Forward British 18th C, except portraits, British 19th C, except portraits, Maritime Subjects, Military History 24 Could we establish who painted this Battle of the Nile?

Topic: Artist

This would be worth some discussion: I first saw it long ago when it was hanging unframed in a corridor of the (Old) Royal Naval College at Greenwich before the College organization moved to its new site in Wiltshire in 1998, and have seen it briefly there since. I've yet to find a reasonably convincing name to put on it.

Just to note that the date of the battle is usually given as 1 August 1798, when it started, though it did go beyond midnight into the 2nd and mopping up thereafter which sometimes sees 1-3 August given. Nonetheless, the standard date is 1 August.

The picture's metric dimensions translate into 71 x 94 in. (to the nearest inch) - or roughly 6 x 8 feet allowing for inaccuracy or other loss, since it's not a standard canvas size. If it was exhibited, it was not at the British Institution (closed in 1867) where framed dimensions are listed and no Nile picture was that big.

Only Robert Cleveley and Turner (both in 1799), Thomas Luny (1802) and Richard Henry Nibbs (1849) showed 'Niles' at the RA and it's certainly none of them (the Turner being well known as lost and differently described).

The overall composition may derive from de Loutherbourg's painting (for engraving), now in the Tate, of which Thomas George Webster (1800-1886) did a copy now at Dudley. This is closer to the painting style especially in the sky, though I'm only pointing it out as the nearest parallel on Art UK and not very close in other ways [The Collection have confirmed that they are happy for this to be discussed, but are unable to provide any information as to who the artist may be] [Group leader: Pieter van der Merwe]

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK


The details now provided show this is rather more a puzzle than I thought. The ship burning at the back has falling French tricoleurs which would suit 'L'Orient' just before it exploded at the Nile. The British ensigns shown, however, are white rather than the blue appropriate to Nelson's squaronal colour as Rear-Admiral of the Blue at the time. Though I can't be entirely sure owing to the resolution, the Union quadrants may also be of the post 1801 pattern, with the St Patrick red saltire (which for the Nile would be a mistake).

Jacinto Regalado,

The picture is very large and obviously by a highly competent hand. It would appear to have been a major commission for a marine work. It seems very odd that so little is known about it.

Louis Musgrove,

V good painting.Artist knows his ships. No survivors in small boats in foreground. Holes in sails and flags.I have found several paintings of Napolionic battles in a similar style-most unnamed-except for Auguste Ballin.???? Could it be a Serres? he did big canvases -we have six in Ipswich collection.Petworth House has a large Serres of Battle of the Nile.

John Nicholas Bielby,

The date given in the title, surely, is not an anomaly but a pointer to the fact that it is a night-time picture (post-midnight) in which the only source of illumination (even on the clouds) is from the battle.

Jacinto Regalado,

The nocturnal lighting effects are reminiscent of Wright of Derby, though he was not a marine painter and died in 1797 anyway. Loutherbourg, of course, would be a more likely influence.

Martin Hopkinson,

Is it certain that this is by a British artist, and do the anomalies mentioned in Pieter's first post indicate suggest that this might be a few years later than the battle?

Marcie Doran,

According to the ‘Morning Chronicle’ of January 31, 1825, there was a contest at the British Institution in 1825 for “best pictures representing the glorious victories of the Nile and Trafalgar”. I suspect we could also look at images of the Battle of Trafalgar in our search for potential artists.

The BI competition of 1825 for pictures of 'naval victories' resulted in four BI commissions at £500 each for large versions for the then new Naval Gallery at Greenwich. That of the Nile was George Arnald's - very uncharacteristic of his general work - exhibited in 1827:

The other three eventually commissioned were by George Jones (Nelson boarding the 'San Josef' at Cape St Vincent); H.P. Briggs (Lord Howe receiving a sword from George III on the 'Queen Charlotte' after the Battle of 1 June 1794) and Samuel Drummond (De Winter surrendering to Duncan at Camperdown in 1797): all are still at Greenwich (NMM). Despite the initial BI pitch for Trafalgar as a subject, and the various submissions for it, that was not commissisoned.

There is no sign of this one at the BI, or of a smaller study for it (which is what many of the other examples shown in 1825 were).

Jacinto Regalado,

The Pocock in the composite makes an intriguing comparison, and it is of a comparable quality as well as a relatively similar style.

Thanks for the suggestions though I don't see sufficient likenesses as yet. I'm sure its not Pocock (he didn't generally use such large canvases) and the 'Defence' picture cited as a comparison is also a very small one. He also died in 1820 after stopping work owing to a stroke a little earlier and I suspect the current picture is later. Though J.T. Serres used a similar compositional format, especially for the version reproduced on p. 105 of Alan Russett's monograph on him (rather than that at Petworth) it's also unlikely to be him, nor - I think -Beechey: in his case it's almost certainly earlier. Drummond is a problem: he's much more a figure/portrait painter including in his battle scenes which tend to be crowded incidents rather than overall views, and the 'Trafalgar' ascribed to him at NMM is sufficiently anomalous to warrant query.

The most obvious general precedent is de Loutherbourg (1800) which was engraved by Fittler in 1803 so disseminated thereafter. It may be a case for manual ploughing through SBA entries since that's the only obvious place left for London exhibition.

The flag inconsistencies are not unique: many other 'Niles' show white ensigns, rightly or wrongly, though the reason is yet to bottom out. It would help if there was a detail that clearly showed the form of Union (i.e. pre or post-1801).

Marcie Doran,

Looking at the various ‘Trafalgar’ images on Art UK, I discovered some works by “William J. Leathem” (not “Leatham”). What are your thoughts on Leathem, Pieter? I agree with Jacinto that his watercolours are not like ‘The Battle of the Nile, 2 August 1798’. Here is his enormous (213 x 427 cm) work ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’. The puffy sails and the clouds are quite similar to those in the work by the unknown artist.

That's interesting in itself, and possibly partly based on Stanafield's equally big canvas of 1836 -which was engraved (in the old United Service Club, now housing the Institute of Directors,) but only one or two examples of a little-known man and not that close are not really enough. When I first saw it years ago I wondered about Francis Sartorius - by whom I saw a nght scene soon afterwards (i.e. the one that did marines rather than horses) - but haven't refound that or others that might help.

Marcie Doran,

Perhaps, one day, someone might ask Brighton where the “very large” Leathem ‘Battle of the Nile’ is that was recorded at the Pavilion in 1857 and in their Gallery in 1910. I’ve looked at images of their 1,489 paintings and I do not see it.

Yes: an explanation for that would be useful, not least since Archibald's 'Sea Painters' says that Brighton 'has three oils: Battle of the the NIle 1798 [which would rule out that above], Battle of Trafalgar 1805, Off Shoreham [both on Art UK, the former being the one you produced] and a watercolour of the Brighton Chain Pier.' NMM also has three watercolours (Bombardment of Acre 1840, frigates at sea and and a fishermen laying a net, plus a couple of prints which are the only ones illustrated online - all under 'Leatham' (as in Archibald) which therefore needs correction.

He exbited in most years at the RA 1840-41, 1845-48, 1850/52/54/55 and once at the BI, 1847: all save 1824 (when from Pratt St, Lambeth) from Brighton addresses.

I suggest Art UK adjusts his death date from 'before 1862' now you have produced it (i.e. 18 July 1857).

All that said the six on Art UK don't really suggest he's our man but (despite the poor condition of some) he looks like he had good days: at his breezy best he looks a bit like Chambers senior.

Yes, but his sketch relates to his picture

not this one. The only parallel is of compositional massing, this one following his and most probably based on sight of the related engraving by Fittler. The disposition of ships is very different, the only two readily identifiable here being 'L'Orient' (exploding) and presumably 'Vanguard' at centre right with blue at the mizzen and -at least technically incorrectly - a white ensign astern. (A possble explanation for that, given they appear in many other 'Niles', is that there was an order to fly them to avoid 'friendly fire' confusion, but if so I have no recollection of it.) Neither picture is reliably 'factual', but that's not the matter at issue, just the question of who could have done this one.

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