Britain and Napoleonic Naval Warfare

December 30, 2020

Britain and Napoleonic Naval Warfare

iGavel Auctions Lot # 5897234: English Georgian Silkwork Maritime Naval Needlework, Ca. 1800

The Napoleonic wars raged on for a generation following the Treaty of Amiens until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon threatened the invasion of Britain and the unremitting tension instilled a hardy resistance among the populace spread throughout the British Isles but also a gnawing unease. Mass conscription primarily of single men made military service nearly inevitable as one of the few sources of work. Naval blockades, scarcity of raw materials, business failures accompanied by rising taxes, and economic privation caused a cascade of social ills and upheavals. Charlotte Bronte, William Wordsworth, and Jane Austen wrote of the effects of war; the glamour of red-coated military men in local coastal towns, and the anguish of loss from battle.

A market for military-themed goods and fashion was promoted and helped raise the spirits of those who remained behind. One of the dramatic events melding heroism and disaster was the saga of the warship Apollo, a 36 gun frigate launched in 1799 and lost with horrific loss of life in 1804. The Apollo was heavily engaged during the Napoleonic period, with daring escapes and successes that were reported by the British press and buoyed the spirits of citizens. Briefly decommissioned after the Peace of Amiens in 1802, the Apollo was sent back into service and lost in a massive naval catastrophe in 1804 off the coast of Portugal, losing sixty-two of her crew.

The risks of maritime war were considerable and mementos made and sold to the British public featured allegorical figures of reassurance to instill confidence of the ultimate success of Britain in the conflict. The embroidered image of the female figure in this needlework panel is allegorical of Hope and the women left behind, heroically keeping families together. She stands on a cliff pointing seaward, next to an anchor, with a British frigate in the distance and the ‘Cliffs of Dover’ to the side. The image captures the fear and uncertainty that accompanied Napoleon’s massing of his ‘Army of England’ just across the English channel. Though going to war, those on the ship carried with them the goodwill and wishes of all those remaining behind. Patrick O’Brian, in his Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin Series of novels, portrays the lives of those ensnared by the conflict, both at sea and at home; sentiments that are woven into the image of this lone figure atop the coastal cliff facing France.

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