Patrick O'Brian Discussion Forum

A war of words and very large oil paintings


The absurd history of British-Spanish rivalry, from Henry VIII to Gibraltar

The war of words over the rocky outcrop is only the latest spat in 500 years of squabbling between the two countries
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Blood, fire and mayhem: the art of Britain’s conflicts with Spain - Sabre-rattling Brexiters should look at the paintings that depict the barbaric wars between the two European nations - John Singleton Copley’s The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar has taken on new significance in recent days.

One unlikely beneficiary of the rapid descent from triggering article 50 to sabre-rattling over Gibraltar is the City of London’s Guildhall art gallery, whose largest and strangest painting suddenly looks relevant again after more than 200 years. John Singleton Copley’s The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar is so vast, at nearly eight metres wide, that a special space had to be designed to accommodate it, yet as recently as five days ago it was as obscure as it was colossal. After all, it shows a forgotten moment in a forgotten war against a nation we have not fought for centuries.

In this giant “history painting”, which took nearly 10 years to create, Copley shows the foiling of a foul Spanish plot. With Britain distracted by the American revolutionary war, Spain made an opportunistic attempt to reconquer Gibraltar in 1782 using the ingenious novelty of floating gun batteries to bombard the Rock. The painting shows the floating platforms sinking in flames after the British battered them with superheated cannon shot. It is a horrific scene, with Spanish soldiers jumping in the sea and the magnanimous British commander, George August Eliott, ordering their rescue.

War threats over Gibraltar are rightwing imperial fantasies - Paul Mason: Sending ships to southern Spain only makes sense if you buy the delusion that Britain’s future involves rekindling empire, both economically and diplomatically

and finally, a current cartoon:
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Gibraltar was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713:

'The Catholic King does hereby, for himself, his heirs and successors, yield to the Crown of Great Britain the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging; and he gives up the said propriety to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.'

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