The French 80-gun two-decker Guillaume Tell was built at Toulon and launched in 1795. A large vessel of 2,265 tons and measuring 194½ feet in length, her place in maritime history was assured not so much by her participation in the Battle of the Nile but by the fact that, having escaped Nelson's clutches along with only one other ship-of-the-line, her last action under French colours was the one in which she proved herself a most worthy opponent of the Royal Navy.
Flagship to Rear-Admiral Villeneuve at the Nile, she and the 74-gun Genereux suddenly found themselves in a lull in the fighting early on the morning of 2nd August 1798. Seeing that defeat was inevitable, Villeneuve ordered the two ships to make their escape and they ran for shelter, first to Corfu and then to Malta. Before long Malta itself was under siege and the French garrison there was soon in such desperate straits that the island's commander, General Vaubois, realised that he had to risk his only remaining capital ship (Genereux had already been taken the previous month) if he was to save the island from capitulation. Under cover of darkness and bound for Toulon, the Guillaume Tell slipped out of Valetta at 11.00 p.m. on 30th March 1800 but was almost immediately intercepted by H.M.S. Penelope, 36-guns, in company with the captured Spanish brig Vincejo. Dispatching the latter for reinforcements, Penelope gave chase and opened fire on the much larger Frenchman in a running fight which lasted all night. At daybreak H.M.S. Lion, 64-guns, entered the fray, closely followed by Foudroyant, 80-guns, and all three ships then pounded Guillaume Tell for a further two hours. At 8.20 a.m. on 31st March, dismasted and with most of her guns out of action, she struck her colours and surrendered. Defeated but not dishonoured, Guillaume Tell survived the battle to destroy her and was recommissioned as H.M.S. Malta, ironically remaining in the service of the Royal Navy for another forty years.
Commissioned by Manley Dixon, Dodd's painting shows the action from the point of view of the small ships whose daring secured the victory. The Lion is on the left and Blackwood's frigate Penelope on the right, while Foudroyant lumbers down to join the fray. Dixon, the veteran of a notable engagement with four Spanish frigates off Cartagena in 1798, died an Admiral of the Red in 1837. Blackwood, warmly praised by Nelson for the capture of the Guillaume Tell, commanded the frigates at Trafalgar.