The Battle of the Nile, 2 August 1798

Image credit: Defence Academy of the United Kingdom

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The disposition of the British and French squadrons engaged in this painting identify it as the Battle of the Nile, in which the French fought at anchor (here to the right) and their flagship 'L'Orient' blew up – as shown in the distance – at the height of what was by then a night action. The British two-decker flagship, just right of centre, double-anchored by the stern, is therefore intended as Nelson's 74-gun 'Vanguard'. He was a Rear-Admiral of the Blue at the time so his squadron would in principle have flown blue ensigns of the pre-1801 pattern and 'Vanguard' his plain blue squadronal colour at the mizzen. Here the artist shows the British ships flying post-1801 white ensigns (including the red St Patrick saltire cross in the Union quadrant) and 'Vanguard' with a St George at the fore for a Vice-Admiral of the White. This is the combination that Nelson only flew in action at Trafalgar in 1805, his final battle, in the three-decker 'Victory'. The error is hard to explain, unless a deliberate one for symbolic reasons. There are, however, other images of the battle that show British ships flying white ensigns, though 'Vanguard' is usually correctly shown flying blue, including that colour at the mizzen. Whether artist error or the actual situation on the day given that light was failing, and white may have been a better precaution against 'friendly fire' remains to be determined.

Defence Academy of the United Kingdom

Shrivenham

Title

The Battle of the Nile, 2 August 1798

Medium

oil on canvas

Measurements

H 180 x W 239.2 cm

Accession number

20434

Acquisition method

on loan from the Royal Navy Trophy Centre

Work type

Painting

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Defence Academy of the United Kingdom

Watchfield, Shrivenham, Oxfordshire SN6 8TS England

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