In 1745, with England deeply involved in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and most of her army engaged on Continental Europe, Prince Charles Edward Stuart ('Bonnie Prince Charlie') and his French allies believed that the time was ripe for another attempt to restore the House of Stuart to the English throne. Initially it was planned to place the Prince at the head of a French invasion of England, but, when this idea lost support, the Prince decided to make his own way to Scotland, raise his standard there and march on London from the north. Believing the French would then feel obliged to come to his aid, the plan seemed destined for success and it was with high hopes that the Prince and his slender retinue boarded the Du Teillay, a small French sloop placed at his disposal by a Nantes merchant of Irish extraction, at St. Nazaire on 7th July 1745.
Arriving off Belleisle, the Du Teillay was joined by the 64-gun man-o'war Elizabeth which had been despatched by the French government to act as escort for the Prince's party on their journey to the Hebrides. The appearance of the warship aroused an even greater optimism aboard Du Teillay but this was rudely shattered on 9th July when, as the two vessels crossed the approaches to the English Channel, they were sighted by the 58-gun H.M.S. Lion which immediately gave chase. Late in the afternoon, at about 5 o'clock, Lion ran alongside the Elizabeth and poured a broadside into her at close range. Du Teillay then positioned herself behind the combatants so as to try and assist her consort but was soon beaten off by Lion's stern-chasers. As it became apparent that there would be no decisive outcome to the duel between Lion and Elizabeth, the Du Teillay crowded on all sail and made her escape. Meanwhile, the main engagement continued until 10 o'clock when the Elizabeth was finally able to break off and get away. Lion's rigging had been so severely damaged that she was unable to make sail and follow with the result that 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' reached his destination safely, thereby setting in train the second (and last) Jacobite Rebellion.
Captain Brett, commanding H.M.S. Lion, made four drawings illustrating the successive stages of the encounter and this picture is based on that of the final phase (in the Sandwich collection, Kingzett, op. cit., pl. 9a); the Elizabeth had seized the opportunity of a shift in the wind's direction to escape and the Lion, much damaged and powerless to pursue, is seen firing a last raking volley.
As Kingzett establishes in considerable detail, this, the first of Scott's three versions of the subject (the others are in the Sandwich and Molesworth St. Aubyn collection), is from the series of canvasses Scott painted for the Hall at Shugborough, Staffordshire. The house had been inherited by Thomas Anson in 1720 but his childless brother, Admiral George Anson, who in 1757 was enobled as Lord Anson, contributed to its adornment, and the statement that the picture was painted for him is thus very probably correct. The series is documented in a letter by the Admiral's wife, Lady Anson, of 1750, in which the present picture The Lyon and Elizabeth and its pendant The Taking of the Acapulco Ship, now at Greenwich, are stated to have flanked the door to the dining room. Of the series, The Nottingham and The Mars and The Destruction of Payta are also at Greenwich, while the identity of other components is considered by Kingzett (p. 131).
Another work depicting this action, from the opposite perspective, was painted by Dominic Serres the Elder and is held in the National Collection at Greenwich; see their Concise Catalogue of Oil Paintings, p. 350, BHC 0364. Likewise, a third version of this encounter attributed to John Thomas Serres was sold in Christie's Maritime Sale, 9th November, 2000, lot 307.
When Samuel Wyatt redecorated the Hall at Shugborough in the 1780s, the pictures were evidently disposed of. They were presumably acquired by a member of the Keppel family because Admiral Viscount Keppel (1725-1786) had served under Lord Anson.