DEREK G.M. GARDNER | Vice Admiral Lord Keith's Advance Division
10" x 14" / 25cms x 36cms
This engagement is set against the backdrop of the Battle of the Nile and Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. With Nelson’s annihilation of the French fleet off Alexandria, the British faced no real competition in the Mediterranean. Yet French ships still routinely ran the British blockades in order to transport men and materiel to and from the Egyptian theatre. Gardner’s work depicts a detachment of Lord Keith’s 30 ship fleet preparing to attack a smaller French force returning from Syria. John Markham, Lord Keith’s subordinate, gave chase to Jean-Baptiste Perrée’s force and captured all 5 ships after a 28-hour running battle. The engagement is illustrative of the many smaller actions follow the Battle of the Nile that enabled the British to slowly weaken the superior French land forces in the Levant. Although Perée was immediately court-martialled for the defeat when he was returned to France as part of a prisoner exchange, he was unanimously acquitted with honour on account of his damaged ships and low supplies. Thomas Markham, the British commander aboard Centaur, would go on to become First Sea Lord only 6 years later at the age of only 44.
Gardner’s image depicts the four British ships before their pursuit of the French squadron. In the foreground stands the 36-gun frigate HMS Emerald, and behind her from left to right are the three 74-gun third-rates HMS Captain, HMS Centaur, and HMS Bellona. The third-rate is perhaps the defining warship of the age of sail, striking a balance between manoeuvrability, firepower and cost. While larger first-rates with 106 or even 122 guns often gain attention as flagships of notable admirals, it was these 74-gun two-decker’s that filled Europe’s navies. Of particular interest in this regard is Bellona. Notable for being the experimental prototype for almost all late 18th century third-rates, she has a better claim than any other vessel to be the prototypical ship-of-the-line. So successful was her design that she had one of the longest careers of any wooden ship serving continuously from 1760 to 1814. The other ship of great interest in this work is HMS Captain. Commanded by Nelson in the 1797 campaign, she had seen exemplary action two years before in the Battle of Cape St Vincent against the Spanish. Under Nelson, Captain outgunned the 136 Santísima Trinidad (the most heavily armed wooden ship ever) and captured two much larger first-rates, immortalising Nelson and solidifying his path to future fame and fortune. After perhaps the greatest battle performance of any age of sail vessel, she had undergone extensive repairs, with this action being her first upon return.
Gardner’s work juxtaposes the British vessel against the rarely seen setting, for Royal Navy ships at least, of the calm and sunlit waters of the Mediterranean. Though sunlit seas are emblematic of the experiences of a significant portion of the British fleet during this period as it sought to contend with Revolutionary France in Italy and the Levant, it is a largely neglected theatre. Consequently, it is almost as if the artist has chosen this scene to afford the viewer the opportunity to admire the ships in their best possibly light, rather than amidst the smoke and swell of an Atlantic battle, as works of art rather than floating fortresses. The ease of upcoming British victory during a period of dominance in the Mediterranean seems well represented by the sultry calm that imbues the work.
- Gardner is widely considered to be the leading British maritime painter of the 20th century. Entirely self-taught, he became a master of his art with an unmatched skill for conveying the colour, luminosity and atmosphere of the maritime setting. During World War II, he served with the Royal Navy on armed trawlers and destroyers in the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1988 the Royal Society of Marine Artists elected Gardner as their honorary vice-president for life. In 2005, as part of celebration of the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar an exhibition of his work featuring a painting of every ship in which Nelson served, was presented in London. His work is included in several marine art texts and held in public collections including the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
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