The Article below was published in the Nelson Dispatch July 2005

AUGUSTE MAYER TRAFALGAR PAINTING

By

Marine Painter, Robin Brooks


In the despatch, Volume 8, October 2004, Charles Addis wrote a piece entitled Plotting Trafalgar. Within this piece, he wrote a short discourse on the merits and failings of artists who portrayed the action, without having witnessed it themselves. He drew particular attention to the French painter, Auguste Mayer, 1805-1890, quote:

"None of the artists whose spectacular scenes depict the battle was actually there. Their pictures were painted from descriptions given to them many years after the event. So they are impressions, albeit magnificent, which cannot be looked upon as entirely realistic nor in many cases accurate. A prime example is the painting by the French artist Auguste Mayer. A splendid picture but a gross misrepresentation, it shows on the left the French Redoutable and to the right a ship with on her stern the name Sandwich, which at the time of Trafalgar was a 2nd rate hulked for harbour service at Chatham. Astonishingly, David Howarth used this picture in 1969 to illustrate the dust cover of his excellent book Trafalgar-The Nelson Touch, and Theo Fabergé has very recently taken a depiction of it to adorn the Trafalgar Egg, a limited edition of which is available for £10,000."

Scene de la bataille de Trafalgar by Auguste Mayer
Scene de la bataille de Trafalgar Auguste Mayer courtesy of the Musée national de la Marine Paris.

Mayer painted his famous painting in 1836 and it is in the collection of the Musée de la Marine, Paris. Mayer undoubtedly was influenced by and sought the advice of veterans, who had fought at Trafalgar.

Addis is quite correct in drawing attention to the painting errors, in particular the English three decker with the name Sandwich on the stern. Why Mayer made this error of naming this three decker, Sandwich, is puzzling, as is the ship's real identity or her position.

The painting has often been reproduced and is titled The Redoutable surrendering or The Redoutable about to surrender.

In my research for my painting The Defining Moment Trafalgar 1805, I became fascinated by this picture. I was looking for all possible resources, which would shed light on the true appearance of the 74 gun Redoutable and Villeneuve's flag ship, the 80 gun Bucentaure. Both ships would be an important part of my composition. The Mayer painting puzzled me, but it was not until I discovered in the British Library, what appeared to be an original drawing of the master carver's design of the 80 gun Bucentaure figure head and stern decoration that I realised that the Mayer painting must be mistitled.

French master carvers sought to capture the spirit of the ship's name in their carving. Comparing this original master carvers' design with the Mayer painting and the only known portrait of the Bucentaure, painted for Captain Magendie in 1803, convinced me that this Mayer painting has been mistitled for a very long time. Looking at the painting, the figurehead clearly shows a mythical creature, half man, half beast. The figure holds both arms above his head, which are holding what appears to be a club. The figure is painted white.

Bucentaure figurehead
Detail of Bucentaure figurehead in Mayer's Painting courtesy of the Musée national de la Marine Paris.

The figurehead in the painting appears somewhat awkward in its pose and does not sit comfortably on the ship's supporting structure. Yet it has enough in common with the ship's portrait, which I don't think Mayer could have seen or indeed is likely to have ever seen the master carver's design. His information probably came from veterans' oral descriptions, but the common features of all three sources prove the ship to in fact be the Bucentaure and not the Redoutable.

Bucentaure figurehead
Figurehead of Bucentaure courtesy of the British Library.

The watercolour painted from life for Captain Magendie in 1803 shows the Bucentaure in company with a frigate the Africa. Bucentaure is shown starboard side a little forward of the foremast. This simple picture has a wealth of detail to offer. If we look at the figurehead it is almost an exact match for the master carvers design. I will be exploring this ship possible the most handsome ship at Trafalgar in much greater detail in a future article.

Painting of the Bucentaure
La Bucentaure, Anon courtesy of the Musée national de la Marine Paris.

The second point to look at is the two figures at the stump of the main mast and this, I believe, is of great significance in this painting. It is my belief that they represent two midship men, who bravely and heroically did their duty on that fateful day. Their names were Donadieu and Arman. Captain Jean-Jacques Magendie wrote in his official report,

"At noon, we were in latitude 36° 8' north, Cape Trafalgar bearing east-south- east from me, four leagues distant; the Admiral made the signal to open fire when deemed to be within range, and we ran up our admiral's flag and our colours, which were greeted with shouts of "Vive l'Empereur" repeated throughout the Fleet; the Imperial Eagle borne by MM. Donadieu and Arman, midshipmen, who were appointed to guard it throughout the engagement, was paraded round the decks by the Admiral, followed by the whole executive and by the Commander of the troops, M. Contamine; it is impossible, my Lord to display greater enthusiasm and eagerness for the fray than was shown and evinced by all the officers, sailors and soldiers of the Bucentaure, each one of us putting our hands between the Admiral's and renewing our oath upon the Eagle entrusted to us by the Emperor, to fight to the last gasp, and shouts of "Vive l'Empereur", "Vive l'amiral Villeneuve" were raised once more; we returned to the upper works and each of us resumed our post; the Eagle was displayed at the foot of the mainmast".

Detail, stump of the Bucentaure's main mast, from Mayer's painting
Detail of the Stump of Bucentaure's mainmast, Mayer courtesy of the Musée national de la Marine Paris.

(Additional note to above quote) ...This was apparently the oath "which was renewed upon the Eagle" of which Magendie speaks.

Another eyewitness wrote,

"The Redoutable's bowsprit had touched several times the taffrail of the Bucentaure, so close was she. The Santísima Trinidad was almost lying to, just ahead of the Bucentaure. The Neptune was closed up near by to leeward. A collision (with the Victory as she came on) appeared inevitable. At that moment Villeneuve seized the eagle of his ship and displayed it to the sailors who surrounded him. 'My friends,' he called out, 'I am going to throw this on board the English ship. We will go and fetch it back or die!' ('Mes amis, je vais la jeter à bord du vaisseau anglais. Nous irons la reprendre ou mourir!') Our seamen responded to these noble words by their acclamations. 'Full of hope for the issue of a combat fought hand to hand, Villeneuve, before the smoke of battle blotted out the Bucentaure from the view of the fleet, made a last signal to his ships. 'Every ship,' he signalled, 'which is not in action is not at its post, and must take station to bring herself as speedily as possible under fire'." (Additional note to this quote from the same source)... Although what became of the Eagle of the 'Bucentaure' is unknown, and no eagle belonging to a ship of war was ever taken by us, one is still in existence. It is in the Museo Naval at Madrid and belonged to the 'Atlas', a French 74 left by Villeneuve at Ferrol. It was captured in 1808 when Spain rose against Napoleon and seized all the French men-of-war then sheltering in Spanish ports.

This fine painting has been mistitled and misunderstood for many years. No one in France can tell me why the mistake came about. It is only conjecture, but maybe in the Second World War, objects were removed for safety and when peace came, labels were lost and someone misidentified. We can only speculate.

Some years ago, I notified the Musée de la Marine, Paris and the painting has now been retitled. Only recently, the Fabergé egg used the image and thus, unfortunately, were victims of the mistitling in their promotional material for it. I have notified the Bridgeman Art Library of the need to retitle the painting and in this centenary year, it can only be hoped that the painting will take its place in telling the remarkable story of those two midship men on that fateful day.

SOURCES

  1. Le Capitaine de Vaisseau Jean-Jacques Magendie 1766-1835-Paul Marmottan 1903, Paris.

  2. British Library-Add. 23607 f215.

  3. The Enemy at Trafalgar-Edward Fraser published 1906, London, Hodder & Stoughton.

  4. The Naval Campaign of 1805 TRAFALGAR, Edouard Desbriere Vol 2, Ed. C. Eastwick Oxford at the Clarendon Press 1933.

  5. Le Dictionnaire des Peintres Français de la Mer et de la Marine.

  6. The Bucentaure at Trafalgar, Robin Brooks, Black Dog Studios 2005.


PICTURE CREDITS

  1. "Scène de la bataille de Trafalgar" Auguste Etienne François Mayer 1805-1890, executed approx. 1830, Musée de la Marine ref no. 2602.

  2. Figurehead and Bow decoration of the Bucentaure, British Library ADD.23607 F215

  3. "Le vaisseau le Bucentaure de 86 canons Commande par le Capitaine de Vaisseau Magendie Officer de la Légion d'Honneur-le 20 Fructidor an XI".(The date stated is from the Republican calendar corresponding in the Gregorian calendar to the date August 2nd 1802) - Musée national de la Marine, Paris, neg no. ph 4448.








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