'Well Done "Condor"': The Bombardment of Alexandria

The subject of the picture is an incident during the bombardment of Alexandria which occurred in 1882 as the result of an Egyptian nationalist uprising. The revolt within the Egyptian army was led by Ahmed Arabi Bey to register concern over steady loss of sovereignty. It rose against the regime of Khedive Tewfik (the younger), which was supported by an Anglo-French condominium attempting to bring stability to the bankrupt and chaotic Egyptian government and protect their interests in the Suez Canal . British strategic interest in Egypt had intensified in 1869, when the French-built Canal was officially opened and the fact that it was controlled by the Khedive and the French government was initially seen as a matter of serious concern. However, British speed of action from 1875 brought Egypt more closely under Imperial control. In that year, by Disraeli's purchase of the Khedive's shares in the canal for just over £4m, the British went from being a minority partner to being the controlling shareholder. Their influence grew considerably as a result but the government of Egypt remained financially chaotic, exacerbated by war with Abyssinia, ongoing efforts by both the British and French to suppress slave dealing in the Sudan and tension between the Khedive and his nominal suzerain, the Ottoman sultan. In 1881 four thousand Egyptian soldiers under Arabi Bey successfully revolted for higher pay and, as Arabi Pasha, he subsequently became under-secretary of war until forced out by Franco-British ultimatum in May 1882, only to be reinstated in June in another political upheaval followed by outright rebellion against the Khedive's government. This involved attacks by Arabs on Europeans, some 60 being killed in Alexandria, with 20,000 more reportedly leaving the country, general ensuing anarchy and strengthening of the Alexandria forts against possible European intervention. After British and French protests, and the Egyptian rebels ignoring orders for the fortification to be stopped, the augmented Mediterranean Fleet under Admiral Sir Frederick Beauchamp Seymour bombarded the city on 11 July 1882. During the action Commander Lord Charles Beresford of the gun vessel 'Condor', engaged the enemy's Fort Marabout for over an hour at close range, prompting the sending of the signal, 'Well done, Condor', by Admiral Seymour. British forces subsequently landed and this developed into a short but major land campaign under General Sir Garnet Wolseley. In September Arabi Pasha's forces were finally defeated at Tel-el-Kebir and the Khedive's authority restored.

The painting shows a view from the ramparts of Fort Marabout, with the gun vessel 'Condor' moored left of centre, in port-bow view. Her jib boom, fore and main topgallant-masts are housed and from midships aft she is almost obscured by her gunsmoke. There are several figures on deck, one may be Beresford and the others officers on the bridge, just visible through the smoke. On the left and beyond her another gun vessel approaches, in starboard-bow view to assist her. Across the background of the picture are distant ships and the smoke of battle. In the left far distance is the harbour of Alexandria. Smoke over on left rises up into the sky almost dissolving into cloud. The artist has emphasized the use of gunsmoke in a painterly way, with figures on the deck barely visible through the gloom. The vivid blue of the sea indicates a warm climate and despite the gunfire there is a curious stillness and static quality to the painting, reminiscent of reportage.

In 1883 the artist went to Alexandria to make studies for the picture. He exhibited two large representations of the bombardment at the Fine Art Society 1884, of which this is one. The subsequent engravings were very popular since the subject matter evoked a nationalistic response. 'Well done, "Condor" 'was painted at same time as his famous 'Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth', 1883, now in the Tate Gallery. The painting is inscribed bottom left, 'W L Wyllie 1883'.

The son of an English genre painter, William Morrison Wyllie, the artist was a painter and engraver. He spent most of his childhood summers in France, where his parents owned houses on the coast, first at Boulogne and later at Wimereux. He entered the Royal Academy schools in 1866 and won the Turner Gold Medal for Landscape in 1870. His interest in the sea developed into a continuing career as a marine painter. He was elected ARA in 1889, following an exhibition of 69 watercolours at the Fine Art Society. In the 1890s his development as a watercolourist reached its peak. He worked on paintings of shipping throughout World War I. Thereafter he is best remembered for his series of small etchings and drypoints of London views in the 1920s, and for his large but only partly successful panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar, painted shortly before his death for what is now the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth.

Object Details

ID: BHC0643
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Wyllie, William Lionel
Events: Egypt War: Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882
Vessels: Condor (1876)
Date made: 1883
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 914 mm x 1524 mm; Frame: 1162 x 2075 x 100 mm

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