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A Nile Campaign Watercolour of Aboukir Castle 1798
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A Nile Campaign Watercolour of Aboukir Castle 1798

Measurements: Overall: 40.5cm (16in) x 51.5cm (20.25in)

£1850

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Watercolour on paper.  Inscribed 'Egypt - Castle of Aboukir bearing S'6'W 5 miles - August 12th 1798', Signed and dated. Image: 21cm x 31.5cm. Framed and glazed.

The present watercolour was painted by Cooper Williams, an eyewitness on 1 August 1798 to the Battle of the Nile, where he was the chaplain of H.M.S. Swiftsure, 74-guns, and as such was able to observe the action from the precarious post of Captain Benjamin Hallowell’s quarterdeck. The present scene shows the view of Aboukir Bay having been cleared of corpses and wreckage, but still with Bonaparte’s troops in possession of the castle. Willyams’s watercolour has a rare sense of immediacy and confirms his reputation as a skilful and clever artist, whose drawings were both ‘intelligent and useful’. During the battle itself, Swiftsure suffered twenty-nine casualties and was significantly damaged. She played a leading role in the destruction of L’Orient and the capture of Franklin. Willyams’s narrative A Voyage up the Mediterranean in the Swiftsure, illustrated by engravings from his own drawings, was praised as ‘the first, the most particular, and the most authentic account of the battle’.

Cooper Willyams (1762-1816) was educated at King's, Canterbury, and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In 1784  he visited France and was ordained to a curacy near Gloucester. He was appointed in 1788 to the vicarage of Exning, near Newmarket, and in 1793 to the rectory of West Lynn, Norfolk. His illustrated account of Exning appeared in ‘The Topographer’ of September 1790 and in 1792 he published his first book, A History of Sudeley Castle, dedicated to a school friend Sir W. Brydges, who aspired (vainly) to inherit the property.

In 1793 after the outbreak of war with Revolutionary France, Willyams pursued his vocation at  sea, and sailed as Chaplain of H. M.S. Boyne (88 guns), the recently-built flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis, who was commanding a naval expedition to the West Indies. In the spring of 1794, a series of effective amphibious operations mounted by Vice-Admiral Jervis and Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Grey conquered some of the richest islands in the French West Indies, including Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Lucia, despite a heavy death-toll from yellow fever. Cooper Willyams contracted yellow fever, survived it, and during the last part of the campaign, he was the only Chaplain left in the expedition. Guadeloupe surrendered on in April 1794, and Willyams was appointed Chaplain to the forces occupying the island.

The British garrisons of the captured islands were weakened by continual outbreaks of disease and by slave revolts incited by French revolutionary agents, who declared all slaves to be free. Many of the islands, including ones that had been British, were lost to the French, while Jervis and Grey, accused of corruption, resigned in disgust and returned to England in the Boyne. In 1796 Cooper Willyams published An Account of the Campaign in the West Indies in 1794, including his own illustrations.

In 1797 Willyams was appointed Domestic Chaplain to Admiral Sir John Jervis, now Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and ennobled as Earl St. Vincent. The role of  domestic chaplain was effectively a spiritual Aide de Camp. The post brought Willyams the substantial financial advantage of being able to purchase a license to hold two benefices simultaneously, while residing in neither. From mid-1797 Jervis’s flagship was H.M.S. Ville de Paris (110 guns) and with twenty-one ships of the line, the Commander-in-Chief focused on maintaining a close blockade of the main Spanish fleet at Cadiz. Cooper Willyams, like most naval officers, found the tedium of the blockade hard to bear. The following year, with St. Vincent’s approval, he took up an opportunity to join the detached squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson.

On 24 May 1798, Willyams became Chaplain of the Swiftsure (74 guns), serving under the American-born Post Captain Benjamin Hallowell. Willyams was present during Nelson’s search for the French fleet that had sailed from Toulon, culminating in the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798. Willyams wrote a detailed eyewitness account of the battle, as he was able to watch much of it from Hallowell’s quarterdeck. Swiftsure was one of the last ships in the British line of battle as it entered Aboukir bay. Fighting was already raging as Captain Hallowell made strenuous efforts to engage the French warships. Warned away from the Aboukir shoals by the grounded Culloden, Hallowell directed Swiftsure’s Master to by-pass the melee at the head of the French and British lines and aim directly at the French centre, where the largest, most powerful enemy ships were stationed.

Shortly after 20:00, a dismasted hulk drifted in front of Swiftsure. When hailed, she identified herself as ‘Bellerophon, going out of action disabled.' Relieved that he had not accidentally attacked one of his own ships in the darkness, Captain Hallowell stopped Swiftsure when she was between two much bigger enemy ships, L’Orient (120 guns) and Franklin (80 guns). He opened fire on them both. At 21:00, flames were observed on a lower deck of L’Orient. Captain Hallowell ordered his gun crews to aim directly at the blaze. Sustained bombardment spread the fire and neutralised all efforts to extinguish it. Soon the flames ascended the rigging and set the vast sails alight. The nearest British ships, Swiftsure, Alexander and Orion, all stopped firing, closed their gun-ports and began edging away from the blazing ship, anticipating that it would blow up once the fire reached a gunpowder magazine. Men were taken from the British gun crews to form firefighting parties and soak the sails and decks with sea-water.

At 22:00 L’Orient, still, as Willyams noted, “within half pistol shot” (about 15-20 metres) of Swiftsure, was almost completely destroyed by two massive explosions. The blast was heard ten miles away in Rosetta. The concussion opened the seams of the nearest ships and flaming wreckage landed in a huge circle, much of it flying directly over the surrounding ships into the sea beyond. Swiftsure, Alexander and Franklin were all set alight by falling wreckage, although in each case their crews succeeded in extinguishing the flames. At 22:10, Franklin resumed firing on Swiftsure. Isolated and battered, it was soon dismasted and forced to strike by the combined firepower of Swiftsure and Defence. More than half of Franklin's crew had been killed or wounded. By midnight only Tonnant (80 guns) remained engaged, firing on Majestic and on Swiftsure when the British ship moved within range. By 03:00, after more than three hours of close quarter combat, Tonnant was a dismasted hulk which drifted away to the south.

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