A man-o-war flying the George’s Cross, is obscured by cannon smoke. Her tattered sails hang loosely in the faint breeze. Before the ship, a battle plays out as an English crew and Barbary pirates aim firearms at each other. To the right of the composition, another ship explodes into flames and thick, black smoke rises into the air.
The painting does not seem to depict a specific incident, but illustrates a common hazard for British ships at the time. Barbary pirates were the scourge of the Mediterranean during the 17th and 18th centuries. Not only were ships taken, but crew members were seized and forced into slavery. Operating from fortified fortresses, located along the coast of North Africa, the pirates acted with little fear of reprisal. It was only after the defeat of Napoleonic France that Britain was more able to focus on the problem. Lord Exmouth, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, led the bombardment of Algiers on 27 August 1816, destroying the Algerine fleet of frigates and smaller warships after seven hours of action.
This work was purchased for the Government Art Collection in 1963 from the collection of Sir Bruce Ingram (1877–1963). Ingram was an art collector journalist and former managing editor of the Illustrated London News. In 1957, at the age of 80 and in his 57th year as editor of the Illustrated London News, he presented his collection of over 700 drawings by Willem van de Velde I and his son to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Willem van de Velde II, marine painter, was the son of Dutch marine painter Willem van de Velde I. He was born in Leyden and studied first under his father and then under another marine painter, Simon de Vlieger. He began hid career in the early 1650s, when living in Amsterdam and his best works date from his Dutch period. By 1672 he had settled in England and in 1674 both he and his father were in the service of Charles II. There are many examples of the work of both father and son at the National Maritime Museum and in other public collections in the UK and they cannot always be distinguished. Although neither father nor son learned the English language, their influence on English maritime painting lasted until the time of Turner.
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