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Artists on War: If at First You Do Succeed

By Peter Harrington
11/17/2017 • MHQ Magazine

John Trumbull painted three versions of The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar. He always considered the first effort his best.

THE AMERICAN Revolution culminated in failure for the British. But even as it was unfolding, Britain was claiming an unlikely victory on the other side of the world as it defended Gibraltar against the Spanish, who were allied with the French and the Americans. The fortress, situated on its famous rock, was besieged from June 21, 1779, until February 6, 1783, when the Spanish lifted their siege, defeated.

The siege captured the imagination of the public thanks to articles, maps, and plans published in the British press. It was fodder for popular entertainment, as plays and musical farces showcased the contest. People even placed bets on whether or when the fort would fall.

Several painters created significant works depicting the military events surrounding the siege, including John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull, George Carter, and Joseph Wright. Copley’s huge 18-by-25-foot painting The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782 was the result of a prizewinning commission from the Corporation of London to depict the siege. Fellow American Benjamin West also entered the competition but lost.

Trumbull, the third American painter who tackled the subject, had been imprisoned in 1780 in London—where he was studying art under West—for serving as an officer in the rebel army. He returned to England after the Revolution to further his career as a portrait and history painter. With the encouragement of West and clearly aware of the need to please his British audience and benefactors, he embarked on a project in 1786 to create a grand history painting celebrating a recent British military success. Having just completed his painting of Bunker Hill in West’s London studio, Trumbull was familiar with rendering a battle scene in the epic style of the period. It has been suggested that West’s encouragement may have been the result of jealous manipulation, intended in part to undermine Copley’s painting of the siege. Whatever the truth behind his choice of subject, the project would occupy Trumbull for nearly four years.

Other painters of the siege used the destruction of the Spanish floating batteries in 1782 as their historical backdrop. But Trumbull chose to paint the British sortie on the night of November 26–27, 1781, when the fortress’s British garrison—in a bold surprise—destroyed the Spanish batteries at La Línea and spiked the guns. One of the casualties was Don José de Barboza, a young Spanish officer who, having been deserted by his men, charged at the attackers but fell mortally wounded at the feet of British general George Eliott and his staff. Barboza declined to be evacuated, declaring that he preferred to die at his post, and he did.

This event had been described to Trumbull by the Italian artist Antonio di Poggi, who had visited Gibraltar three years earlier to make sketches for a portrait of Eliott, whom the British considered a national hero. Poggi also lent Trumbull his sketch of the sortie, engraved in 1792: an aerial perspective of the action with a foreground vignette of the Spaniard being carried to a gesturing Eliott by three British soldiers, the scene illuminated by a torch held by another soldier. Moved by Poggi’s account, Trumbull noted he “was pleased with the subject, as offering, in the gallant conduct and death of the Spanish commander, a scene of deep interest to the feelings, and in contrast of the darkness of the night, with the illumination of an extensive conflagration, great splendor of effect and color.”

Trumbull clearly made use of other pictures of Gibraltar and may even have seen Copley’s painting in the artist’s studio. He was also mindful of contemporary military paintings such as Copley’s The Death of Major Peirson, which had appeared to the public in 1784, and he had consulted John Drinkwater’s history of the campaign, published in 1786. Trumbull made his first draft of the composition in an ink sketch dated May 23, 1786. The finished work varied little from this sketch, which was based on two intersecting diagonal lines, with Barboza placed at their junction in the center of the painting.

The composition of The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar conveys “the Heroism of the vanquished, the Humanity of the victors,” as Trumbull described it, by placing the dying Spaniard at the feet of Eliott and Captain Alexander Mackenzie, who both gesture toward the young man with offers of help, although the officers behind Eliott look upon the scene with disdain. In the most famous composition, Barboza, head down, waves off their compassionate advances in a pose inspired by the Hellenistic statue of the Dying Gaul. Just behind Mackenzie and Barboza, a British soldier helps another dying Spaniard. To the left of the scene, soldiers with pickaxes and crowbars demolish the breastworks, while distant figures stand on the fortifications from which a Spanish flag flies.

The viewer is drawn into the distance by the contrasting light and dark hues created by fires and swirling clouds. When first painted in 1787, Barboza was depicted wearing a white and scarlet uniform coat, but upon learning that the Spanish soldier actually wore the blue coat of the artillery, Trumbull supposedly presented the painting to Benjamin West and began a second version. It is doubtful, however, the artist would have started anew simply because of that mistake, which it now appears he corrected on the first version. It’s more likely that he considered the picture, at 15 by 22 inches, too small for an epic history painting. For his second effort, Trumbull changed the position of the dying Spaniard, turning his head away from the group, and used portraits of the British officers taken from life.

Despite these changes, he was still not satisfied and painted a third version of Sortie, measuring 70 by 106 inches. It was exhibited at Answell’s Auction House in London between April and July 1789 with Poggi’s original sketch. Once again, Barboza’s position had been revised, but this did not improve the composition, which lacked the vigor of the first painting, the figures seemingly more wooden and artificial. Nonetheless, the public lavished praise upon it: The Times asserted on May 2 that it was one of the finest paintings relating to Gibraltar.

Later, Trumbull and Poggi agreed to have the renowned William Sharp engrave the picture. The work appeared in 1799, 17 years after the event. Possibly because of the long time between the battle and the publication of the engraving, only 239 people subscribed to receive copies— although now it is featured on the reverse of Gibraltar’s £10 banknote. (Coincidentally, an engraving of one of Trumbull’s best-known American compositions, The Declaration of Independence, is on the back of the U.S. $2 bill.)

Of his trio of paintings on the siege, Trumbull in a personal retrospective written in 1818 seemed to regard the first canvas as perhaps the best after all. He noted that West had hung the piece “in a room where it has scarcely ever been seen since. When known, it will find its just level.” While he was justifiably pleased with the Gibraltar project and the reputation it earned him as a history painter, he continued to sketch ideas for paintings of the American Revolution. In fact, some of his studies for the painting depicting the death of Brigadier General Hugh Mercer at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, were made in West’s studio while he was working on the Gibraltar pieces. Ironically, he focused on the American Revolution throughout the late 1780s and 1790s, while painting in a London that had moved on from the loss of its American colonies and was now preoccupied with developing events in France.

 

Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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