This painting is the largest that Turner ever painted and is his only Royal commission. The work was ordered by King George IV to hang in St James’s Palace alongside de Loutherbourg’s The Glorious First of June, and also to complement two further battle scenes of Vittoria and Waterloo by Turner’s friend George Jones. The commission itself was probably obtained through Sir Thomas Lawrence the President of the Royal Academy. In order to garner factual material on the ships that had participated in the battle, Turner borrowed sketches from the marine painter J.C. Schetky, although he already possessed studies of Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, which he had obtained after Nelson’s body was returned home in I805. When the work went on view in St James’s Palace Turner was severely criticized for having made a number of errors in the rigging of the various ships and other nautical details, and he spent some eleven days altering the work to meet those criticisms, including lowering the victory in the water, for Schetky had sketched the ship when she was unladen in Portsmouth harbour. Yet even after meeting these criticisms the painting continued to mystify Turner’s very literal-minded naval contemporaries (including King William IV), principally because the artist had followed the demands of the theory of poetic painting to evade the limitations of time. As a result, we see events that took place hours apart, such as the signaling of the last word from Nelson’s famous telegraphic message `England expects every man to do his duty’ which had gone up around midday, alongside the collapse of the top-mizzenmast of the victory which occurred at 1 pm, the Achille on fire off the Victory which took place late in the afternoon, and the Redoubtable sinking in front of the Victory which did not happen until the following night (and even then it sank elsewhere). Naturally, these manipulations of the constraints of time were not welcomed by an audience who wanted `the facts, the facts and nothing but the facts’; well might Turner have responded by citing Michelangelo’s riposte to a critic of one of his effigies that it looked nothing like the person it was meant to portray: ‚Well, in a thousand years time nobody will know the difference’.
The foreground filled with carnage might not have helped public acceptance of the work either, for such anti-war sentiments would not have been popular with most naval viewers. The low viewpoint makes the men-of-war tower up over us, and their vast billowing sails serve to express the immense forces unleashed by war.