This scene shows the naval battle of the Glorious First of June, the first and largest fleet action of the French Revolutionary Wars. The battle was caused when naval officer Richard, Earl Howe (1726-1799) attempted to prevent the passage of a French grain convoy from the United States, travelling under the protection of the French Atlantic Fleet (commanded by Rear-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse). The British and French forces clashed in the Atlantic, some 400 nautical miles west of the French island of Ushant on 1 June 1794 and the ensuing battle lasted for five days. Although both British and French ships suffered heavy damage, the British inflicted a severe defeat.
The artist of this work, Nicholas Pocock, witnessed the battle first hand. He was present on board the frigate ‘Pegasus’ and filled a notebook with annotated drawings and sketch plans of the action (now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). Pocock later used these notes and sketches to produce accurate watercolour and oil paintings of the battle. This watercolour, showing Lord Howe’s ship, ‘Queen Charlotte’, attacking the back of the French line, was made in 1795, the year after the battle.
Nicholas Pocock was born in Bristol; the son of a merchant. He went to sea at a young age and commanded ships belonging to Richard Champion, the first producer of Bristol porcelain. In 1780 he sent a picture to the Royal Academy too late to be included in the exhibition. Two years later, two landscapes and two marine paintings by Pocock were accepted by the Academy and thereafter he exhibited there every year until 1812. In 1789 Pocock moved to London, where he quickly won popularity with naval clients, recording their actions at sea. He briefly returned to sea with the Fleet in 1794. From then, Pocock found employment recording actions of the French Wars. He also produced six paintings illustrating ‘The Life of Nelson’ (published in 1809).
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