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A merchant captain turned marine painter, Nicholas Pocock captured the ferocity of the British-French fight on the “Glorious First of June.”

On June 1, 1794, British artist Nicholas Pocock witnessed the first important naval battle of the French Revolutionary Wars from the deck of the frigate HMS Pegasus. Surrounded by broadsides and gun smoke from dueling ships, he kept a detailed log of the action and made quick sketches of the scene before him, creating a unique record of the battle the British soon called the Glorious First of June.

Born in 1740, Pocock was raised a few yards from Bristol harbor, then Britain’s second busiest port. At 17 he apprenticed as a mariner and by 26 was captain of his first merchantman. He continued to work as a merchant sea captain for the next decade and during his voyages taught himself to paint.

Many 18th-century ships’ officers could sketch well enough to draw a coastline for navigational purposes or record details of enemy harbors and fortifications. But Pocock’s artistic skills went far beyond that. He filled his logbooks with small drawings, using a technique that combined inked lines with a wash of diluted watercolor. In addition to the usual notations on location and sailing conditions, each page contained one or two portraits of his ship in action.

Despite Pocock’s success as a sea captain, he “sometimes talked of giving up the sea,” according to one acquaintance. He was not yet 40 when he acted on that impulse. Sometime between 1776 and 1778, as Britain’s shipping to its former American colonies suffered a natural decline owing to the Revolutionary War, Pocock left the merchant marine to become a professional artist.

Though Pocock was no longer a career seafarer, he did not abandon the world of ships and sailing. Marine art was a recognized genre in 18th-century Britain, combining aspects of battle painting, landscape, and portraiture. Naval officers commissioned paintings recording their victories, and ship owners wanted portraits of their vessels. Both were more interested in how accurately an artist portrayed a ship than in his command of figure painting or color theory.

Pocock was unusually well qualified to please such clients. In his logbook studies, he had drawn ships from every angle and under every combination of wind and sail. His grasp of naval technicalities equaled that of his patrons. Unlike many of his artistic contemporaries, when forced to choose between the dramatic and the accurate, Pocock always chose the accurate, taking pains to verify weather, wind direction, the exact position of the ships, and which flags they flew. By 1793, when the new French Republic declared war on Great Britain, Pocock was Britain’s preeminent marine painter.

The first major naval battle of the French Revolutionary Wars occurred because the French needed American grain.

In late April 1794 Admiral Lord Howe, commander of the British Channel fleet, received intelligence that a convoy of grain ships was headed for France from the United States, escorted by a French naval squadron. A second squadron cruised 300 miles off the French coast, ready to reinforce the escort as it neared the Channel. The bulk of the French fleet, commanded by Rear Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret – Joyeuse, remained at Brest.

Instead of blockading the French fleet at Brest, Howe searched for the convoy in the open sea beyond the southwest end of the Channel. On May 19, having failed to locate the convoy, he sailed back to Brest and found that Villaret had left three days earlier. Knowing that the French fleet and the inbound grain ships were somewhere in the Atlantic headed toward Brest, Howe sailed west again.

After searching the Atlantic for a week, he caught sight of Villaret’s fleet on May 28. The French held the upwind position, which meant Villaret could choose whether to engage Howe in battle or run. Having been warned he would face the guillotine if the convoy did not reach France, Villaret decided to play tag with the British. For three days, the French fleet repeatedly engaged Howe’s forces and then withdrew, exposing itself to attack in order to occupy the British and keep them away from the convoy.

By June 1 the two fleets lay within sight of each other, some 400 nautical miles west of the island of Ushant, near Brest. Rather than fight the conventional two-line formation, Howe signaled that each vessel in the fleet should engage the ship opposite it in the enemy line and force the French into ship-to-ship duels. The battle lasted four hours, and at its end both sides claimed victory. The British captured six ships, sank the warship Vengeur du Peuple, and scattered the French fleet but incurred too much damage to pursue Villaret or search for the grain ships. The French had successfully protected their grain convoy, which reached Brest on June 12, but they also lost enough ships to delay their invasion plans for Britain indefinitely.

Nicholas Pocock had been on board the Pegasus when Howe’s fleet sailed out of Portsmouth May 2, but why he was remains a mystery. Whatever the reason, he was in a perfect position to observe the action as Howe’s pursuit of the French fleet developed into a full-scale naval battle.

Over the days of fighting, Pocock kept a detailed log of each day’s engagements, including annotated battle plans drawn from a bird’s-eye perspective. He also created graphite and watercolor sketches of the battle and its aftermath. Drawn from a quarterdeck perspective rather than the aerial view he used in the battle plans, these sketches combine hasty brushwork with careful observation of detail, producing a sense of immediacy rare in paintings of naval battles.

Pocock used his log and sketches of the battle as source material for several oil paintings. The most powerful of these is The “Defence” at the Battle of the First of June, considered one of the most realistic depictions of a sea battle ever created. The painting is believed to have been commissioned by the Defence’s commander, Captain (later Admiral) James Gambier.

The Defence stands broadside in the center of the canvas, partially obscured by the smoke of its own guns. Its masts are gone, and its decks and sides are littered with broken spars and trailing rigging. Still the Defence continues to fire at the French Achille, seen on the right of the canvas. On the left a second French vessel bears down across the stern of the Defence. The French ships, too, bear the scars of war, their sails riddled by shot. Wreckage floats in the foreground, testament to widespread damage to the fleets. Dense smoke shrouds the canvas, allowing only glimpses of ships in the background—a fact of naval warfare seldom portrayed with such realism. In his portrait of the Defence on the offensive, Pocock captured not only the glory of the First of June but the travail that made that glory possible.


Pamela D. Toler has a doctorate in history and a longstanding interest in art as a historical source. She blogs at

Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.