1792 - 1802  (G3b)


xxxxxAs we have seen, in May 1798 Napoleon took his army to Egypt, defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of the Pyramids, and then invaded Syria. Meanwhile, in August 1798, after months of searching, the British admiral Horatio Nelson discovered the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay, near Alexandria. He sent a line of ships either side of the French force and, save for two vessels, destroyed the entire fleet. This victory, one of the most decisive in naval history, not only put an abrupt end to French plans of conquest in the Middle East, but also left Napoleon’s army stranded in Egypt. Napoleon managed to escape to France, but his army was forced to surrender to the British two years later.


Horatio Nelson,

Lady Hamilton

and George Romney

xxxxxAs we have seen, in May 1798 Napoleon, bent on attacking Britain’s overland route to India, slipped past the British blockade around the port of Toulon, and took his army to Egypt. Here he won a decisive battle against the Egyptians - the so-called Battle of the Pyramids - and went on to make an unsuccessful invasion of Syria.

Click Map to Enlarge

xxxxxIn the meantime, however, the British Admiral Horatio Nelson was despatched to the Mediterranean to find out what the French were up to. After months of searching, on the first day of August 1798 he discovered their fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay, some 15 miles from the port of Alexandria. It was made up of 13 war ships, 4 frigates and a large number of troop transports. Wasting no time, he split his squadron in half, sending seven ships between the French force and the shoreline - a hazardous operation in such shallow waters - and the other seven to confront the enemy on the seaward side. When the night attack began, the French fleet was caught between two lines of withering fire and, apart from two frigates and two ships of the line, was totally destroyed. The highlight of the fighting (literally) was the blowing up of the 120-gun flagship L’Orient, the pride of the French navy (illustrated). Such was the ferocity of the explosion, that it lit up the battle scene for over ten minutes, and brought a temporary halt to the carnage. The British suffered 900 casualties, the French more than tenfold.

xxxxxNelson’s resounding victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay, (sometimes referred to as the Battle of the Nile), put an end to French plans of conquest in the Middle East. As we shall see, Napoleon himself managed to escape back to France, and to seize command of his country the following year, but his army was left stranded in Egypt, and was obliged to surrender to the British two years later.

xxxxxIncidentally, when the French flagship L’Orient blew up it killed the captain’s son. He had been ordered not to abandon his post, and this is the origin of the poem The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled (1826), by the English poet Felicia Hemans (1793-1835). A friend of Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth, her simple verses were very popular in her day.


Battle Plan (Aboukir Bay): PJG, source unknown. L’Orient: by the English painter George Arnald (1763-1841), 1827 – National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Lord Nelson: by the English portrait painter Lemuel Francis Abbott (c1760-1802), 1799 – National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Battle of Cape St. Vincent by the Scottish artist Sir William Allan (1782-1850), c1850 - National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Romney: Emma Hamilton – Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, CA; Lady Hamilton in straw hat – National Portrait Gallery, London; The Gower family – Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria; Sir William Hamilton – National Portrait Gallery, London; Shepherd Girl – Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Self-Portrait (detail) – National Portrait Gallery, London; John Wesley – National Portrait Gallery, London; Miss Willoughby – National Gallery of Art, Washington.


xxxxxThe beautiful Lady Hamilton (c1761-1815) was born into a poor family. However, at the age of 16 she became mistress to Charles Greville, a member of parliament, and then to his uncle Sir William Hamilton, then ambassador to the court of Naples. She became popular and influential both at court and in social circles, and married Hamilton in 1791. She first met Horatio Nelson in 1793, and became his mistress on his return from Egypt in 1798. On becoming pregnant by him, she returned with him to England in 1800 and gave birth to a daughter, Horatia, the following year. The death of her husband in 1803, and that of Nelson in 1805, made her a wealthy woman, but she squandered her money away by extravagant living and a liking for gambling and, moving to Calais, died in poverty in 1815.

xxxxxAn accomplished artist who became infatuated with Lady Hamilton was the English portrait painter George Romney (1734-1802). Having met her in the early 1780s - when she then called herself Emma Hart - he was totally captivated by her beauty. During his lifetime he painted his “divine Emma” some fifty times, almost all of them from memory, and often in the guise of various historical or mythological figures. The two portraits above are by him.

xxxxxRomney was born in Dalton-in-Furness, then in Leicestershire, and from the age of 21 studied art at nearby Kendal. He moved to London in 1762 and, apart from a two-year tour of Europe, he remained in the capital for close on the remainder of his life. After a slow start, he soon gained a reputation as a talented portraitist among the city’s high society, and commissions flooded in. Among his works of note were The Death of General Wolfe, which won him an award from the Society of Arts, the portraits of the poet William Cowper, and the churchmen John Wesley and William Paley, and a number of charming studies, such the Gower Family (illustrated here), considered by many to be his masterpiece.

xxxxxIllustrated below are (left to right) a portrait of Sir William Hamilton, The Shepherd Girl, Self-Portrait , John Wesley, and Miss Willoughby.

xxxxxThe victory at Aboukir Bay made Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) a national hero. Born at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk in 1758, he joined the navy in 1770, and spent his early years gaining a wide knowledge of seamanship. He became a captain in 1779, and then served for a number of years in the West Indies, enforcing the Navigation Acts against American shipping. He married Frances Nisbet in 1787, but on his return to England he was without an appointment for five years. The outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars took him back to sea, where he soon gained a reputation as a naval tactician and a leader of men. He assisted in the capture of the French port of Toulon, and later took part in the occupation of Corsica. It was in this campaign that his right eye was severely damaged. In 1797 he showed exceptional skill and daring at the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent and, as a result, was knighted and made a rear admiral. Later that year he led an assault on the Spanish possession of Tenerife, and it was here that he lost his right arm. The Battle of Aboukir Bay took place the following year (described above), and after this he was stationed at Naples for two years. While there he continued his close friendship with Lady Emma Hamilton, whom he had first met in 1793. The wife of the British ambassador at Naples, she now became his mistress and, on becoming pregnant, returned with him to England in 1800. The following year, after the birth of his daughter Horatia and a separation from his wife, he left for the Baltic where, as we shall see, he was to play yet another key role, this time in the Battle of Copenhagen in April 1801.

xxxxxIn Britain, the Battle of Aboukir Bay, one of the most decisive victories in the history of naval warfare, added still further to the reputation of Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), and made him a national hero. He was born at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, where his father was the village rector. The sixth of eleven children, he joined the navy in 1770. During his early years at sea he gained a wide range of experience in seamanship - sailing in the Thames estuary, serving on a merchant vessel to the West Indies, and taking part in a hazardous and unsuccessful scientific expedition to the Arctic. He attained the rank of captain in 1779, and a year later took part in his first naval battle while serving in the West Indies. It was here in 1784 that he commanded the frigate Boreas and, stationed at Antigua, was made responsible for enforcing the Navigation Acts against American shipping. He carried out his task so well that he made a number of enemies, not only among the local merchants and ship owners, but also among the resident British administrators. In 1785 he met Frances Nisbet during a visit to Nevis and they were married on the island two years later. On their return to Burnham Thorpe that year, however, he was without an appointment for five years, and had to manage on half pay.

xxxxxIt was the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars that brought him back to sea, and gave him the opportunity to excel both as an astute naval tactician and a successful leader of men. In 1793 he was given command of the 64-gun Agamemnon, and assisted in the occupation of the city of Toulon - later recaptured by the young Napoleon Bonaparte. Then the following year he took part in the capture of Corsica, and it was here, whilst ashore at Calvi, that a French shot, striking close to him, threw stones and gravel into his face and severely damaged his right eye.

xxxxxAs we have seen, his reputation was further enhanced in 1797 when, having been made a commodore, he played a major part in defeating the Spanish at Cape Saint Vincent, off the coast of Portugal (illustrated). Seeing two of Spain’s most powerful ships, the 84-gun San Nicolas and the 112-gun San Josef, turning to attack the British fleet in the rear, he used his own initiative and, leaving his battle station, took on both of them. In the ensuing engagement he boarded and captured the San Nicholas and then, using her decks, boarded and captured the San Josef which lay damaged alongside. For this action - a typical example of the “Nelson Touch” - he earned a knighthood. Had his venture failed it could have been a very different story! Later in the year, however, he was wounded during a somewhat foolhardy and unsuccessful attack upon the Spanish port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands. A grapeshot shattered his right elbow and his arm had to be amputated.

xxxxxAfter his outstanding victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay in August 1798 (described above) Nelson spent the next two years on active service in the Mediterranean. For much of this time he was stationed at Naples in southern Italy. Here he became involved in the city’s politics, helping to restore the Neapolitan royal family after it had been driven out by French troops and local supporters of the French Revolution.

xxxxxFor his services to the kingdom of Naples he was created the duke of the Sicilian province of Bronte in 1800, but his acceptance of this title did not please the Admiralty, and, furthermore, there was strong evidence to suggest that, following the restoration of the king, he was implicated in a massacre of those who had supported the Republic and had been promised their freedom if they surrendered.

xxxxxAnd it was while in Naples that he was able to continue his celebrated love affair with Emma Hamilton (illustrated), wife of the British ambassador there. He had first met her in 1793 when conveying troops from Naples to Toulon - then occupied by the British. In 1798 she helped him to obtain supplies for his expedition to Egypt and, on his return, she became his mistress. In 1800 he returned home, travelling overland with Emma (pregnant with his child) and her husband, Sir William Hamilton. This bizarre ménage à trois raised more than a few eyebrows, but nonetheless he was given a hero’s welcome on his arrival in England and wherever he went. His stay, however, proved a short one. As we shall see, in 1801, soon after a separation from his wife and the birth of his daughter Horatia, he joined an expedition to the Baltic to take on the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen. Once again, he was to play a major part in a British victory.

xxxxxIncidentally, during his return home in 1800, an overland journey which took four months, Nelson visited Prague and met and befriended the Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn. ……

xxxxx…… Thexfamous portrait of Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, illustrated above, was the work of the English artist Lemuel Francis Abbott (c1760-1802), painted in 1800. The son of a clergyman, he was born in Thornton, Leicestershire, and showed artistic talent at an early age. He studied art in London and may well have spent some time working with the painter Joseph Wright of Derby. Apart from Nelson, he produced portraits of many of the leading figures of the day, including the colonial administrator Warren Hastings, the engineer Matthew Boulton, the astronomer William Herschel, and the poet William Cowper. Abbott’s career was cut short around the age of 40 however, when, due to overwork and domestic problems, he became mentally unstable. He was treated by Dr Thomas Munroe, the physician to King George III - also suffering from bouts of insanity at this time -, but he showed little signs of improvement, and died two years later.

xxxxxA rival to Joshua Reynolds as the most fashionable artist of the day, his portraits were noted for their charm and delicacy, and were much in the style of his fellow countryman Thomas Gainsborough. However, he found work hard to come by in the 1790s, and left London at the end of the century to live the last two years of his life at Kendal in the Lake District.

xxxxxNelson’s beautiful mistress, Lady Hamilton (c1761-1815), née Amy Lyon, was born of humble parents in Great Neston, in Cheshire, England. Shexbecame mistress to Charles Greville, a member of parliament, around the age of 16, and in his care she studied singing, dancing and acting. In 1784, in return for paying off his debts, he sent her to be mistress to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, ambassador to the court of Naples. Here she became a popular and influential member of Neapolitan society, and a close friend of Queen Maria Carolina, sister of Marie Antoinette. In 1791, during a visit to England, she and William Hamilton were married.

xxxxxShe first met Horatio Nelson in 1793, when he visited Naples to convey troops to the captured city of Toulon, but it was not until his return from Egypt in 1798 that they became lovers. They returned to England in 1800, and their daughter, Horatia, was born the following year. After the death of her husband in 1803 she went to live with Nelson at his estate in Merton, Surrey. His death in 1805 brought her an additional annuity, together with his property, but she quickly frittered away her wealth by her extravagant life style and her liking for gambling. In 1813 she was imprisoned for debt and, on her release, settled at Calais, where she died in poverty in 1815.

xxxxxAn accomplished portrait artist who became infatuated with Lady Hamilton was the English painter George Romney (1734-1802). After meeting her in the early 1780s, he became totally captivated by her beauty, and painted his “divine Emma” some fifty times. He worked in London for much of his life - save for a two-year tour of Europe - and the charm and delicacy of his portraits - much in the style of his fellow countryman Thomas Gainsborough - proved popular among the members of the capital’s high society and established him as a rival to the most fashionable artist of the day, Joshua Reynolds. Among his works were portraits of the poet William Cowper and the churchmen John Wesley and William Paley, and a large number of charming studies, including The Seamstress, The Shepherd Girl, and his masterpiece The Gower Family.