Rehs Galleries - A Visual History

(1759 - 1837)



Engagement Between Sir George Brydges Rodney and the Spanish Squadron, Commanded by Don Juan de Langara, Near Cape St. Vincent, January 16, 1780
Oil on canvas
30 X 48inches
Signed and dated 1782

Royal Academy, London, 1782, #217


Thomas Luny was born in London in 1759 and received his formal training under the watchful eyes of Francis Holman.  Luny’s first exhibited work was in 1777 at the Society of Artists and his address was given as “at Mr. Holman’s, Johnson St., St. Georges” and it appears that he continued to work with Holman until the early 1780’s.  His style of painting is very close to that of his master, this similarity may indicate that Luny assisted Holman on a number of works that were produced during this period.

Luny was living on his own by 1780 as his address was given in the Royal Academy exhibition of that year as Anchor and Hope Street, St. George’s, Middlesex; this was also the year he exhibited his first work there.  However, the fact that he was still living nearby leads one to believe that they were still in close contact.  In 1780, Holman exhibited his The Engagement between Sir G.B. Rodney and the Spanish Squadron at the Royal Academy – a work that Luny would have been very familiar with.  Only 2 years later, 1782, Luny produced his own version of this scene (illustrated here) and chose to exhibit it at the Royal Academy.

By 1782 Luny had moved to 42, Ratcliff Highway and was now truly on his own and over the next 10 years exhibited approximately 22 works at the Royal Academy.  All of the works shown were maritime subjects and included such scenes as: View of the Thames, with the yacht and boats of a private family (RA 1782); Lord Rodney, in the Formidable, at 14 minutes past 9 a.m., leading the center division of the British fleet through the French line, April 12, 1782 (RA 1783); Dock Yard (RA 1785); Whitby from the Sea (RA 1787); Ships Sailing out of the Downs (RA1787); View in the Channel (RA 1791) and A View of Swan Cliff and Dunnose, with an Indiaman Sailing in a Wind (RA 1793).

In 1793, at the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars, it is said that he joined the Royal Navy as a purser and served under Captain George Tobin, R.N. This assumption is supported by the fact that he ceased exhibiting his works that same year.  It is generally believed that Luny retired from the Navy in 1810 due to rheumatoid arthritis and settled in Teignmouth around the same time.  He also maintained a studio London - evidenced by the fact that the Royal Academy exhibition book of 1837 gives two addresses for him; one in Teignmouth and one in London.

Like many artists of the period, Luny kept an account book in which listed the title, price and purchaser for each work.  It is interesting to note that in 1807 there are a couple of entries of views in Teignmouth; so he may in fact have retired from the Navy a little earlier than previously thought.  His illness, which was quite serious, had not only confined him to a wheelchair, but also caused him to lose the use of his hands.  In order to paint, he had to either hold the brush between his wrists or have them strapped to on.

Even with this serious disability his production was impressive.  Between 1807 and his death in 1837 his account book lists some 2,200 works; adding in the works painted before 1807, he must have produced more than 3,000 paintings in his lifetime.  In 1837 he exhibited 3 works at the Royal Academy: Crookhaven, Ireland; the Vixen Sloop of War Warping out of Harbour; View on the Coast of Devon – Clouds Dispersing; and Cawsand Bay, Plymouth – Morning Mist.

The painting illustrated here - Engagement Between Sir George Brydges Rodney and the Spanish Squadron, Commanded by Don Juan de Langara, Near Cape St. Vincent, January 16, 1780 - is one of the artists more important and dramatic early works.  The history of the battle is as follows: In 1779 Spain entered the war for American independence.  Their immediate goal was the recapture of Gibraltar and Minorca (British strategic strongholds).  With this new threat, England’s primary concern was the fortification of these strongholds.

On December 29, 1779 Admiral Rodney set sail with 22 ships-of-the-line, a large convoy and reinforcements.  The convoy and reinforcements parted from the fleet on January 7, under the care of four frigates.  The following morning the fleet fell in with and captured a Spanish squadron of seven ships-of-war and sixteen supply ships; twelve of the latter being laden with provisions were carried on to Gibraltar.

A week later Admiral Lord Rodney in the Sandwich [pictured in the right foreground of the painting] received intelligence that a Spanish fleet of fourteen sail-of-the-line, commanded by Admiral Don Langara, was cruising off Cape St. Vincent, and made preparations for action.  On January 16 the Spaniards were discovered crowding all sail to escape, so Rodney made the signal for the general chase, and after two hours, the Defence, Bedford, Resolution and Edgar commenced firing.  The Bienfaisant [pictured left foreground], captained by J. MacBride, having got up with the Spanish ship San Domingo, engaged her with such vigor that she blew up and every man perished [Luny chose this dramatic moment as the central focal point of this work].  The action continued during the night, which was dark and squally, but on the following morning Rodney learnt that six of the Spanish ships had surrendered and that the remainder had escaped.  His own fleet was in shoal water and it was necessary to get the ships’ heads off shore; this prevented him from continuing the chase.[1]

[1] Parker, H., Parker, Harry, Naval Battles: From the Collection of Prints formed and owned by Commander Sir Charles Leopold Cust, Bart, pg.82, footnote b

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