The 'Defence' at the Battle of the First of June, 1794

An incident from the five-day battle known as the 'Glorious First of June 1794', during the French Revolutionary War, 1793-1802, between the British fleet under Lord Howe and the French fleet under Rear-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse. This was the first great fleet battle of the French Wars of 1793-1815. It took place in the Atlantic, four hundred miles west of Ushant, when the French were attempting to intercept and escort home a valuable grain fleet from America and the British were also attempting to prevent this by capturing as much as possible. The consequent French manoeuvres allowed the British three days to position their fleet for the main attack.

Although Villaret-Joyeuse helped ensured the safe passage of the French grain convoy (which neither fleet sighted) by drawing off Howe, he also had to try and minimize damage to his warships. On the fourth day Howe caught up with the French and in the ensuing battle, six of their ships of the line were captured and one sunk. When the British 'Brunswick', 74 guns, fell foul of the French 'Vengeur du Peuple', 74 guns, her gunners alternately fired up through her decks and down below the waterline. The 'Vengeur du Peuple' eventually sank, an unusual occurrence for a wooden man-of-war as a result of enemy action. This is a detailed portrayal of a moment in the battle, around midday, which may have been witnessed by the artist from the deck of the 'Pegasus', 28 guns, in which he was present as an observer of the action.

The 'Defence', 74 guns, commanded by Captain James Gambier, was one of the most heavily engaged ships, and is shown demasted in the middle of the picture, in starboard-quarter tending to broadside view. It is firing into the French 'Achille', 74 guns, on the right of the picture, in starboard-quarter to stern view, which is returning her fire. On the left of the painting the 'Defence' is also being raked aft by a Frenchman, shown in starboard-bow view. The top rails of another French ship are visible beyond the 'Defence' and in the extreme left background is the stern view of an English three-decker. It is erroneously shown wearing the flag of an admiral of the white, since no admiral of the white was present at the action. However, the 'Defence' did serve in the division commanded by Benjamin Caldwell, Rear-Admiral of the White, in the 'Impregnable', 98 guns. The painting shows the ferocity of the action, with the deck and sides of the 'Defence' littered with broken spars and trailing rigging, the sails of the French ships holed and wreckage in the sea in the central foreground.

The artist filled a notebook with sketches and notes describing the course of the battle. He placed considerable importance on accuracy, and referred to his annotated drawings and sketch plans in the production of his oil paintings.

Pocock was born and brought up in Bristol, went to sea at the age of 17 and rose to command several merchant ships. Although he only took up painting as a profession in his early forties, he became extremely successful, receiving commissions from naval commanders anxious to have accurate portrayals of actions and ships. By the age of 80, Pocock had recorded nearly forty years of maritime history, demonstrating a meticulous understanding of shipping and rigging with close attention to detail. The painting is signed and dated 'N Pocock, 1811'.

Object Details

ID: BHC0474
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Pocock, Nicholas
Events: French Revolutionary Wars: Battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794
Vessels: Defence (1763)
Date made: 1811
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Painting: 355 mm x 508 mm; Frame: 455 x 615 x 75 mm

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