The Search for the Spirit and more

It was in early 1998 when I began work on the commissioned oil painting of Trafalgar. I had to take into account my patron's specific brief of the moment he wanted portrayed. From the outset I realised that the success of this painting would depend on gaining accurate information not only of the battle itself, but also of the principal ships involved. Special attention would need to be given to the Victory and the French flagship Bucentaure. These two ships would be the centrepieces of the composition. Mortifyingly, it soon became apparent that finding accurate information was not going to be an easy task. My first port of call was Portsmouth Naval Base to meet with Peter Goodwin, HMS Victory's curator and keeper. Peter generously gave me a personal tour of the ship. His enthusiasm and dedication to the Victory heightened my sense of drama and history. HMS Victory is the most important relic that we have from the great days of the Georgian sailing navy. On a windswept wet fore deck, Peter pointed out recent modifications to the braces and some other rigging details since my previous visit in 1973.

People will always quibble about what is actually left of the actual ship, but I would say to them; just go, see and experience for your selves. Let the spirit of the past speak to you directly for this is the only survivor of a line of battle ship of which at one time there were so many.

Later, coming in from the cold into the warmth of Peter's office we discussed more of the Victory and Trafalgar and my need for information for this planned painting. Where the Victory was concerned, I remember thinking, "so far, so good", but where would I get the information I needed for the French and Spanish ships? In England there really is a disappointing amount of knowledge and information available concerning the French and Spanish navy's and it is a great shame.

"Without the enemy at Trafalgar there would be no victory today."
This sentiment was given for me an added poignancy when I gazed one last time at the great ship. I saw a noisy group of French school children queuing impatiently to board the ship and I could not help ponder. Had things gone a little differently on that fateful day in 1805, perhaps it could have been a small group of English children waiting to board the Bucentaure at Brest or Toulone!

With a mixture of excitement and disappointment I drove back to my studio in Devon with many sketches notes and some photographs as well as the only book I had bought in the museum shop 'Trafalgar the Nelson Touch' by David Howarth.

Karl Heinz Marquardt an internationally known author and model ship wright says in the forward to his book 'Eighteenth Century Rigs and Rigging'

"It is interesting to note that the construction, rigging and differences between the two great rivals for ultimate sea power in the eighteenth century Britain and France are often over looked by or not known to the modern ship modeller."
I should like to add to his comment "Spain and marine artists" no where more than in the paintings of Trafalgar is this lamentable lack of interest or knowledge more evident. Smoke in large liberal doses is used to disguise the artist's lack of understanding and knowledge of rigging and many other details. For me huge inaccuracies and contradictions spoil so many of the great paintings of Trafalgar. Does this matter? Well yes I think it does. Whether making a film, writing or painting, the creator has a moral, historical responsibility to represent the subject with truth, mood and feeling. This view has been my motivation throughout the five long, difficult years of The Defining Moment.

The composition of the painting

There are a number of detailed eyewitness accounts from British, Spanish and French officers they held different visual aspects depending on the positions of their ships and so no surprisingly they are often contradictory. The best way for me to deal with this problem was to construct a large stage set in the studio. The stage set would include the seven principle ships, which would form my composition. This would enable me to reconstruct several scenarios taking into account the weather and lighting. The stage set measured almost eight feet long, this was extremely time consuming but it did enable me to discern accurately the position of each ship in the moment I wished to portray.

The second area of consideration was the viewpoint that would give the best visual impact. I chose a low angle to add to the sense of drama. The great ground swell that all reports commented on gave the Victory an almost arrogant pose as she lunges forward firing a rippled broad side into the stern of the Bucentaure. Bucentaure is described by several witnesses as having heeled partly due to the swell and partly due to the impact of Victory's close range gunfire. Victory is also only moments away from the collision that occurred when having passed the Bucentaure's stern she swung towards the French Redoutable.

Little did I know at the start how deep this project would take me, the painting was completed the day before its planned unveiling 18th October 2003. This mammoth project had been overwhelming, my search for accuracy and authenticity had not allowed me to take much of the accepted information as correct. I was led to search like a detective into areas, which had been long overlooked.

  • Flag of Commander - Vice Admiral P. Villeneuve, Le Bucentaure
    What was it like?, Which mast was it flown from?
    As a Vice Admiral his flag of commander would have been flown from the foremast, but as CinC of the combined fleet of France and Spain it was flown from the main mast. It was a Tri-colour similar to the national colours but more square. This important point has been overlooked and misrepresented on the majority of painting.

  • The Penultimate Signal Villeneuve signal number 5
    This signal fascinated me enormously had the combined fleet defeated the British I am sure it would have gone down in the annals of history in the same way as 'England expects every man to do his duty" did. Villeneuve ordered every ship by her present position which is not engaged to take any such as would bring her promptly as possible into action. This signal was expressed by a single flag and was hoisted at the fore and the mizzenmast of the Bucentaure. To show this flag took many months of research and I think it is a very important feature of the painting.

  • The Bucentaure!
    Probably the most handsome of any at Trafalgar, this ship has been so misrepresented in so many paintings. I lavished over eighteen months in painstaking research of her rig and outward appearance. I gained enough knowledge to have written a book on this magnificent ship but time and the demands of painting have never allowed me to write it all down. I do hope one day to be able to publish a set of plans.

These were just some of the difficulties I encountered along the way.

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