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The aftermath of the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798

The aftermath of the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798
signed and dated 'I TUDGAY/1856' (lower right)
oil on canvas
36 x 63 in. (91.4 x 160 cm.)
Trafalgar: Nelson and the Napoleonic Wars; Sotheby's, London, 5 October 2005, lot 60.
with Richard Green, London, 2007, where purchased by the present owner
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Sarah Reynolds Specialist, Head of Sale

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Lot Essay

The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798, also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay, was one of the key naval battles of the French Revolutionary Wars (1789-1799). General Napoleon Bonaparte was intent on invading Egypt in order to limit British trade routes and threaten her position in India. A British fleet of fourteen ships-of-the-line (thirteen 74-gun and one 50-gun) was sent to intervene under the command of Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson spotted the French fleet of thirteen ships-of-the-line (one 120-gun, three 80-gun and nine 74-gun), led by Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys D'Aigalliers, at anchor in Aboukir Bay close to sunset on 1 August 1798. Brueys had arranged his ships parallel to the shoal in order that their port sides be protected from gunfire. The Goliath, leading the British line, made a critical observation as she reached the head of the French line, its commander noticing that the French were only anchored by the bow, rather than by bow and stern, indicating sufficient depth between the French and the shoal to swing around behind them without grounding. Nelson's fleet subsequently divided in two. The first section passing between the French line and the shoal, and the second closing in from the seaward side, in order that the French fleet might be attacked from both sides. The result was devastating for the French who, believing themselves safe from attack from the shoreward side, had not even cleared their port guns for action. Nelson was badly injured when his ship, the Vanguard, attacked the centre of the line. He was taken below deck, believed to be dying, but insisted on being brought back up to watch the remainder of the battle.
The battle reached a climax when Napoleon's massive flagship, the 120-gun L'Orient, after over an hour quite literally locked in bloody close battle with the diminutive Bellerophon, was attacked by the Alexander and Swiftsure, the Alexander's bombardment of her vulnerable stern causing a fire to take hold in the stern cabin. By nine o'clock that evening, L'Orient was in flames and there was a pause in the battle as ships sought to distance themselves from the flaming vessel. Admiral de Brueys was dead before his ship blew up and his heroism became a legend in the French Navy. He had been hit in the face and left hand by musket shot fired from the Bellerophon but he had the wounds bound up and continued to direct operations. Both his legs were then shot away but still he refused to leave the deck. According to some French accounts he had tourniquets tied around the stumps, got himself strapped into a chair and was heard to say that 'a French Admiral ought to die on his own quarterdeck'. His bravery proved fatal because he was in an exposed position. He was hit again, this time by a cannon ball which nearly cut him in two. His flag captain, Commodore Casabianca, was also mortally wounded, but his young son refused to leave his side, and this later inspired the well-known poem Casabianca by Felicia Hemans with the familiar opening lines, 'The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled.' Father and son took to the water and were last seen clinging to a floating mast. Admiral Ganteaume, several other officers, and many of the crew also abandoned ship, realising that it was only a matter of time before the fire reached the gunpowder in the magazine.
The Battle of the Nile established the supremacy of the Royal Navy for the remainder of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and added to Nelson's growing status, now Baron Nelson of the Nile. Admiral Villeneuve, third in command of the French fleet, would meet Nelson again at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

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