The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798

A depiction of a battle during the French Revolutionary War, 1793-1802. On 19 May 1798, Napoleon sailed from Toulon on his hazardous adventure to Egypt, capturing Malta en route. On realizing this, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson initially looked for them at Alexandria, and finding no French there, sailed back to Syracuse in Sicily to reposition before returning to Alexandria. There, on 1 August, he received a signal that the French fleet had been sighted anchored in Aboukir Bay, 15 miles east of Alexandria. Thence Nelson headed, driven by a fresh breeze, and appeared off Aboukir Island at 5.30 pm. Despite the failing daylight, his ships immediately attacked the head of the unprepared French fleet at anchor, commanded by Admiral Brueys. Three ships rounded the bows of the leading French ships, one passing between the first and second ship and another between the sixth and seventh.

The painting shows the start of the action, at about 6.30 pm, looking north-west across Aboukir Bay, at sunset, from an elevated viewpoint to the south of the bay. Nelson's fleet, led by Captain Foley's 'Goliath', 74 guns, is shown in the process of doubling the head of the anchored French line, with the Aboukir fort beyond. The attack on the French centre is from seaward but the British ship 'Zealous', 74 guns, can be seen rounding the bows of the French 'Gueerier', 74 guns, at the head of the French line, to lead an attack on the enemy van division from the landward side. In the right foreground is the rearmost of the anchored French ships of the line, the 'Timoleon', 74 guns, in port-quarter view. Ahead of her, stretch the rest of the French fleet into the background in the centre of the picture. The names ahead of the 'Timoleon' are, 'Généreux', 74 guns, 'Guillaume Tell', 80 guns, 'Mercure', 74 guns, 'Heureux', 74 guns, 'Tonnant', 80 guns, 'L'Orient', 120 guns (Brueys's flagship), 'Franklin', 80 guns, 'Peuple Souveraan', 74 guns, 'Aquilon', 74 guns, 'Spartiate', 74 guns, 'Conquerant', 74 guns, and 'Guerrier', 74 guns. Across the right background, the British fleet is sailing into position from right to left and the 'Goliath' has just rounded the head of the French line.

In the left foreground both the turbaned figures holding staffs and gesturing towards the action in the bay, and the carefully positioned palm trees, evoke the sense of place. Offshore in the centre is the French frigate 'Justice', 40 guns, anchored in port-quarter view, and ahead of her the 'Diane', 40 guns. Two more anchored stern-on and further off and to the left are the 'Artemise', 40 guns, and the 'Serieuse', 36 guns. In the left background, Aboukir Island is shown with guns firing from the French fort and the gunboats on the left. By the time the battle was at its height, night had fallen.

Many of Pocock's preparatory sketches for the Battle of the Nile survive and the artist placed considerable importance on accuracy, referring 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 1808'.

Object Details

ID: BHC0513
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Pocock, Nicholas
Events: French Revolutionary Wars: Battle of the Nile, 1798
Date made: 1808
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Frame: 868 mm x 1174 mm x 85 mm;Painting: 710 mm x 1015 mm

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