H.M.S. 'Victory' sweeping the seas, with other ships of the fleet trailing astern of her signed 'Montague Dawson' (lower left) oil on canvas 71 x 83.8cm. (28 x 33in.)
H.M.S. 'Victory', the oldest warship in the world still in commission, is undoubtedly the most famous vessel in the long history of the Royal Navy; what is often forgotten however, is that when she found her immortality at Trafalgar in 1805, she was forty years old and had already had a more illustrious career than most of the other first rates in the fleet at that time.
Designed by Surveyor Slade, 'Victorys' keel was laid in Chatham Dockyard on 2nd July 1759 and she was launched on 7th May 1765. The classic 100-gun ship, she was measured at 2,162 tons and was 186 feet in length with a 52 foot beam. Despite her size, she soon achieved a reputation for sailing as fast as a more sprightly two-decker and this quality, along with her well-seasoned frame thanks to fully six years on the stocks, helps to explain her long sea-going career and her frequent employment as a flagship. Widely regarded as the finest ship in the fleet, it was hardly surprising that Nelson should have chosen her to carry his flag in the long hunt for the Franco-Spanish battlefleet which he finally brought to action off Cape Trafalgar on 21st. October 1805. As flagship however, she proved a prime target for the enemy gunners and even though she emerged victorious from the battle, she was severely damaged and could only limp into Gibraltar for temporary repairs with the greatest difficulty. Finally back in Portsmouth, with Nelsons body still aboard, on 4th December, she slowly made her way to Chatham where she stayed for almost two years whilst she was thoroughly repaired and, to an extent, rebuilt so as to reflect recent developments in design. Eventually returning to sea late in 1807, she remained in service until 1824 when she became flagship to the C. in C. at Portsmouth, and was given a permanent mooring within the harbour until dry-docked for restoration in 1922.
Napoleons plan for the invasion of England was timed for the late summer of 1805 but, knowing that the various French fleets were each blockaded in their home ports (Brest, Rochefort & Toulon), he devised a scheme to divert the Royal Navys attention and thus allow the invasion force to cross the English Channel unhindered. The plan involved the French fleets breaking out simultaneously, joining up with their Spanish allies and then making for the West Indies as if to raid British shipping and colonies in the Caribbean. Nelson would be forced to follow them but the French would meanwhile double-back and protect the invasion fleet whilst Nelson was either still searching the Caribbean or in mid-Atlantic on his way back home. In the event, the ruse was partially successful; the main Toulon fleet broke out and on 10th April (1805) Nelson received news that it had passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. News followed soon afterwards that the Spanish fleet was out of Cadiz and also heading west so Nelson was obliged to follow suit. Thus began the famous cat and mouse chase across the Atlantic and back which occupied the second quarter of 1805 and became the final phase in the long countdown to Trafalgar.
In this splendid portrayal of 'Victory', Dawson shows the flagship running under reduced sail in an evidently fresh breeze, just the sort of conditions she relished. By the standards of her time, 'Victory' was a fast ship and, with the wind in her favour, she could ride the swell like a thoroughbred clipper, just as Dawson has caught her in this spectacular image.