Thomas Whitcombe (c.1752-1824)
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Thomas Whitcombe (c.1752-1824)

The height of the action on the 'Glorious First of June', 1794

Thomas Whitcombe (c.1752-1824)
The height of the action on the 'Glorious First of June', 1794
signed and dated 'Thos. Whitcombe 1794' (lower right)
oil on canvas
31 x 47 in. (78.7 x 119.4 cm.)
Probably commissioned by Captain [later Sir] Andrew Snape Douglas.
with Richard Green, London.
with Ackermann & Johnson, London.
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Lot Essay

Known to its contemporaries as the 'Great War', the long conflict between England and Revolutionary France which began in 1793 was characterised by a series of large-scale sea battles in which the Royal Navy proved consistently victorious. After a century of decisive victories over successive French fleets, the Admiralty began the new War with high expectations and the opening fleet action so seized the British public's imagination that the battle swiftly became known as the 'Glorious First of June', 1794. As soon as War had been declared the previous year, the blockading squadrons of the Royal Navy were sent to their stations off the French ports and within months, exacerbated by a poor harvest, serious food shortages were causing civil unrest in cities throughout France, most notably Paris. The United States [of America], ever mindful of French assistance during its own struggle for independence barely twenty years before, was only too willing to supply France with grain to feed her starving population and it was against this background that the War's first encounter at sea was fought out.

Intelligence had reached the Admiralty that a huge convoy of 117 grain ships was gathering in Chesapeake Bay and the French fleet at Brest was preparing to put to sea in order to escort it safely in. As soon as Admiral Lord Howe received this news, he ordered his own fleet of twenty-six ships-of-the-line to sea and spent much of April and May (1794) cruising the Western Approaches in an attempt to prevent the convoy and its escort joining forces. In this respect he was unlucky and, by the time he eventually sighted the enemy on 28th May, both escort and convoy were heading for Brest together. Howe gave chase immediately and a running fight lasting three days then ensued during which the French had the advantage of heavy weather. By dawn on 1st June, about 400 miles out in the Atlantic, Howe finally managed to get to windward of the French and, at 7.16am., signalled his fleet to attack. His strategy was to run his ships down upon the enemy to break their line at its centre and in the ensuing action, H.M. ships Queen Charlotte, Defence, Marlborough, Royal George and Brunswick did exactly as Howe had intended. By 10.00am., the two fleets were embroiled in a general mêlée and, by noon, six French ships-of-the-line had been taken and a seventh, Le Vengeur du Peuple, had been sunk after a tremendous duel with H.M.S. Brunswick. Although escaping capture, the French flagship Montagne was badly mauled and had 300 men killed on her shattered decks. What remained of the French fleet was in great disarray, but Howe's ships were also damaged and his crews too exhausted by the encounter to give pursuit; moreover, amidst the confusion of battle, the vital grain convoy had sailed on unscathed and managed to reach Brest without loss. In truth therefore, the British victory was tactical rather than decisive but, in the jubilation afterwards, this nicety was overlooked and Lord Howe found himself loaded with honours by his grateful King and country.

In this view of the battle, the two flagships - Queen Charlotte (Lord Howe) and Montagne (Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse) - are shown closely engaged (to the right of centre) prior to the moment when Montagne was forced to break off the action due to damage. It was only at this point that Queen Charlotte turned her guns on the 80-gun Juste whereas Whitcombe has painted Juste as a dismasted hulk which has already surrendered. Although strictly out of sequence, this portrayal was almost certainly done deliberately however, so as to enable the artist to highlight the fate of this particular ship. Furthermore, the fact that Juste is the only named vessel in the entire composition makes it extremely likely that this painting was commissioned by the man who first engaged Juste and then took her surrender, namely Queen Charlotte's commanding officer, Captain [later Sir] Andrew Snape Douglas, who would undoubtedly have wished to have the event recorded for his satisfaction.

Thomas Whitcombe painted two other views of the 'Glorious First of June', both of which were commissioned to be engraved for James Jenkins' celebrated book The Naval Achievements of Great Britain (1793-1817), first published in 1817.

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