Nelson Boarding the 'San Josef' at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797

Early in 1797 a Spanish fleet of 27 sail of the line lay at Cartagena, with the intention of joining the French fleet at Brest. The British commander, Sir John Jervis, aimed to prevent this, and with 15 sail of the line, plus frigates, he repaired to rendezvous with Rear-Admiral William Parker off Cape St Vincent. The Spanish fleet left Cartagena on 1 February but were caught by a fierce Levanter, the easterly wind, blowing between Gibraltar and Cadiz. This pushed the Spanish into the Atlantic and by 13 February, close to the British fleet. Early on the 14th, Jervis learnt that the Spanish fleet was 35 miles to windward. After battle was joined with part of the Spanish force, Commodore Nelson in the 'Captain', 74 guns, unconventionally fell out of Jervis's line of battle and threw his ship across the path of the escaping enemy squadron against heavy odds, engaging and capturing by boarding the 80-gun 'San Nicolas'. When the latter ran foul of the 112-gun 'San Josef' in the process, Nelson boarded and captured her as well, the feat being quickly dubbed 'Nelson's Patent Bridge for boarding first-rates'.

The painting interprets the dramatic climax when Nelson arrives, right centre, on the quarter-deck of the 'San Josef'. He is closely followed by Captain Berry, who points his pistol at the Spanish sailor about to attack Nelson. On his right a British sailor, cutlass in hand, echoes Nelson's pose. To his right a group of fighting boarders are visible, including Lieutenant Pearson of the 69th Regiment. To the right again, at the foot of the port companionway to the poop more fighting men are grouped. At the top of the companionway stands the Spanish Flag Captain, Don Jose Delkenna, holding his hat above his head and proffering his sword, hilt first in surrender, with his left hand. In the right foreground is a gun, its crew lying dead around it. Beyond the gunwale of the 'San Josef' are the decks of the 'San Nicolas', with the British taking possession, and beyond her part of the 'Captain'. Flags and sails are arranged to frame the painting and the empty deck in the foreground leads the eye into the action. Nelson is positioned right of centre, striking a dramatic pose and with a brilliance that eclipses the rest. Figures in the rigging heighten the sense of urgency and agitation, while the figures of the fallen underscore the cost of battle.

This painting is one of four commissioned in the 1820s for £500 each by the Directors of the British Institution, as encouragement of contemporary British history painting and expressly for presentation to what was then the new Naval Gallery (est. 1824) at Greenwich Hospital. It was exhibited at the Institution in 1829 but apparently only delivered to Greenwich in 1835. There is a monochrome watercolour study for it in the British Museum.

(Note: the Spanish 'San José', captured at Cape St Vincent, is generally if wrongly known in English as 'San Josef', the name under which she was taken into the Navy.)

Object Details

ID: BHC0492
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Jones, George
Events: French Revolutionary Wars: Battle of Cape St Vincent, 1797
Vessels: San Jose 1783
Date made: 1829
People: Nelson, Horatio
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Painting: 1625 x 2235 mm; Frame size: tbc

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