The People of Gibraltar
1791 - The Floating Batteries - John Singleton Copley

The loss of the American colonies was a disaster for the British. It called into question the country's image of itself as a military and imperial power. The successful defence by the British Garrison at Gibraltar under General Augustus Eliott against Spanish and French forces was the perfect antidote 

Shortly after the victory the principle decision-making body of the City of London - the Court of Common Council - set up a committee to suggest an effective way to commemorate the event. They decided that a large picture by a well known artist might do the trick. The American artist John Singleton Copley and the Anglo-American Benjamin West were approached but the honour went to the former. He undercut his rival by offering to do the job for a mere 1000 guineas. 


John Singleton Copley ( 1769 - Self-portrait )

Almost immediately Copley began to work assiduously and obsessively on his painting. He had decided his painting would show the dramatic effects of the defeat of the 'floating batteries' - an event that was almost universally considered to be the defining moment of the Great Siege. 

As early as 1786 and according to the Morning Post his studio already resembled the Siege  itself with models of the Rock, gunboats, ship tackle and ordnance. Meanwhile he visited and interviewed eyewitnesses - including Sir Roger Curtis who together with General Augustus Eliott was one of the main protagonists of the event - and accumulated a large number of preparatory sketches. I am not sure whether he ever actually visited Gibraltar in person but I suspect he really couldn't afford to take time off to do so.






Studies ( Metropolitan Museum of Art New York )

He also made a point of consulting John Drinkwater - a man irredeemably associated with the Great Siege and the author of its definitive history. Apparently Drinkwater objected to Copley's original design which focussed on the harbour and the destruction of the batteries while relegating the protagonists to a much more subordinate role on the fringes of the canvas. Drinkwater, with the backing of  several other senior officers of the Garrison, insisted that the painting should include a dominant group portrait of the principal protagonists


Guide describing the picture and identifying the main participants. It was included in the exhibition catalogue of 1791

Several years after Copley began work his fellow American John Trumbull began another painting concerning a different event of the Great Siege. He called it 'The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar'. (see LINK) Copley is known to have viewed the picture when it was exhibited in 1790 and there is no doubt that he must have been inspired by it. In fact Copley's  overall composition is remarkably similar to that of Trumbull. 


'The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar'  ( 1790 - John Trumbull  )

There is no doubt that Copley's intention was to depict the defining moments of the Siege which is  usually referred to in the literature as the 'defeat of the floating batteries'. The addition of the word 'Relief' in the title of the final version - 'The Great Siege and Relief of Gibraltar' - is hard to understand as it is usually associated with those effected on three separate occasions by the British admirals Rodney, Darby and Howe. (see LINK)  A portrait of the later was depicted on the left hand side of the program guide but neither Howe nor any of the other admirals were actually present during the events depicted in the picture.

The problem was that Copley had soon realised that it would be impossible to incorporate into his design anything other than the main event. To overcome the problem he hired the French born artist Dominic Serres to draw an elongated panel depicting Howe's relief flanked by two medallions depicting Howe and Barrington. The intention was that this panel would be placed just below the main painting .


Panel of Admiral Howe's relief of Gibraltar. Howe is on the left Barrington on the right  ( Dominic Serres but not attributed to him by Copley )

Copley's work was finished  in 1791. It was ready for display in June and the method  used to do this was chosen by Copley himself. It proved an elaborate affair that was almost as impressive as the picture itself - probably the largest British oil painting ever created at 458 square feet. He placed  the framed work between two massive Ionic Greek columns topped by an entablature draped in voluminous material. Just below the picture he placed the unattributed panel by Dominic Serres. 

The whole occupied an entire wall of an oriental pavilion in London's Green Park. It was very much a one-man show and proved a great success. So much so that Copley asked for the entrance fee be increased. The Council refused to do so.



Oil and Pencil sketch made by Copley in 1788 - It is very much smaller than the final version


The final version  - 'The Great Siege and Relief of Gibraltar' . ( 1791 - John Singleton Copley ) 


Facsimile of the ticket of admission to view Copley's 'Siege of Gibraltar'. The entrance fee to Green Park was one shilling   ( From an engraving by Bartolozzi )


The catalogue of the exhibition also allowed viewers to order engravings of the picture. This one is by William Sharp

When the exhibition ended, the painting was hung in the Common Council Chamber at Guildhall.  In 1886 it was transferred to the Guildhall Art Gallery. During the Blitz in 1941, the authorities decided to move it out of London for safety reasons. A wise choice as the Gallery was destroyed during the war.

A very much smaller copy held by the Tate Gallery and of unknown origin - the Tate has it registered as "?relplica" (sic) - was sent to Gibraltar and hung in the Convent - the Governor's residence in Gibraltar. In 1993 it was loaned to the Gibraltar museum but has since been returned to the Tate.

The original monster is now back in the rebuilt Guildhall Art Gallery in London occupying one entire wall of the main exhibition area. 


 Art historian Chloe Nelkin viewing the painting on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery in 2015



Studies ( Metropolitan Museum of Art New York )


An overwrought piece of propaganda? Possibly. The underlying theme is identical to that of Trumbull's picture of the Sortie. Eliott, the epitome of the great British general, brave and indomitable surrounded by his equally admirable stalwarts. Magnanimous in victory Captain Roger Curtis saves the lives of the defeated but not before an arrogant enemy is brought low both by their own incompetence and by the skill and ingenuity of the British Soldier. A mention of the Hanoverians simply highlights rather than detracts from the stereotypical , gutsy, 'English' victory against overwhelming odds.

It worked for Copley's painting  in exactly the same way that if worked for Trumbull's. It still does. The sheer brilliance of the paintings make us forget the stark truth  - the real reason behind the overall success of the Great Siege. They were achieved as a result of one of the worst decisions ever taken by a British Government - one that ensured the retention of a relatively useless piece of real estate which would remain a source of constant friction over the years -  in exchange for the loss of their priceless American colonies.

And perhaps the final irony - both pictures were painted by Americans.