Completed Maritime Subjects, Military History 21 Who painted 'The Last of the Sailing Frigates'? Does this work depict a real event?

Topic: Other

We would dearly like to know more about this work – specifically who the artist might be and what nation (if any!) the flags belong to. Is this a real or imagined event? A more precise date for the ships would be useful but, having worked at Portsmouth City Museum and Art Gallery, I can see that they have the built up bows that you see following the Napoleonic Wars.

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

Alice Read,

This discussion has resulted in a title change. The title will be changed to:

'Admiral Charles Napier's action off Cape St Vincent, 5th July 1833'

All views regarding the artists will be kept on file.

Thank you to all for participating in this discussion. To those viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all comments that led to this conclusion.


Worth considering John Christian Schetky in the first instance, or that area. Quite what's going on is unclear but there is only one frigate in plain sight (send from right) probably a second behind the two-decker in the foreground, another two(?)-decker far right and a Mediterranean sette far left, which gives a general location. Flags not really visible on PCF/Your Paintings image

Peter Harrington,

Suggests to me a post-Napoleonic scene and possibly the battle of Navarino. Could be the work of George Chambers (1803-1840)

Alice Read,

Please find attached a high resolution image of this work.
Please note copyright belongs to Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum.

1 attachment

The flags shown here, even in the high-resolution image, are not immediately identifiable from standard printed sources and it would help if someone at the Russell-Cotes Museum could describe the differing central emblems. The action - which is apparently between early 19th-century ships but not the 'usual suspects' -Britain, France, etc - involves frigates (with single gun decks) and two deckers, of which that on the right appears to be already captured: i.e. by flying one colour - the divided blue (?) /white ensign (with a sun-burst at centre?) over a plain white one with a different central gold emblem. The nearest two decker is flying a white commodore's pendant at the main. but apparently coming down: it is possible she is being shown twice, ie surrendering and surrendered on the right. The lateen-rigged vessel on the left is an armed settee, or similar Mediterranean-type craft, but it does not look like Europeans vs 'Barbary pirates' either. While an action of the Greek War of Liberation (from the Ottoman Empire) in the 1820s might fit for period, I simply do not know if the Greeks, at least, had such naval force on their side and it also does not look like either the usual Greek or Ottoman flags. Who would be painting such an action (if a British hand at least) is also a puzzle. It may turn out to be very simple in the end, but the question is one of finding the right key for the lock!

A colleague has pointed out that the early 19th-century Portuguese navy had a vertically divided blue and white ensign, with the crowned arms of Portugal at centre of which the shield background, however, is largely red (which is at least not apparent here), and why I previously passed over it.

Nevertheless, ignoring that for the moment and looking further, this suggests that the picture may be intended a representation of the (fourth) Battle of Cape St Vincent on 5 July 1833, between the small Portuguese frigate squadron commanded by the British Sir Charles Napier on behalf of their Regent Dom Pedro (acting for the rightful Queen Maria II) against the forces of the usurper Dom Miguel. The latter flew the same Portuguese arms but on a plain white field and had three two-decker ships of the line (2 x 74 guns and a 56) and a frigate of 50 guns and the 'Activa' (xebec) which could easily be the armed lateen-rigged vessel on the left. Napier had some steam-tug back-up but none were involved and it was, in effect, the last action entirely between sailing warships : Napier, despite having nominally inferior force was far more aggressive and captured all the elderly Miguelite ships by close action and boarding.
See the related Wikipedia entry, which includes another painting of the action.

I think this has to be it, though not yet resolving the artist question.

Martin Hopkinson,

Another painting of this action was executed in 1842 by the French artist and naval officer Antoine Leon Morel - Fatio [1821-71] see the Wikipedia article on the battle for an image. It may be in the Palacio Nacional de Queluz, Sintra in Portugal
He was Peintre officiel de la Marine from 1853 and Curator of the Musee Navale du Louvre
A number of other paintings by this artist can be seen on Joconde
He illustrated Leon Renard's 'L'Art Naval'
see also 'D. Pedro d'Alcantara de Braganza 1798 - 1834' , Secretaria d'Estado ,Lisbon, 1986
A historian of marine painting might be able to say if this is not the same artist as the author of the painting under discussion

Martin Hopkinson,

This painting may well have been exhibited. So it would be worth looking through the catalogues of c. 1833-35 for the Royal Academy, the Society of British Artists and the British Institution. Also worth exploring would be the sale catalogues of the collections of the most significant British naval officers involved in the battle, especially of Sir Charles Napier and his descendants

While a sensible idea this is only to be done by doing it the hard way, since to best of my knowledge there is at present no web-based search capacity for the RA or other catalogues in this period : even the standard consolidated lists by Graves et al., depend on having a better idea of artist to start with. It is also rather an odd picture in terms of one for British exhibition at least -though probbaly by a British hand -from the lack of clear identities and the fact that the principal ship at centre is one of the captured Miguelite ones, but without obvous triumphal colours or other indications of 'who's who' in terms of possible client.

Martin Hopkinson,

Yet another representation of this battle by a totally different anonymous artist exists see H. Noel Williams, 'The life and letters of Admiral Sir Charles Napier', London, 1917 opp. p.104
Two plans showing the positions of the vessels in this battle are illustrated on pp. 19 and 20 of Napier's own 'The life and exploits of Commodore Napier', London 1840
For Napier's family see Steve James, 'Admiral Sir Charles Napier and Merchiston Hall', Havant, 1995
Merchiston Hall in Hampshire was Napier's estate which when he acquired it was called Horndean

Martin Hopkinson,

Eckhart Berckenhagen wrote a book or thesis in 1995 'Antoine - Leon Morel - Fatio' which may say something about that artist's depiction of the battle

Melissa Lewis,

It reminds me of "East Indiamen in the China Sea" by William John Huggins at the National Maritime Museum. I am sure it has nothing to do with that painting, but worth a try. It looks like it needs cleaning, maybe there is some attribution under the varnish layer?

I'm sure this isn't Huggins or convincingly Chambers (both of whom I see a lot) and it doesn't compare well with other Morel-Fatio. Puzzle continues...

Jamie Rountree,

Joined this a bit late but herewith my rather worthless thoughts. Morel-Fatio makes sense as the painting certainly has his detail and somewhat romantic style (albeit not his sharpness of contrast). He was also later with Napier in the Crimea in 1854 as a `war artist' - and it is possible that Napier may have been impressed enough to ask him to paint a work depicting one of his earlier victories. It would also make sense if this work is one of a set of Napier's victories, which is why it is not signed (one of the others in the set would have been). Probably rather difficult to prove but a possibility none-the-less.

Charles Miller,

Whilst not wishing to throw out the above, I'm going to throw in another possibility! This looks very much like the work of Auguste Musin (1852-1920). It matches his preferred palette and he was not an accurate painter, preferring to mix ships, flags and events up to enhance the overall "look" of a picture. That would explain the almost non-existent flags and vessel attributions. Although born at a time of rapid decline in the sailing navy, he preferred sentimental genre pics and even those he did name are hopelessly inaccurate. I question whether Musin should really be considered a marine painter in the true sense as he's almost a landscape painter with ships. On that basis there's no point in trying to pin down the supposed event depicted here as it probably only took place in Musin's mind..

I am still of the view that this is Napier's 1833 action off Cape St Vincent since the shipping fits, and the Portuguese loyalist flag, though lacking the red element in the shield, which Morel-Fatio by contrast clearly shows in his view used to illustrate the battle in its Wiki entry. M-F is usually more of a colourist, but not always, though it is odd that he would get a flag right on one occasion but not another. The interesting thing about Musin (though, really, which one - surely Francois Etienne, since Auguste was only born in 1852, and without being convinced of either) is that we are nonetheless tending to be drawn to a continental preference rather than British.

Thank you everyone for your comments and thoughts. We will place them in the Object History File for this painting and amend the collection database record accordingly.

Following PCF request for a recommendation to conclude this exchange I have now looked at Charles Napier's account of his action of 5 July 1833 off Cape St Vincent, covered in pp. 191-204 of vol 1 of his 'An Account of the War in Portugal between Dom Pedro and Dom Miguel' (London, 1836), the main action being recounted from p. 198 on. Such narratives are not always easy to reconcile with the viewpoints artists take for pictures, but it is clear that the moment shown in this painting is that at which the Miguelite 'commodore' ( as Napier calls him) - presumably their commander, in other sources stated as Admiral Manuel António Marreiros - in the 74-gun 'Dom Joao' (or 'Don John' as Napier again has it) hauls down his flag practically without a fight to Napier's closing flagship, the 46-gun frigate, 'Rainha de Portugal' . The 'Dom Joao' is the two-decker in the foreground centre left, with the white commodore's pennant being lowered from the main mast, and Napier's bow showing behind to the left. As already noted the Miguelite xebec listed in their squadron is the Mediterranean-type vessel at far left. Napier's ship had by this point already taken the other Miguelite 74-gun two-decker - confusingly also called the 'Nau Rainha' - by boarding, which is what is specifically shown in the Morel-Fatio painting of the action which illustrates the Wikipedia account of it. In the present painting the captured 'Nau Rainha' is shown at far right with the loyalist blue and white ensign flying over the largely white Miguelite ensign at the stern. The other named ships I can now identify are the Miguelite 'Martin Freitas (or more correctly 'Martinho de Freitas') 50 guns, which Napier notes as losing her foretopmast early in the action and which is here shown engaged with the loyalist 20-gun 'Portuense' in the centre background. The 'Freitas' proved too strong for the 20-gunner whose English captain (Blackstone) was killed, but later surrendered to Napier's 'Rainha de Portugal' after failing to make good an escape. The frigate in the centre mid-distance flying loyalist colours and heading toward the 'Freitas/ Portuense' fight is therefore, by elimination, Napier's 'Dona Maria', 42 guns (Captain Peake). The other ships of both sides are lost behind in the left background.

Having looked at other web images by Morel-Fatio I am less set than I was against the notion that it might be by him in the more tonal, less colourful, style which he also used - though still worried by the apparent lack of red field in the central motif of the loyalist flags, and the lack of a signature (his often being in red and very clear). However, the picture has clearly seen some change and damage and a closer look is really needed.

As already mentioned in one of my earlier comments, this was the last action entirely between sailing warships (frigates being the key players on the winning side), which may be the source of its odd current title. I definitely suggest this is now changed to 'Sir Charles Napier's action off Cape St Vincent, 5 July 1833' or something similar. A tentative attribution of 'possibly Antoine-Leon Morel-Fatio (?)' might also be reasonable if only keep the matter of artist in play, but I leave that to the collection to decide.

Given the last comment the RCAGM will change the title of the work to 'Sir Charles Napier's Action off Cape St Vincent, 5.7.1833' in its collections database and recomend that the PCF change the title of the work on Your Paintings as well. All other views regarding artists etc will continue to be reflected in our records.

Thank you. Two small things: having checked when Napier got his knighthood (which was in 1840) it might be better to start the new title as 'Admiral Charles...' rather than 'Sir Charles'. Also note that I think Wikipedia is wrong is calling the Miguelite 74-gun ship (shown far right here) 'Nau Rainha' which literally means 'ship Queen': Napier just says 'Rainha' (Queen) which is far more likely.