What  colour was Lord Nelson’s hair?

Artists overwhelmingly portrayed Horatio Nelson as having white or grey hair. Even the portrait by Rigaud, painted when Nelson was a young man of twenty-two, would suggest that his hair was unnaturally pale for his age.

Speculation abounds. I am going to relate here some things I learned about human hair colour when considering what colour Lord Nelson’s hair might have been. Of course, I will qualify this by stating that I have not read everything that has ever been written about Nelson. It’s possible that I could live another fifty years and still not have read everything, so much has been written about Nelson and his life. But this is based upon what I do know.

Some things about Horatio Nelson’s life are indisputable. He suffered at least three very serious illnesses during his lifetime, one in the West Indies, a year before the Rigaud portrait was painted; another following the amputation of his right arm in 1797; and a third after having been hit in the head by flying debris at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

During this period of history, both men and women often powdered their hair for formal appearances. Nothing that I have read suggests that Nelson wore powder. The practice waned during his lifetime, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, wigs and powder were worn almost exclusively by old men with one foot still in their youth, and the other… well, you get the picture.

When he was young, Nelson was not a follower of fashion; in fact, it might be fair to say that he was oblivious to it. Prince William Henry, the ‘Sailor King’ who became the Duke of Clarence and eventually King William IV, on his first acquaintance with Nelson, remarked on the captain’s old-fashioned waistcoat, unpowered hair  and long ‘Hessian’ queue, which he found incongruous in this ‘merest boy of a captain’. 

Nelson habitually wore his own hair. The only mention of him wearing a wig was during a period of illness in Antigua, when his own hair apparently thinned dramatically enough to offend his vanity. If we are to believe Cuthbert Collingwood’s drawing, it was not a particularly flattering ‘yellow’ wig. Presuming that Nelson chose a wig approximating his own hair colour, I conclude that his hair was not white at the time.

So what colour was his natural hair?

There are several samples of hair believed to have come from Nelson’s bequest of his hair to Emma Hamilton at the time of his death. I have not studied the provenance of these, but as all of the ones pictured below are in reputable museums I’ll take as given that they are authentic, until someone proves otherwise.

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