Samuel Scott

Admiral Anson’s Action off Cape Finisterre 1747


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Not on display

Samuel Scott c.1702–1772
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1645 × 2970 mm
Purchased 1958

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The painting celebrates Admiral Anson’s successful attack on a French convoy, carried out as part of Britain’s policy to cut communication between France and her North American colonies during the War of the Austrian Succession. It is not an accurate representation of events, but more a monument to Britain’s rapidly growing naval power. From the late 1720s Scott was England’s leading marine painter. After Canaletto’s arrival in London in 1746 he also began to produce panoramic views of London and the Thames, presumably in response to a growing market for such subjects.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

T00202 Admiral Anson's Action off Cape Finisterre, 3 May 1747 c. 1749–50

Oil on canvas 1645×2970 (64 3/4×117)
Inscribed (probably later in the eighteenth century) ‘Admiral Anson's Engagement with a Squadron Commanded by Monsr de la Ionquiere May 1747’ bottom centre
Purchased (Cleve Fund) 1958
PROVENANCE Commissioned by John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718–92) by descent to Victor Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke (succeeded as 10th Earl of Sandwich 1962, but disclaimed his titles for life) from whom bt through Agnew by the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED Recently Acquired Pictures by Old Masters, Agnew 1957 (not in cat.)
LITERATURE Paget Toynbee (ed.), ‘Horace Walpole's Journals of Visits to Country Seats, & c’, Walpole Society, XVI, 1928, pp.49–50; Kingzett 1982, pp.33–5, version C, pl.10

Two other versions of this subject are catalogued by Kingzett: version A (1050×1862, 42×74 1/2), traditionally described as having been painted for Lord Dover but more probably commissioned by the Anson family for Shugborough as part of a celebration of Lord Anson's victories, and now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, and version B (1016×1791, 40×71, signed and dated 1749), probably commissioned by Lord Hardwicke and now in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art (fig.48). T00202 was commissioned by the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1747–57, and elder brother of William Montague, who commanded the Bristol in the Cape Finisterre battle; it is the largest and probably the best-preserved of three versions, and almost certainly (see below) the latest of the three.

The victory off Cape Finisterre was the first English naval success in the War of the Austrian Succession. The task of the English fleet was to block communication between France and her North American colonies. On 3 May 1747, Anson, recently promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Blue, intercepted and attacked a convoy of merchantmen escorted by nine men-of-war under their Commander-in-Chief M. de la Jonquières. Anson distinguished himself by skilfully manoeuvring his forces against the retiring enemy fleet in such a way as to prevent its escape. By the end of the battle, he had captured ten ships, six of which were men-of-war and the rest East Indies merchant vessels. For his part in the battle, Anson was rewarded with a peerage. None of Scott's versions can be regarded as an accurate representation of a particular situation during the course of the action off Cape Finisterre; they should be considered as monuments reconstructed afterwards by the artist from first-hand accounts. A study of Admiral Anson's despatches, dated 11 May 1747 (Adm. 1/87), and of the ships' logs provides a good general account of the progress of the battle, but disparities of timing of events by individual commanders complicate any attempt to relate specific events with the finished painting. Of the fifteen ships in Anson's fleet only eight got into action, the flagship Prince George (90 guns) being just too late herself, against the French fleet of thirty-eight ships, only nine of which were men-of-war. The enemy was first sighted by Captain Gwyn of the Sloop Falcon at 4p.m. the day previous to the battle and the English fleet caught up with the French at 9.30 a.m. on 3 May. Just after 2 p.m. Anson, whose ship appears in the centre foreground wearing the blue flag of Vice-Admiral of the Blue at the fore topmast, signalled his fleet to ‘chace to the S.W.’ and this is probably the meaning of the red, white and blue horizontally striped flag flying from the mizen shrouds and visible below the blue ensign. At 3 p.m. he ordered his fleet to attack without regard for line of battle and hoisted the appropriate red signal flag at the main masthead, which is also shown in the painting.
The artist seems to have chosen the moment when, between 6 and 7 p.m., the French Commodore's ship Invincible (74 guns) under M. Grout de Saint-Georges struck her colours to Anson. The French vessel lies to starboard of the Prince George, her mainmast has just been shattered and her fore topmast has already been shot away. According to the log of Lieut. John Lockhart of the Devonshire (66 guns) the Invincible struck her colours at 5.30 p.m., and the Devonshire, wearing the flag (red cross on white) of Peter Warren, rear-Admiral of the White and Anson's second-in-command, may be seen just beyond the Invincible.

The French flagship Le Sérieux (64 guns), under M. de Jonquières, who struck to Captain Edward Boscawen in the Namur, cannot be identified with certainty, although she may be among the cluster of ships on the extreme right of the painting, or beyond the English ship with a long striped pennant at the main masthead, possibly the Namur, which is discharging a broadside to starboard and whose bow lies at right-angles to the stern of the Invincible. On the left, the English ship in the foreground may be either the Bristol (50 guns) under William Montagu, younger brother of Lord Sandwich, or the Yarmouth (64 guns) under Captain Piercy Brett. If the Bristol in intended, then the ship on her starboard bow would be the Diamant (34 guns, rated at 56) under Hoguart, but Lieut. John Bagster's log records that she was the last French vessel to strike her colours after a chase which took her some miles away from the main battle area. On the other hand, Anson wrote in his despatches: ‘The Yarmouth and Devonshire having got up and engaged the Enemy, and the Prince George being near the Invincible and going to fire onto her, all the ships in the Enemy's Rear Struck their Colours between six and seven o'clock, ...’ and from this description it seems likely that the Yarmouth is intended, whose commander, Captain Brett, was a friend of both Anson and Scott and may have advised the artist on the painting.

Scott's three versions agree in general composition and disposition of the ships (apart from minor differences such as the inclusion in no. 139 of four extra ships on the horizon on the left and of not one but two pieces of floating wreckage in the foreground). The version at Yale is dated 1749; the version in the National Maritime Museum is probably the picture described by Horace Walpole in a letter of 23 March 1749 (see below). That no.139 was the last version, datable to sometime between 1749 and 1750, may be deduced from a correction made in the Commodore's pennant worn by the Invincible. In the National Maritime Museum and Yale versions, a long white pennant is shown at the masthead, but M. le Capitaine de Frégate Vichot, of the Musée de la Marine, Paris, has pointed out that a long white pennant would be worn at the main masthead only by a Commander-in-Chief of the French Navy at this date, i.e., de la Jonquières of the Sérieux. Grout de Saint-Georges of the Invincible was only a Captain at the time of the action and would not, therefore, be allowed to wear a white cornette at the mizen of masthead. M. Vichot thinks it possible that the centre part of the painting shows not the Invincible, but the Sérieux, striking to the Prince George, even although in the Tate version a white cornette (not a long pennant) flies from the mizen instead of the main masthead, its more usual position. In the Tate picture this error has been corrected to show a broad white pennant (cornette) at the mizen masthead, the correct form for a French second-in-command.

Horace Walpole commented in a letter to Horace Mann of 23 March 1749, after seeing (? or hearing about) what was probably the first version at Shugborough:

He [Anson] has lately had a sea-piece drawn of the victory for which he was lorded, in which his own ship in a cloud of cannon was boarding the French admiral. This circumstance, which was as true as if Mademoiselle Scudéry had written his life (for he was scarce in sight when the Frenchman struck to Boscawen) has been so ridiculed by the whole tar-hood, that the romantic part has been forced to be cancelled, and only one gun remains firing at Anson's ship (Walpole's Correspondence IX, p.38)
Walpole, poking fun at Anson (whose projected Navy Bill, 1749, had made him unpopular in some quarters), is himself guilty of inaccuracy in speaking of the Sérieux striking her colours to the Prince George since, as described above, Scott has depicted the Invincible on her starboard side.
Walpole visited Hinchinbrooke on 30 May 1763, and noted (‘Journals’, op.cit.) that ‘a large piece by Scott, of the engagement between Admiral Anson and Jonquieres’ hung ‘in the best eating room’.

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988

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