Rear Admiral Nelson's conflict In his Barge with a Spanish Launch, Night of July 3. 1797.

A print after Richard Westall’s 1806 painting, ‘Nelson in Conflict with a Spanish Launch, 3 July 1797’, BHC2908. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807 with the caption, ‘Rear-Admiral Nelson, when in his barge, with its usual complement of men, during the blockade of Cadiz, July 3, 1797, attacking a Spanish launch, with 30 men, which, after a severe conflict, he succeeded in carrying. On this occasion Captain Fremantle nobly supported the admiral and his coxswain, John Sykes, repeatedly saved his life.’

The painting was commissioned by John McArthur, as a plate for the first biography, ‘The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, KB’, which he wrote with James Stainer Clarke in 1809. Engraved by A. Smith in 1809, it formed part of a series painted by Westall for the book intended to illustrate Nelson’s life as a series of heroic acts. After the Battle of St Vincent, 14 February 1797, the Spanish fleet was blockaded in Cadiz harbour by the British. The inshore squadron of the British fleet was commanded by Nelson and on 3 July he sent a bomb ketch close inshore to provoke a Spanish reaction. He then launched some armed ships boats to rescue it and accompanied the action in his barge, with his coxswain, John Sykes, and Captain Thomas Fremantle. Although significantly outnumbered, he was soon locked in combat with a Spanish launch. In hand to hand fighting with swords, Sykes twice saved Nelson’s life before sustaining severe head wounds.

This crowded image shows Nelson engaged hand-to-hand with the Spanish sailors. The scene is viewed from close to the starboard quarter of Nelson’s barge, which is alongside the Spanish launch. Lying on his back, having apparently fallen back from the launch, is a Spanish sailor. Another lies slumped across the same thwart with Nelson’s left foot on his back. His right leg is on the floor of the barge, his left hand grips the right wrist of a further Spanish sailor to turn away his pistol. A turbanned Spaniard looks towards Nelson and beyond him is another with a musket pointed at him. To the right is a further Spanish sailor with one foot in the barge and his cutlass drawn back preparing to hit Nelson over the head. The narrative indicates that he will be frustrated in this either by Sykes, who stands beside Nelson with his cutlass raised to parry the blow, or by Captain Fremantle who is aiming a pistol at him. To the right of this Spaniard is another with a boarding pike and behind and above both of them is the Spanish commander urging his men on. A Spanish officer can also be seen reeling back clutching his breast, while in the right background a mêlée is in progress. The British boat is lower in the water and Nelson and his two companions are shown shoulder-to-shoulder in co-ordinated action against a more confused and desperate enemy, with smoke heightening the dramatic effect. The neat appearance of the British officers contrasts with the unkempt appearance of the Spaniards and adds to the air of unreality. Westall further conveys a staged effect by a dramatic use of gesture and expression.

Object Details

ID: PAD4076
Collection: Fine art
Type: Print
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Smith, A.; Westall, Richard Thomas Cadell & William Davies Westall, Richard
Date made: Published May 1809
People: Nelson, Horatio
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Caird Fund.
Measurements: 344 mm x 256 mm

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