then residing with the Hamiltons. He finally returned to England in November 1800 and, following an unhappy scene with Fanny in January 1801, he never saw her again.
He departed that January for Plymouth for an expedition to the Baltic and his response in February (lot 88) to a flattering letter from a supporter in Exeter was written only days after he had learned that Emma had secretly given birth to their daughter, Horatia, on 29 January. Following success at the Battle of Copenhagen in April, when he raised his blind eye to the telescope so as not to see the signal to withdraw, he returned to England in July 1801. Two months later, with a loan from his prize agent and friend, Alexander Davison, he purchased Merton Place in Surrey where he lived with Emma and Sir William for over a year and a half.
When his father, the Reverend Edmund Nelson, visited Merton in November 1801, he saw his portrait hanging in a place of honour between portraits of Davison and Sir William. Only five months later, Edmund died, as Nelson was to tell Davison in a brief, but most poignant, letter (lot 89). A year later, in April 1803, Sir William also died. That summer Nelson returned to sea where he was to remain for two years – an extremely long absence from Emma, to whom he wrote passionately in April 1805 (lot 90). He was to see her again for only one final period when he was at Merton in the late summer of 1805. But then he set out to sea and on 21 October he was shot and killed as his fleet was destroying the combined French and Spanish fleet during his most acclaimed victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.