(click image to enlarge)
On 1 June 1794, the first and largest naval battle of the French Revolutionary Wars took place between Great Britain and the French Republic. Both sides claimed victory, though the former could do so more substantively, as the British fleet captured seven French ships without losing any of its own. The ships were Achille, America, Impétueux, Juste Northumberland, Sans Pareil and Vengeur, though the last was in such a shattered state that it sunk almost immediately. As a result of this success, the event became known in Britain as the ‘Glorious First of June’.
Almost a fortnight later, on 13 June, the Commander of the Channel Fleet, Admiral Lord Howe, brought his ‘prizes’ into Portsmouth. Among those waiting to see them was Thomas Rowlandson’s friend, the fencing master, Henry Angelo. As Angelo recorded in the second volume of his Reminiscences (1830), Rowlandson himself arrived from London soon after, and made drawings of the ships in the harbour and of the French prisoners, both able-bodied and injured, on the move and in prison.
The present work by Rowlandson is probably the earliest and most immediate of a series of four drawings of the same composition celebrating Lord Howe’s victory. They were possibly made in preparation for a projected print intended to respond to ‘the public thirst for military works of art’ during this particular phase of the French Revolutionary Wars (Sam Willis, The Glorious First of June: Fleet Battle in the Reign of Terror, London: Quercus, 2011, page 246). The other three drawings – in likely order of production – are:
2. Portsmouth Harbour; Lord Howe's Victory, the French prizes brought into the harbour …, watercolour, 9 x 13 ¼ inches
(bequeathed by the Rev Alexander Dyce to the V&A in 1874);
3. View of Prizes taken by Lord Howe Coming in Portsmouth Harbour, View from Queen’s Battery, pen ink and watercolour with pencil,
10 x 15 ½ inches (bequeathed by Clarence Buckingham to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938);
4. Portsmouth Harbour; Lord Howe's Victory, the French prizes brought into the harbour …, misdated 1780, watercolour, 11 x 17 ¾ inches (bequeathed by the Rev Alexander Dyce to the V&A in 1874).
The main differences between the first and the last are an increase in the number of figures, especially at the left, and a change in
the architecture at the right, from a modest pitched-roofed structure to a more substantial crenelated tower, probably representing Queen’s Battery,
a section of Portsmouth’s fortifications that is no longer extant.