Admiral Byng's fleet getting underway from Spithead signed 'I. Cleveley' and dated 1755 (lower right) oil on canvas 76.2 x 106.7cm (30 x 42in).
In the uneasy peace which followed the conclusion of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), England and France continued to jockey for territorial advantage in various parts of the world, not least North America and the Caribbean. Although the next conflict became known as the Seven Years War (1756-63), hostilities had actually commenced as early as 1754 in the area around the Great Lakes which marked the boundary between French Canada and the Anglo-American colonies south of the St. Lawrence River. As the situation deteriorated in North America, Prime Minister William Pitt (the Elder), Earl of Chatham, increased expenditure on the Royal Navy and put the nations fleets onto a war footing. Thus, although there were no big-scale engagements at sea prior to May 1756, it seems certain that this splendid panorama of the fleet putting to sea is connected with the general preparations for war already in hand.
Given the number of vessels depicted and, more significantly, the fact that all are flying the red ensign to denote their status as ships of the Red [Squadron], it seems highly probable that this work shows the fleet under the joint command of Vice-Admiral the Hon. John Byng and Rear-Admiral Temple West which departed Spithead in October 1755. Both men were flag officers of the Red at that time and were ordered to take their ships to sea to try and intercept a French fleet under the command of the Comte du Guay which was returning home after taking reinforcements out to the Leeward Islands. In the event, du Guay gave his pursuers the slip and made port safely with the result that Byngs powerful Squadron of the Red put back to Spithead and re-anchored there on 21st November to bring the years campaigning to an end.