Painting the Battle of Gibraltar, John Singleton Copley was caught between his own desires and his subjects’.
The fall of 1783 marked a low point for the British Empire. For two years its military had suffered defeat after humiliating defeat, with extensive territorial losses in every corner of the empire. The East India Company had been forced to return control of large areas of the subcontinent to the Maratha Confederacy; France had taken over many of the West Indian sugar islands; and the surrender of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis’s forces at Yorktown had signaled the loss of the North American colonies. As far as the British public was concerned, recent history held only one bright spot: the successful defense of the Rock of Gibraltar in the face of a Spanish siege. Ironically, an American artist, John Singleton Copley, was chosen to celebrate the victory in a painting that would create its own battle between artistry and ego.
Spain had controlled Gibraltar until the early 1700s, when it lost the strategic rock to Britain. When war between America and Britain erupted, Spain saw an opportunity to weaken its old enemy and take Gibraltar back.
The siege of Gibraltar began in 1779, shortly after Spain joined France in an alliance against Britain. For three years, their combined forces blockaded the British garrison on Gibraltar by land and sea. The Royal Navy managed to run relief operations through enemy lines on three occasions, but it could not break the blockade.
Then, at about 9:30 a.m. on September 13, 1782, ten Spanish floating batteries anchored offshore. New weapons in Spain’s arsenal, the batteries were designed to move in close and fire with unprecedented accuracy. They began a heavy artillery bombardment of the Gibraltar fortress, and the British, commanded by Genera l George Augustus Eliott, responded with a stream of red-hot shot. Around one in the morning, after long hours of battle, the first Spanish battery burst into flame, lighting the harbor like a giant torch. At least two other batteries caught fire and exploded, and the Spanish began scuttling the rest. At some point in the conflagration, two British gunboats under the command of Sir Roger Curtis set out from the fortress on a mercy mission and managed to rescue more than 300 Spanish sailors.
The defeat of the floating batteries, along with a subsequent gale that dispersed the remaining French and Spanish ships, effectively broke the siege. A month later, a Royal Navy relief fleet under Admiral Richard Howe arrived at Gibraltar.
The British people hailed the battle as a great victory. The defense of the fortress against an attack from Spain and France, Britain’s historic enemies, and the personal heroism shown by Curtis and his men restored public faith in British military and imperial power. The City of London traditionally recognized such victories with a vote of thanks to the commanders involved, sometimes reinforcing their gratitude with a monetary award or an honorary sword. In the case of Gibraltar, though, the city decided to celebrate the victory on a larger scale. In March 1783 it commissioned John Singleton Copley to paint a work commemorating both Eliott’s repulse of the floating batteries and Howe’s relief of the fortress.
Despite the fact that Copley was an American and Gibraltar was in some ways the final battle in Britain’s war with America and her European allies, Copley was an obvious choice for the task. Together with fellow American colonial artist Benjamin West, he had initiated a revolution in the genre known as history painting. For most of the 18th century history painting in Britain had stood at the top of a hierarchy of artistic genres; it was used to portray such moral truths as courage, self-sacrifice, and patriotism. In order to emphasize the timeless nature of these truths, history painters depicted classical or biblical scenes.
In 1770 Benjamin West had begun pushing the genre in a new direction, abandoning the accepted standards and painting contemporary subjects in the grand manner. Copley had taken West’s innovation a step further. He had made his reputation as a portrait painter in Boston before settling in Britain in 1775, and once there, he began combining the grand manner of history painting with the conventions of portraiture. Using this approach, Copley completed a final sketch of the Gibraltar painting in 1786. He was prepared to begin the painting when he met with unexpected opposition.
Copley’s original plan for the work had focused on what he described as the “sublime and terrible” aspects of the battle: Spanish ships on fire, drowning sailors, and British soldiers heroically risking their lives to rescue Spanish seamen. The composition placed the viewer in the harbor, looking across the carnage toward Gibraltar. Concentrating on the dramatic action, Copley relegated General Eliott and his officers to a bastion in the background. Admiral Howe’s relief expedition also appeared in the background as a small fleet sailing toward the harbor.
When the officers who had taken part in the action saw the sketch, they objected: It did not meet the city’s intention of honoring “the officers of his majesty’s Army and Navy, employed in the glorious defence and relief of Gibraltar.” In short, they wanted a more prominent depiction of themselves in the composition, preferably in the form of a group portrait similar to ones Copley had included in previous history paintings. Without much argument, Copley agreed to revise his sketch, perhaps hoping to sell individual portraits to those depicted—something he had done with past paintings. But he did not abandon his original conception entirely. Instead, he compressed the initial design into the left half of the painting and moved the group of officers into the right foreground, where they overlook the harbor from the south bastion of the fortress.
Despite the painting’s monumental size (18 feet high by 25 feet wide), the change left no room for even a small representation of Admiral Howe’s feet. Since the intent of the commission was to honor Howe as well as the land forces, another artist, Dominic Serres, was commissioned to produce a long, low scene of Howe’s relief of Gibraltar to hang below Copley’s larger work.
The final Copley painting is divided along a sharp diagonal line. The left side of the canvas is a tangle of action, focused on Sir Roger Curtis’s dramatic rescue of Spanish sailors from their exploding ships. The group of officers on the right half of the canvas is almost static by comparison. Seated astride a white horse in a traditional pose of command, General Eliott is the focal point of the painting. To his left, British officers cluster behind a cannon in a pyramidal grouping that contrasts with the chaotic action in the harbor. Copley links the two sections of the painting through careful composition. Eliott’s commanding gesture guides the viewer’s eye to the point where Curtis balances on the gunwale of his boat, directing the rescue. In turn, Curtis’s gesture toward the foundering Spanish longboat echoes that of Eliott. The red-coated mass of British officers on the right balances the orange flames of the burning Spanish ships to the left. The focused gaze of the British officers moves the viewer’s eye once more to the rescue operation below. In Copley’s hands, Eliott’s contemplative command and Curtis’s swashbuckling rescue are two halves of a heroic whole.
Pamela D. Toler, author of Mankind: The Story of All of Us, frequently contributes to MHQ’s Artists department.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.