Philip James De Loutherbourg

The Battle of the Nile


Not on display

Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740–1812
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1524 × 2140 mm
frame: 1950 × 2570 × 170 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971

Display caption

‘The Nile’ was a famous and crucial British victory (1798) during the French Revolutionary Wars. Nelson found the French fleet at anchor near Alexandria and attacked at night. The climax of the battle came when the French flagship exploded, the dramatic moment portrayed here. Crucially the victory secured British control of the Mediterranean and made a national hero of Nelson. The central image of the burning remnants of the ship echoes the erupting volcano in de Loutherbourg’s ‘Vesuvius’ (displayed nearby). Both deal with the destructive power of nature: the broader devastation and the unseen agonising death of the individual

Gallery label, July 2010

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Catalogue entry

Philip James de Loutherbourg 1740–1812

T01452 The Battle of the Nile 1800

Inscribed ‘’ b.l.
Canvas, 60 x 84¼ (152.4 x 214).
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971.
Coll: ...; the Junior Carlton Club, acquired in the latter part of the 19th century, sold Christie’s, 24 May 1968 (83, repr.), bt. Leggatt; then as for T01451.
Engr: in line by James Fittler, published January 1803.

On 1 August 1798 the British fleet under Nelson surprised the French anchored in Aboukir Bay and by a pre-arranged plan attacked from the inshore side, scoring a decisive victory. De Loutherbourg depicts the moment, around 10 p.m., when the French flagship L’Orient blew up.The explosion is seen in the centre background, with Nelson’s flagship Vanguard in the left foreground and the French line on the right.

This is a companion picture to ‘The Battle of Camperdown’, T01451. As in that work, a group of desperate figures clinging to wreckage is given a prominent place in the foreground. The reason for this is explained in the prospectus to Fittler’s engraving:

‘In this Print, as well as in its Companion, such incidents are embraced, as tend to express that characteristic mark of true valour, GENEROSITY and HUMANITY to the vanquished; and the interesting endeavours of the English Tar to rescue from destruction his struggling captive, happily illustrates, that an Enemy in our power ceases to be considered by a Briton as an Enemy.’

Unfortunately the painting of the same subject which Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1799, accompanied by an appropriate quotation from Paradise Lost, cannot be traced. A comparison of the two works would say a great deal about the development of marine painting in this country. The Battle of the Nile was also presented in 1799 at the Naumachia, a panorama which may have been another enterprise of Turner’s (see John Gage, ‘Turner and the Picturesque—I’, Burlington Magazine, CVII, 1965, pp.24.5).

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.

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