Until the end of the 18th century naval battles between equal fleets tended to end in bloody stalemate, as ships fought in line-ahead and neither side could bring superior force to bear against individual opposing ships. Pocock's picture represents a dramatic moment in the development of tactical naval warfare when the British, under Rodney, succeeded in breaking the French line and concentrating force against isolated ships of the enemy.
Admiral George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792) was a great tactician though a difficult man to work with, and with the signal-book yet to be settled, he had difficulty in communicating his ideas. He had tried at the Battle of Martinique in 1780 to bring a superior force to bear by concentrating his ships on the rear of the French line, but his orders were misunderstood or not properly executed.
Two years later the Battle of the Saintes, in the Caribbean between the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, took place on 12th April after several days' manoeuvring in light airs which had given Rodney's captains much-needed training in what he wanted them to do.
Admiral Conte de Grasse was mounting a raid to capture Jamaica and Rodney intended to stop him. On the fourth day, as the two fleets looked to pass each other ineffectually on opposite tacks, there was shift in the wind, an opportunity which Rodney seized. Controversy followed about whose idea this was, and the extent to which the manoeuvre had been planned, but his officers understood his intentions, followed him, and the effect was decisive. The guns of the British ships were concentrated on a handful of French ships which were repeatedly raked through the weaker part of their hulls, the bows and sterns, as the British broke the French line in three places, and the tactical cohesion of the French was destroyed.
This painting shows the scene shortly after 9am., when Rodney's flagship, H.M.S. Formidable, flying the signal for 'Close Action', poured her broadside into a melée of four French ships which had been cut off by his manoeuvre and the French Diadème was dismasted. By the end of the battle, Rodney had taken the French flagship, the massive 104-gun Ville de Paris, and four other ships. The captured and badly mauled Ville de Paris sank off Newfoundland, but during the Napoleonic Wars the British named a new battleship after her, as a reminder to their enemy of the Battle of the Saintes.
The battle marked the end for Britain of the American War of Independence, saved Jamaica, and Rodney, who had enjoyed a string of victories, was able to write: "Within two little years I have taken two Spanish, one French and one Dutch admirals". De Grasse was taken prisoner to London.
Pocock was known to research his work carefully, and when this picture was shown just two years after the battle, it would have been seen by many who were at the action, and who would have explained to other naval officers how the tactic had worked. The British would successfully break the line several times more during the ensuing French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, not least at the Battle of Trafalgar. Pocock executed several paintings of the Battle of the Saintes and amongst the papers from his studio sold at Messrs. Hodgson on 18th June 1913, were watercolour plans of the battle, drawings of flags and signals and lists of the two fleets.
Nicholas Pocock was the son of Nicholas Pocock (c.1709-1759), a Bristol seaman, to whom he was apprenticed. His mother, Mary Innes, was related to the Duke of Roxburgh. By 1766, Pocock was in command of the Lloyd, a merchant ship belonging to Richard Champion, maker of Bristol porcelain. He was subsequently master of Champion's ships Betsey and Minerva. Pocock made at least twelve voyages to America, as well as trips to the West Indies and the Mediterranean. In 1794, he witnessed the Battle of the Glorious First of June aboard H.M.S. Pegasus with Lord Howe's fleet. Pocock kept detailed logbooks during these voyages illustrated with meticulous pen and wash drawings which he extensively annotated. His twenty years of experience as a merchant seaman stood him in good stead as a marine artist, although he did not seriously take up painting until about 1778. In 1780 he married Anne Evans (1752-1827), with whom he had nine children, including the artist William Innes Pocock.
In 1789, Pocock moved to London and established his reputation as a successful marine painter. He received numerous commissions to depict naval engagements and battles and took painstaking care in obtaining first-hand information from those who had participated, which included correspondence, sketches and diagrams. His patrons included Admiral Lord Hood and his naval brother, Lord Bridport, as well as Lord Barham, First Lord of the Admiralty.
Pocock's output included a series of paintings engraved for J.S. Clarke and J. McArthur's official Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, 1809. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy (1782-1815), the British Institution (1806-1810) and was a founder member of the Old Watercolour Society (1804). He died in Maidenhead in 1821.