HMS Endymion rescuing a French two-decker

(Updated, March 2024) In 1870 Admiral Sir James Hope presented an almost identical picture of this subject by J. C. Schetky to the United Service Club in London and it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1871 under the title 'A gallant rescue; naval incident of the French war' with a brief description, of which a longer version appears to have been supplied with the picture on Hope's authority. This was repeated in full when it was reshown at the Royal Naval Exhibition at Chelsea in 1891 (no. 620) and in the original Dictionary of National Biography entry on 'Endymion's' captain: 'Towards the close of the long French war, Captain the Hon. Sir Charles Paget, while cruising in the Endymion frigate on the coast of Spain, descried a French ship of the line in imminent danger, embayed among rocks upon a lee shore, bowsprit and foremast gone, and riding by a stream cable, her only remaining one. Though it was blowing a gale, Sir Charles bore down to the assistance of his enemy, dropped his sheet anchor on the Frenchman's bow, buoyed the cable, and veered it athwart his hawse. This the disabled ship succeeded in getting in, and thus seven hundred lives were rescued from destruction. After performing this chivalrous action, the Endymion, being herself in great peril, hauled to the wind, let go her bower anchor, club hauled and stood off shore on the other tack'.

The RA description, perhaps tellingly of Hope or Schetky's familiarity with club-hauling, adds the technical point that 'Endymion' dropped her starboard bower for this dangerous manoeuvre. It involves a moving ship dropping an anchor to pull her bow round rapidly onto the other tack, and then cutting the cable at the critical moment. Mistiming could lead to loss of masts, with fairly obvious consequences in the situation shown.

The whole story was long mysterious. For while Paget commanded the 'Endymion' in 180-05 he did not do so towards the end of the 1793-1815 wars with France and nothing of this nature is recorded in his log. If true (which Sir John Knox Laughton in the DNB thought improbable), he may have omitted it for good reason in terms of the risk he took in hazarding his ship and the lives of his own men, albeit the seamanship involved is a testament to his confidence in them. He could not, however, have prevented it from entering naval lore by word of mouth and the earliest picture of it well predates both those of Schetky and Colls while being practically identical in composition.

This is a little-known oil by Nicholas Pocock (1740 -1821), now in the Welholme Gallery collection at Grimsby. It was clearly not known to Laughton but must have been a composition familiar either to Colls, Schetky or both although there is no known engraving of it. Colls is mainly recorded as working and exhibiting in the 1850s, but had a longer career and it is not clear whether his picture predates Schetky's - to which it is very similar, or vice versa. It may be safer to suggest the latter, given that this example appears to be one of a same-size pair, the other (BHC0482) being based on a Huggins print of the action which, in equally story conditions, ended in the wreck of the 'Droits de l'Homme' on the Brittany coast in 1797. All three of the 'Endymion' pictures show her on the port tack as she prepares to drop her sheet anchor for the French two-decker, before bearing up into the wind, club-hauling with her starboard bower and clawing offshore on the starboard tack.

The incident shown only resolved as true in 1911 when the Revd Edward Paget, Dean of Calgary, Canada, and Sir Charles's grandson, privately published a 'Memoir' of him in Toronto. In this he devoted a section entitled 'A Gallant Rescue' to it, and in greater length in a more public second edition (London, 1913) after coming to England and investigating it further, including discussion with Laughton. The story was well known in the family, and to Schetky, , originally from Sir Charles himself, and by 1911 Edward had also inherited a Pocock watercolour of it which he used as an illustration in his 'Memoir'. Either this, or possibly the oil now at Grimsby, or both, had originally been commissioned by Sir Charles, though if the oil version was his it is not yet clear how it passed to the Earl of Yarborough who later gave it to Grimsby. Neither Edward Paget, nor more recent enquiries, have managed to identify the French ship, and Edward reported that Sir Charles's main later recollection of the matter was worry about how to account to the Admiralty for the loss of the two 'Endymion' anchors that his rescue manoeuvre involved.

Colls was a marine painter who exhibited pictures at the British Institution, 1852 -54, from an address in Camden Town. His work is competent and attractive, and must have been fairly prolific since examples regularly appear on the market. His dates were not known until about 2004 when a genealogical web posting stated that he was born in Horstead, Norfolk, in 1812 into a family with a local history as owners of water mills; that he married Harriet Beal in Kent in 1841 and died in Hampstead, London, in 1887. He did have children since 'The Standard' of 5 March 1885 reported the death on 21 February of his third daughter, Isabella. The 'Morning Post' of 28 September 1887 announced his own death on the 23rd of that month, aged 75, the address in both case being given as 79 King Henry's Road, Regent's Park, rather than Hampstead. Whether he was related to either a contemporary subject painter, Richard Colls, or the younger landscape artist Harry Colls remains to be clarified. The Schetky version of the 'Endymion' picture remains in the United Service Club, London, now headquarters of the Institute of Directors.

Object Details

ID: BHC0532
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Colls, Ebenezer
Vessels: Endymion (1797)
Date made: Late 19th century
People: Royal Navy; French Navy
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Frame: 870 mm x 1152 mm x 75 mm;Overall: 23 mm x 356 mm x 31 mm;Painting: 685 mm x 965 mm

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