Lord Nelson's final campaign to bring the French fleet to action and annihilate it proved both long and frustrating. From the moment he hoisted his flag in Victory in May 1803, he devoted all his waking hours to the task that lay ahead of him and shortly before the fateful encounter almost two-and-a-half years later, he wrote this potent maxim that could usefully serve as his epitaph:
'The business of the English Commander-in-Chief being first to bring an Enemy's fleet to battle on the most advantageous terms to himself; and secondly to continue them there until the business is decided.'
It was written in response to the news that Admiral Villeneuve, the French commander, had managed to combine the Spanish fleet with his own to bring a formidable thirty-three ships under his control against Nelson's total of twenty-seven. To compensate for this serious lack of numerical superiority, Nelson had evolved his celebrated plan to break the enemy line in two places - a radical departure from conventional tactics - and activated it as soon as the opposing fleets sighted each other off Cape Trafalgar on the morning of 21st October 1805. With the British ships formed into two columns, Nelson himself led the Weather Division in Victory whilst Vice-Admiral Collingwood, his second-in-command, spearheaded the Leeward Division in Royal Sovereign, 100-guns.
As the fleets closed for action, Royal Sovereign drew ahead and battle was joined just before noon when the French 74-gun Fougueux opened fire. At 12.10pm. Royal Sovereign broke through the line but it was another half-hour before Victory was able to do the same and, in the meantime, she was subjected to a withering fire which caused fifty casualties and peppered her sails with holes. Peering into the smoky inferno ahead of him, Captain Hardy coaxed Victory under the stern of Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure where there was so little room to manoeuvre that, as Victory passed along the Frenchman's starboard side, it seemed that the two flagships would collide. Without a moment's hesitation, Hardy ordered a broadside from Victory's larboard (port) guns which raked Bucentaure with devastating effect. Within minutes Victory, with Téméraire close behind her, was engaged in a tremendous struggle with Bucentaure and Rédoutable, the most dramatic result of which was Nelson himself being shot and mortally wounded by a sharpshooter in one of Rédoutable's fighting tops. Even this could not affect the outcome however and the battle of Trafalgar remains, arguably, the most decisive victory in the history of war at sea.
Thomas Luny executed several large-scale portrayals of the chronology of Trafalgar, mostly late in his career, and the pair offered in this catalogue are unknown to the present generation of historians. In the first painting, Collingwood's flagship Royal Sovereign can clearly be seen [on the right, in the middle distance] breaking through the enemy line-of-battle and engaging the huge 112-gun Spanish flagship Santa Ana (Vice-Admiral de Alava) with her port guns. In the centre of the picture is Victory, well ahead of Téméraire, Neptune and the rest of the ships in the Weather Column [all ranged on the left], as they follow their commander into action.
In the second work, Luny presents his view of the battle at 3.30pm in the afternoon, by which time ultimate victory was assured even though the majority of vessels were still engaged. One of the few that was not was the 74-gun Belleisle [to the right of centre] and Luny shows her in broadside perspective, partially dismasted and gently rolling in the swell. She had followed Royal Sovereign into action and received a terrible pounding from successive enemy vessels, latterly the Fougueux which locked her in a brutal embrace at about 1.00pm. By 1.30pm. she was being attacked by the French Aigle and two Spaniards, San Leandro and San Justo. By now reduced to an almost defenceless wreck, an already desperate situation was made worse by the arrival of the Principe de Asturias followed by the French Neptune, both of which joined in the fray. Incredibly, Captain Hargood managed to keep a few of his starboard guns firing until finally, just after 3.00pm., three British vessels arrived to relieve the situation and deflect the enemy's fire. At 3.25pm Belleisle's log noted the following:
'Ceased firing and turned the hands up to clear the wreck.'
The fact that Luny has identified Belleisle so positively and painted her situation so precisely, even down to the sailor waving the Union flag from a pike over the port rail, makes it highly probable that this pair of paintings was commissioned by Captain [later Admiral Sir William, G.C.B., G.C.H.] Hargood, the vessel's commanding officer during her greatest trial. This theory is further reinforced by the fact that Hargood was appointed C. in C. at Plymouth in 1833, the year the works were executed, when he could easily have been introduced to Luny, by then living in Devon, for the first time.