During the 'age of sail', the mighty line-of-battle warships which bombarded enemy fleets into submission were regarded as floating fortresses of immense power; singularly lacking amongst these great ships' many attributes however was speed and when despatches, men or prizes needed to be got home as quickly as possible, something altogether faster was required.
Hence the development of the small armed cutters and schooners which rapidly assumed a role of considerable significance in communications betwixt fleets and their bases. The most celebrated of her breed was the gallant little schooner Pickle, which brought home the news of the victory at Trafalgar tempered by the death of Lord Nelson at the height of the battle in 1805, but there were many other similar vessels whose names have become lost with the passage of time. Lightly armed, with perhaps ten or twelve small-calibre guns, the cutters proved especially suitable for the job and were often to be seen racing across the world's oceans as fast as any other craft of their day. In addition to carrying urgent despatches, arguably their prime function, they performed equally valuable work as pickets - to prevent surprise attacks, scouts - to range ahead of the fleet to report on enemy movements, and escorts - to accompany merchant prizes to a friendly port for lucrative disposal. In times of peace they were also usefully employed on anti-smuggling patrols which kept every available revenue cutter busy around the coasts of Great Britain where smuggling was rife.
In this particular work, executed with all the artist's usual flair, Dawson shows an armed naval cutter running ahead of a French prize, the latter denoted by her own national ensign being flown humiliatingly below that of her captors.