H.M.S. Victory heavily engaged at the battle of Trafalgar;
signed 'T.Buttersworth' (lower left), oil on canvas
84 x 142cm. (33 x 56in.)
Provenance :- United Services Club. :- Sotheby's, 20th. March 1974, lot 111. :- Sotheby's 18th. November, 1987, lot 17, bought by the present owner (£31,000).
Buttersworth exhibited 'The Battle of Trafalgar' at the British Institute in 1825, no. 206 (3 x 4.2 ft.).
Throughout the long history of war at sea, the battle of Trafalgar was certainly the most complete victory of the age of sail if not the most decisive naval engagement ever fought. After a lengthy and frustrating chase across the Atlantic Ocean and back, Lord Nelson finally confronted the Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar on the morning of 21st October 1805. Admiral Villeneuve, the French supreme commander, had managed to combine the Spanish fleet with his own to give him a formidable thirty-three ships-of- war against Nelsons total of twenty-seven. To compensate for this numerical imbalance, Nelson had conceived his famously unconventional battle plan to break the enemy line in two places and as soon as the opposing fleets sighted each other on the fateful morning, the British ships formed up into their two pre-arranged columns. Nelson himself led the Weather Division in H.M.S. Victory whilst his second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Collingwood, spearheaded the Leeward Division in the 100-gun Royal Sovereign. As the fleets closed for action, Royal Sovereign drew ahead and broke the line just after noon, almost half-an-hour before Victory could do the same when she was able to force herself between Villeneuves flagship Bucentaure and Captain Lucas in the Redoubtable. Close behind Victory was Téméraire and, within minutes, the four ships became embroiled in a tremendous struggle during which the 74-gun Redoubtable fought with great heroism against the two much larger British first rates. Victory pounded Redoubtable relentlessly, inflicting appalling casualties amongst the men on her decks, whereas above the carnage, the French sharpshooters stationed in the fighting tops of the masts quietly waited for their opportunities. At about 1.15pm., a sniper in the mizzentop of Redoubtable saw his chance, aimed and fired at the slightly-built officer on Victorys quarterdeck made conspicuous by the glittering medals and stars on the breast of his coat. In the smoke and confusion of battle the marksman could not be certain that his target was Nelson himself but so it proved and Englands greatest hero slumped to the deck, the bullet having entered his left shoulder and lodged in his spine. Hastily carried below so as not to be seen by Victorys crew as they fought on tenaciously, Nelson was taken down to the cockpit where he died three hours later in what would become one of the most immortalised scenes in British history. Unbeknown to all concerned, the battle was effectively won within half-an-hour of Nelson being shot when, at 1.45pm., Bucentaure struck her colours and Villeneuve surrendered. Even though the fighting continued for several more hours, the enemy was faltering and Nelson was told the scale of the victory whilst he was still conscious and able to comprehend the news. By the time the surviving Franco-Spanish ships fled towards Cadiz, eighteen of their number had been captured or destroyed and Napoleons bid for maritime ascendancy was in ruins along with his plans for the invasion of England. The identity of Nelsons assassin remains a tantalizing mystery however and this was deepened, albeit unwittingly, by Thomas Buttersworths brush of artistic licence in this work where he portrays a lone marksman in the fighting top of Redoubtables mizzen mast. In point of fact, this platform along with those on the 74s other two masts was crowded with sharpshooters making it impossible to pinpoint the individual who actually fired the fatal shot. When Redoubtable herself was taken, the vengeful crew of Victory, knowing precisely from whence the fatal shot had come which killed their beloved admiral, had doggedly fought and then put to the sword all those Frenchmen in the captured ships fighting tops thereby denying the assassin his survival. His identity unknown, there the matter might have rested but for the story of a French conscript named Guillemard who apparently wrote a colourful account of the deed for which he claimed credit and which took France by storm when published. In time, Guillemard and his exploits were exposed as a totally fictional hoax even though, for a while at least, the would-be sniper enjoyed a notoriety amongst his own countrymen which then took many years to fade from the popular memory. Meanwhile, in the annals of the Royal Navy, another tradition grew up that the marksman who fired the shot which killed Nelson was himself shot by one of Victorys young midshipmen and seen to fall back dead.