The American War of Independence witnessed a number of notable frigate actions, several of which were fought off Brest as French ships attempted to run the Royal Navy's blockade of that port. Perhaps the most celebrated of these actions took place on 6th October 1779 when H.M.S. Quebec, 32-guns, in company with the naval cutter Rambler, 10, sighted the French frigate Surveillante, 32, in company with her cutter Expédition. Due to a heavy swell and only light winds, it was 10 o'clock before the two frigates got within range of each other and then, lying broadside to broadside, they began a furious action as did both the cutters nearby. The fight lasted throughout the day and as darkness fell, both frigates were completely dismasted and had suffered heavy casualties. Whereas Surveillante's spars and sails had fallen overboard however, Quebec's fell across the waist of the ship and were set alight by her guns. The fire spread inexorably until, at 6 o'clock that evening, Quebec, her colours still flying defiantly, blew up and took two-thirds of her crew with her including her Commander, Captain George Farmer. It had been an unequal fight in that Surveillante was armed with 18-pounders against Quebec's 9-pdrs. and this inequality had made Farmer's decision to bring the Frenchman to action the more memorable. Surveillante barely survived the encounter and, in a sinking condition, was towed into port by Expédition; devastation on this scale was rare even in a two-ship contest, one of the closest parallels being, coincidentally, the fight between H.M.S. Serapis and John Paul Jones' Bonhomme Richard off Flamborough Head only two weeks before, on 23rd September (1779).
A number of versions of this striking painting by Richard Paton are known, one of which was sold in these rooms on 9th November 2000 (lot 311).
As a child, Richard Paton was sent out by his family to beg in the streets. On one occasion, he sufficiently impressed a naval commander to pick up a berth on his ship as assistant to the ship's painter. From there he blossomed, eventually becoming one of the principal painters of the eighteenth century. A self-taught artist, his paintings sometimes have a naive quality to them, but they are always packed full of drama and emotion.