Marine artist Geoff Hunt once said, “I find ships awesome, fascinating and slightly frightening.” All those elements are contained in his work “Making Speed to England, HMS Pickle, 1805.”
The British Navy’s most impressive ships of the 19th century were three-masters of 200 feet or more, each bristling with as many as 100 cannons. The HMS Pickle was not one of them. Instead, she was a 70-foot topsail schooner with 10 guns. And yet, despite her comparatively diminutive size, she played a part in one of the great moments in British naval history: Lord Horatio Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
The British Admiralty bought the topsail schooner early in the 1800s, put the 10 cannons on board and attached the schooner to Admiral William Cornwallis’ inshore squadron blockading the French ports of Brest, Rochefort and Lorient. The HMS Pickle kept busy, capturing a schooner laden with information on French ships, and helping to rescue the captain and crew of the HMS Magnificent, which had run aground. Sailing off Cadiz, Spain, in 1805, the HMS Pickle’s captain, Lt. John Lapenotiere, captured an enemy supply ship whose stores replenished the British fleet. He then sailed close enough to the enemy to get an accurate count of opposing warships.
The pivotal Battle of Trafalgar occurred not long after, with the captured information helping to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte’s navy. During the conflict, the HMS Pickle rescued the crew of a French ship, Achille, which had caught on fire.
Bringing news of the victory home to England was a great honor, and Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood chose the HMS Pickle to carry the dispatch. The schooner took just nine days to reach home—the scene that Hunt shows in his painting. The only thing viewers don’t get to see? King George III being awakened at 7 o’clock in the morning to hear the news.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.