Triumph of Britannia (Misc 58a)

State before letters. An allegorical composition with Britannia seated in a shell-backed chariot. The chariot is driven by Neptune and pulled through the waves by two rearing horses. Nereids (sea nymphs), tritons and sea creatures swim around the base of the chariot. Britannia holds a medallion portrait of George III and the sea nymphs carry medallion portraits of contemporary British naval officers. From left to right, these portrait medallions depict: George Pocock, Edward Boscawen, Edward Hawke, George Anson, Charles Saunders, Augustus Keppel and Richard Howe. The officers’ surnames are inscribed on their medallions. Some of the tritons blow trumpets. In the right background, there is a representation of the engagement between the ‘Royal George’, 100 guns, flagship of Admiral Edward Hawke, and the ‘Soleil Royal’, 80 guns, flagship of the French Admiral de Conflans, at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November 1759. (In fact the only ship which sank during the action, as that shown appears to be doing, was the 'Thesee', which capsized: 'Soleil Royal' was burnt by the French the following day to avoid capture.) This print was engraved by Simon François Ravenet and published by John Boydell in 1765 after an original painting by Francis Hayman, which no longer survives. A massive canvas measuring 15 feet across, Hayman’s painting was created for the Rotunda in Vauxhall Gardens, London, where it was installed in May 1762. Vauxhall Gardens were an important venue of urban entertainment in mid-eighteenth-century London, hosting masquerades and musical performances. In the early 1760s, Hayman painted a set of four paintings for the Vauxhall Rotunda, celebrating Britain’s victories in the Seven Years War (1756–63). Two of the paintings depicted battle scenes (‘The Surrender of Montreal to General Amherst’ and ‘Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey’) and the other two were allegories of military and naval triumph respectively. The ‘Triumph of Britannia’ was the naval allegory. Most of the portrait medallions carried by the nereids were copied in reverse from contemporary mezzotints. The only exceptions are Edward Hawke’s portrait in the centre, which Hayman reportedly painted from the life, and Richard Howe’s partially obscured portrait on the far right. The art historian Brian Allen suggests that Howe is hidden from view because he was being ‘discreetly snubbed’ for his failed attack on Saint-Malo in 1758. An alternative explanation for his concealment is that Hayman could not find a reliable source for his likeness, for there do not appear to have been any engraved portraits of Howe in circulation at this time. As for the other medallions, Pocock’s portrait was derived from a mezzotint by James Macardell after Thomas Hudson (see PAF3685) and those of Boscawen, Anson, Saunders and Keppel were based on mezzotints after paintings by Joshua Reynolds (see PAH5398, PAG6363, PAF3691 and PAF3462). As Boscawen had died in January 1761, the nereid who holds his portrait is shown weeping over it. Descriptions of the Triumph of Britannia were printed in the London Chronicle and displayed beneath the painting in the Vauxhall Rotunda. The gardens’ proprietors were perhaps concerned that, without a written explanation, visitors would be confused by Hayman’s eccentric combination of marine painting, contemporary portraiture and allegory. (Updated April 2019.)

Object Details

ID: PAH7479
Type: Print
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Ravent, S; Boydell, John
Date made: 1765
People: Britannia
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: 429 mm x 531 mm

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