Nelson's right and left hand: Wellcome exhibit reveals how past leaves its mark

Two letters by naval commander were studied by graphologist not knowing they were both written by him

The graphologist who studied the handwriting of a right-handed man aged 36, and a left-handed man aged 46, did rather well. He noted that the right-handed man "will always give of his best", and that the left-handed man "is assertive and not afraid to take responsibility". Significantly, he reported of the left-handed man, "the past has left its mark with the writer".

The past certainly had. Unknown to the graphologist, who had no idea that both letters were written by the same man, the past had carried away the right arm with which Horatio Nelson wrote the first letter, after it was shattered by a Spanish musket ball on Tenerife in 1797. Nelson was reportedly back at work within half an hour of the amputation, and signing orders with his left hand a few hours later.

All later correspondence, including the famous passionate love letters to his mistress Emma Hamilton, was written with his left hand.

The two letters will go on display at Hands, a one-off event celebrating hands – from faith healing to finger painting – at the Wellcome Collection in London this Friday night.

The letters, along with hundreds more autographs of the famous, come from the vast collection of the Wellcome Library, where curator Chris Hilton has been studying them.

"The handwriting with his left hand is so much more interesting – not as neat and regular, but full of character. The writing with his right hand is absolute standard schoolboy stuff – most of the letter was probably written by a clerk, but Nelson's hand is virtually indistinguishable from his."

"In the left hand writing the urgency and intelligence and energy of the man are unmistakable."

Ironically the avid collector Henry Wellcome would have paid a lot more in the 1930s for the dull right-handed letter. Nelson was only 39 when he lost his arm, and would not become a celebrity until his victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile the following year. Surviving letters with his right hand are rare, and very expensive.

Hands, Wellcome Collection London, Friday 26 7-11pm, free


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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