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A Portrait of Admiral Sir Edward Hughes K.B. after Sir Joshua Reynolds
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A Portrait of Admiral Sir Edward Hughes K.B. after Sir Joshua Reynolds

Measurements: 76cm (30in) x 64cm (25in)

£2400

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Oil on canvas. Half length portrait of Admiral Sir Edward Hughes (1720–1794), in Vice-Admiral's full-dress uniform. Contained in a decorative moulded gilt frame. Overall: 100cm (39.5in) x 87cm (34.5in).

Sir Edward Hughes’s career was defined by the series of closely fought battles with French Admiral Comte Pierre André de Suffren for supremacy over the Indian Ocean in the 1780s.

Hughes, a fan of extremely hot curries, was born at Hertford, the son of an alderman. He entered the navy in 1735 and was present in the capture of Porto Bello in 1739. In 1740 he was commissioned lieutenant of the fireship Cumberland, and in the following year took part in the bombardment of Cartagena.  In 1744 he was part of the British force that suffered a humiliating defeat by the combined Spanish and French fleets off Toulon.  In 1747 he was crossing the Atlantic in H.M.S. Warwick, 60-guns, when she was attacked by the Spanish 74 Glorioso. During the ensuing fight Warwick received scant support from her consort, H.M.S. Lark, 44-guns, with the result that the latter’s captain was dismissed and replaced by Hughes. During the Seven Years’ War he commanded the third rate ship of the line H.M.S. Somerset, 70-guns, at capture of the French fortress of Louisbourg and later landed troops that took part in the capture of Quebec under General Wolfe.

In 1773 he was knighted and appointed commander-in-chief in the East Indies, a post that was said to bring £40,000 a year. Departing  England in March 1779, he re-took Goree on the African coast from the French during his voyage out. In December 1780 he destroyed Hyder Ali’s pirate fleet at Mangalore. Promoted Vice-Admiral in 1780, he joined Major Sir Hector Munro in the capture of Negapatam from the Dutch, in early 1782 and returned to Madras where, receiving three sail-of-the-line as reinforcements, he learned of the arrival in Indian waters of the brilliant Commodore Bailli de Suffren (1729-1788) and twelve French sail of the line. Hughes immediately placed his fleet under the Madras batteries so that when Suffren arrived with a convoy he declined to give battle and sailed away. Hughes set sail after him, and slipping past the French men-of-war in the night he took six prizes out of the convoy. The Battle of Sadras followed in gusty conditions on 17 February 1782 and proved indecisive, although Hughes’s flag-captain was killed in the action.

Returning to Trincomalee, Hughes fought the French again on 12 April at the Battle of Providien. During the engagement his centre became isolated, culminating in the massive loss of fifty-nine men killed and ninety-six wounded aboard his flagship alone. Next day Hughes brought his fleet to anchor and foiled Suffren’s wish to attack, and there followed a confusing episode in which Hughes refused to exchange prisoners with Suffren as he felt that he did not have the authority to do so. The British prisoners were then handed over to Hyder Ali, which could only be regarded as a barbaric gesture by the French commodore.

On 5 July, whilst Hughes was at anchor off Negapatam with eleven sail of the line, Suffren arrived with twelve ships, yet the ensuing action on 6 July in gusty conditions was once more indecisive. During this battle Hughes’ latest flag-captain also lost his life. Receiving intelligence on 20 August that Trincomalee was at danger from the French, Hughes headed for that port only to find that Suffren had preceded him. Fortunately, the Frenchman’s brilliant plan of attack on 3 September was ruined by the mutinous behaviour of his captains, and once again an indecisive action followed between the twelve British and fourteen French sail of the line. In this action, Hughes lost three more of his captains killed.

On 1 November a hurricane swept in overland which forced Hughes to sea from Madras and dismasted the hid flagship, obliging him to transfer to the Sultan, 74-guns. The majority of his fleet managed to reach safety at Bombay where it was joined by reinforcements brought out from England by Commodore Sir Richard Bickerton. Having returned to the Bay of Bengal with eighteen sail of the line Hughes attacked with a numerical superiority when he met Suffren again on 20 June 1783 at the Battle of Cuddalore. The French with fifteen sail of the line won a strategic victory however by successfully defending Cuddalore. By now the articles of peace had already been signed in Europe, and when news reached the Indian Ocean Hughes came home aboard the Sultan 74, Captain Thomas Troubridge in 1785, the Superb having been wrecked off Tellicherry on 7 November 1783.

Rarely had five consecutive battles between the same opponents failed to produce an overall victory, although the general consensus was that Hughes had done well and that Suffren had under-achieved. The mere fact that on his flagship alone over the five battles Hughes had lost eighty-one men killed and one hundred and ninety-two wounded bore testimony to his determination and the intensity of the struggle. Hughes did not see any further service but on 1 February 1793 was promoted admiral. He died at his seat at Luxborough, Essex on 17 February 1794. He married the mother of Captain Henry Ball who died in 1792, but being childless his immense fortune, estimated at approximately £40,000 a year as commander-in-chief in the East Indies, devolved upon his wife’s grandson and Captain Ball’s nephew, who subsequently became a famous socialite and dilettante revelling in the sobriquet of ‘Golden Ball’.

Exceedingly benevolent, Hughes handed out a fortune to worthy causes in the years following his return from the East Indies. Hughes was a brave, diligent, steady, dogged, honourable officer, who adhered rigidly and determinedly to the fighting instructions. He was known to his men as ‘Old Hot and Hot’ for his favouring of very hot food, and he obviously enjoyed a great deal of it for his figure could only be described as rotund.

 

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