The subject of this large oil painting is the Battle of Camperdown, a major naval encounter which took place on 11 October 1797 between a British fleet under Admiral Adam Duncan and the Dutch fleet, who were then allied with the French. The battle was the most significant conflict between British and Dutch forces during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802) and resulted in a resounding victory for Duncan. De Loutherbourg shows the decisive moment when the British flagship Venerable, to the left of centre, fires its last broadside at the Dutch flagship Vryhied. Other British ships such as Powerfully Ardent, Bedford and Director can also be identified, but such documentary detail was not de Loutherbourg’s primary concern. The prominence given to the shipwrecked sailors in the foreground offers a human perspective on the conflict.
The ability to conjure the pictorial drama of the scene owed much to de Loutherbourg’s wide-ranging professional experience. In 1771 he had moved to London from Paris, where he had enjoyed considerable success as a landscape painter and been elected the youngest ever member of the French Academy. Though his intention was to stay in England only long enough for a difficult family situation to resolve itself, he in fact remained in the country for the rest of his life. While continuing to paint and exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy, de Loutherbourg also entered the employment of the celebrated actor-manager David Garrick as a set and costume designer for his theatre on Drury Lane. De Loutherbourg’s highly imaginative stage effects, involving coloured lights, painted glass, transparencies and smoke, attracted widespread admiration. In 1781, at his home in Soho, he launched his famous Eidophusikon; a miniature mechanical theatre in which spectacular city views, storms at sea and scenes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost were re-created. The cross-over between these two parallel strands of de Loutherbourg’s career is evident in the heightened effects of his painting from the 1780s onwards; his mountainscapes and battle scenes demonstrating a flair for theatrical spectacle translated into dynamic compositions and sensational lighting effects.
Following the great critical and commercial success of two previous naval battle scenes by de Loutherbourg – The Grand Attack on Valenciennes (Naval and Military Club, London) and The Glorious First of June (National Maritime Museum, London) – this painting was commissioned as one of a pair from the artist by the enterprising engraver James Fittler (1758–1835). Fittler hung The Battle of Camperdown alongside its partner, The Battle of the Nile 1800 (Tate T01452), in an exhibition room he had hired for the purpose in London. He simultaneously advertised ‘superb and elegant’ prints after the painting to which visitors could subscribe. Although the take-up on subscriptions was disappointing, The Battle of Camperdown was sold and subsequently passed through several eminent private collections, including that of George Spencer-Churchill, 5th Duke of Marlborough, and the Junior Carlton Club on Pall Mall, where it hung for many years before its acquisition by Tate in 1971.
Martin Myrone (ed.), Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, London 2006.
Christopher Baugh, ‘Philippe de Loutherbourg: Technology-Driven Entertainment and Spectacle in the Late Eighteenth Century’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol.70, no.2, June 2007, pp.251–68.
Olivier Lefeuvre, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg: 1740–1812, Paris 2012.