The Battle of the Saints, 12 April 1782

Oil painting on a thin two-piece oak panel, the join about one third from the top.

The Saints was the last major action of the American Revolutionary War, fought near the islets called the Iles des Saintes, just north of Dominica in the West Indies. Admiral Sir George Rodney's victory over the French fleet of the Comte de Grasse foiled the latter's attempt to invade Jamaica and enabled Britain to secure her position in the West Indies by the treaty that ended the war in 1783, even though she lost her American colonies. The battle is also famous as the point of origin of the tactic of 'breaking the line', which was achieved with great, albeit accidental, effect by Rodney in seizing an advantage created by a shift of wind as the fleets began the action.

The principal subject here is the clash of flagships of the two commanders-in-chief, both seen from astern in port- quarter view. The larger 'Ville de Paris' (110 guns) flagship of de Grasse, is fully seen in the centre on the left. Admiral Sir George Rodney, in the 'Formidable' (90 guns) is engaging her to starboard on the right, partly concealed, although de Grasse eventually struck to his second-in-command, Samuel Hood, in the 'Barfleur'. Rodney correctly flies the St George's cross at the main, as an Admiral of the White, but a red ensign rather than a white one. This was his normal colour but he had specifically ordered the British fleet to fly red on this occasion, to minimize confusion in action with enemy ships flying the white (Bourbon) colours of pre-Revolutionary France, as shown on the 'Ville de Paris'. There is an inscription identifying the action, written by Luny in pen and ink on the back of the panel: 'Adml Lord Rodney Engaging the French Fleet / Commanded by the Count de Grasse April [12th?] 1782. / T.Luny'. The signature is in the same form as he also used for painted signatures.

The back also bears, stuck down, the finely engraved pre-1814 trade card of Thomas Merle, who was Luny's London selling agent from early in his independent career in the 1780s, after he left the pupilage of Francis Holman. He still had dealings with Merle until 1817, ten years after permanently moving to Teignmouth. However, while this picture is undated, the colour and handling suggest it is relatively early. The rectangular card has the text centred within a horizontal oval border. At top centre this includes the device of a hanging key in a smaller vertical oval. It reads:

‘THOMAS [hanging key] MERLE / (Successor to the late Mr Deerlove) / Picture Frame Maker, Carver, Gilder & Printseller / At the Golden Key No 36 Leadenhall Street / London. / Makes & Sells all sorts of Picture Frames, Carves & Gilds Looking / Glass Frames & Girandoles in the neatest Taste & at the most / Reasonable Prices. Landscapes & Sea Pieces neatly Painted. / Pictures carefully cleaned, lined & mended. / Old Frames new Gilt on the shortest / Notice. / Mouldings of different Patterns & Lengths for the conveniency of Export.’

36 Leadenhall Street - which as the location of East India House was a focus of nautically related trades - was also the earliest exhibiting address (1817 to 1823-24), of the marine painter W. J. Huggins (1781-1845), who also used Merle as an outlet before settling at no.105. The National Portrait Gallery index of British framemakers shows that from 1783 Merle took over the business of Joseph Deerlove (will probate granted, 1782) and himself had six children, one of whom was Thomas Robert Merle (1787-1837). The business traded as Thomas Merle until 1814: from 1815 to1828 it was as T. Merle & Son, though Thomas senior died at Tooting in autumn 1819. John Merle also worked from the same address, 1824-26. [PvdM, updated Merle details 4/11]

Object Details

ID: BHC0701
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Atlantic Gallery
Creator: Luny, Thomas
Events: American War of Independence: Battle of the Saints, 1782
Vessels: Barfleur (1768); Formidable (1777) Ville de Paris (1764)
Date made: Late 18th century to early 19th century
Exhibition: The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire; War and Conflict
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Macpherson Collection
Measurements: Frame: 419 x 572 x 55 mm;Painting: 275 mm x 432 mm

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