Wager's Action off Cartagena, 28 May 1708

The English painter Samuel Scott (1702-1772) specialised in marine painting and views of London. A strong influence of the art of Willem van de Velde the Younger can be detected, particularly in his early work. This painting refers to Commodore (later Admiral) Charles Wager’s assault on a Spanish treasure fleet off Cartagena in modern-day Colombia on 28 May 1708. Wager’s vessel, the ‘Expedition’, 70 guns, is shown in the centre attacking the Spanish flagship, the ‘San José’, 60 guns. The force of the gunfire seems to blow the Spanish vessel apart in a cloud of smoke and flames, reflected on the water. The other two English ships to the right are the ‘Kingston’, 60 guns, and ‘Portland’, 54 guns. However, Wager was not well supported by his squadron whose captains were court martialled for not having performed their duty, and duly dismissed from their posts (Campbell and Berkenhout, ‘Lives of the British Admirals…’, vol.3 (London, 1785), p.210). Whilst Wager obtained enough from the supporting Spanish ships to make him rich, the ‘San José’ and the bulk of the fleet’s gold, silver and emeralds sank several hundred feet to the seabed, earning her the unofficial title of “holy grail of shipwrecks”.

This picture may have been the original used for the design of Wager’s monument in the north transept of Westminster Abbey, completed 1747 by the Flemish-born sculptor Peter Scheemakers, who is recorded in a sale catalogue of 1756 as owning a picture by “Mr Scot (sic)” of very nearly identical size (the present item is in fact two inches wider) entitled “The Taking the Galeons by Sir Charles Wager”. Wager’s death (24 May 1743) and the monument’s unveiling have therefore served as earliest and latest respective dates for its production. Scott seems to have used a drawing by van de Velde as a model for this composition and the ships are probably also based on older models rather than eyewitness accounts of the event.

Object Details

ID: BHC0348
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Scott, Samuel
Places: Cartagena
Events: War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-1714
Vessels: Expedition (1679); Kingston (1697) Portland (1693) San José (1698) [Spanish]
Date made: 1743-1747?
People: Royal Navy; Wager, Charles
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Painting: 863 x 1244 mm; Frame: 1050 mm x 1403 mm x 75 mm

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