Francis Sartorius The Younger

The blowing up of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes at the Battle of Cape Santa Maria, 5th October 1804

Oil on canvas: 23.7(h) x 35.7(w) in /

60.3(h) x 90.8(w) cm

Signed and dated lower right: F Sartorius 1807

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SP 5339



1781 – London – after 1808


The blowing up of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes at the Battle of Cape Santa Maria, 5th October 1804


Signed and dated lower right: F Sartorius 1807

Oil on canvas: 23 ¾ x 35 ¾ in / 60.3 x 90.8 cm

Frame size: 31 ¾ x 43 ¾ in / 80.6 x 111.1 cm

In a period gilded composition hollow frame



Professor Sir Albert Edward Richardson, KCVO, PRA, FRIBA, FSA (1880-1964), Avenue House, Ampthill, Bedfordshire, acquired at Sellick Antiques, Exeter on 6th August 1949



Madrid, Museo Arqueológico Nacional, El Ultimo Viaje de la Fragata Mercedes, 2014, p.218, illus. in colour; illus. in colour on the cover, on pp.43-44 and with colour details throughout the catalogue



Professor Sir Albert E Richardson, diary entry, 6th August 1949



The scion of a dynasty of sporting painters, Francis Sartorius ploughed his own furrow as an artist by specializing in marines. The Battle of Cape Santa Maria, which took place off the southern coast of Portugal just over a year before the Battle of Trafalgar, was remarkable for the skill of the Royal Navy, the bravery of both sides, drama, pathos and notoriety – all of which were a gift for a painter. In an astonishing contemporary twist to the story, the treasure aboard Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes was salvaged in 2007 and, after a five-year court battle, has been returned to Spain.


By 1804 Napoleon’s armies had rolled largely unchecked across Europe and England was in the grip of an invasion scare. The Royal Navy was the chief focus of national morale; both single-ship and fleet actions (such as the Battles of the Nile and Copenhagen) were popular subjects for oil paintings, further disseminated as prints.


In 1804, as a result of the Treaty of Amiens, Spain was technically at peace with Britain, although secretly paying a large subsidy to France which fuelled her war efforts. In the summer of that year Rear-Admiral Cochrane, cruising with his squadron off Ferrol, reported (mistakenly as it transpired) that a Spanish force was gathering in that port and that the French were on their way to join them. The British Admiralty despatched four frigates to Cadiz to intercept and detain, ‘by force or otherwise’[1], four Spanish frigates expected from Montevideo in its American colonies[2], carrying gold, silver and other valuable cargo.


The British frigates were commanded by four highly experienced officers, who all later made flag rank. The leader of the squadron, in the 44-gun Indefatigable, was Commodore Graham Moore (1764-1843), brother of General Sir John Moore, the future hero of Coruña. Captain John Gore (1772-1836), described as an ‘excellent officer’ by Nelson, had Medusa, 32[3]. Captain Samuel Sutton (1760-1832), briefly Nelson’s flag captain in Victory, commanded Amphion, 32, while Captain Graham Eden Hamond, a veteran of Copenhagen, had the 38-gun Lively. With his usual foresight, Nelson had ordered the 74-gun Donegal to join the squadron, so that the Spanish frigates would be severely outgunned and could surrender honourably without fighting[4]. Unfortunately, she did not make the rendezvous in time, leading to a battle with much loss of life.


Moore, who kept fascinatingly detailed diaries for twenty years of his naval career, described the scene shortly before sunrise on 5th October: ‘On the morning of the 5th, at seven o’clock, the Medusa made the signal for seeing four sail bearing west by south. I immediately threw out the signal for a general chase, and the squadron instantly made all sail. We were at this time about nine leagues south-west from Cape St Mary. We soon perceived them to be a squadron of four large Spanish frigates. They formed in line of battle ahead, as we drew near, the van-ship bearing a commodore’s broad pennant; the next being the largest, and a beautiful frigate, carried a rear-admiral’s flag. They carried a press of sail on the wind, steering for Cadiz’.


The Spanish frigates were Fama, 34, Capitán Miguel Zapiain y Valladares; Rear-Admiral José de Bustamante y Guerra’s flagship Medea, 40; Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes, 34, Capitán José Manuel De Goicoa y Labart, and Santa Clara, 34, Capitán Aleson y Bueno. At 9.05 am the Medusa placed herself within half pistol-shot on the weather beam of the Fama. The Indefatigable took a similar station by the side of the Medea and the Amphion and Lively ranged alongside the Mercedes and Clara, the Amphion running to leeward. When Medea ignored a signal to shorten sail, Moore put a shot across her hawse. He then sent a boat over to ask Bustamante to allow his squadron to be detained without bloodshed. Bustamante refused, as he was honour-bound to do, ‘whereupon Indefatigable fired a shot across his bows and closed. The Mercedes promptly fired into the Amphion; the Medea fired into the Indefatigable; and the British senior officer made the signal for close action’[5].


Sartorius’s painting shows the moment nine minutes later when fire reached Mercedes’s powder hold and she blew up, heeling the Amphion to leeward of her and sending a shower of deadly splinters skywards. Mercedes’s few survivors, including the second captain recognisable by his cocked hat, cling desperately to the bowsprit. Around her the battle rages: Medusa and Fama at far left, then Indefatigable and Medea, with Lively and Santa Clara in the rear. The Fama struck to Medusa, but as soon as the British ship ceased firing, she escaped and was not recaptured for another three and a half hours. Battered by the close broadsides of expert British gunnery, Medea and Santa Clara quickly surrendered.


The action was every Royal Navy captain’s dream: although fighting like lions for their country, officers and crews also knew that they might chance upon life-changing amounts of legitimate prize money. Captain Wentworth, hero of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1816), says of his frigate Laconia ‘How fast I made money in her!’. Ordinary sailors dreamed of buying a West Country pub and marrying their sweetheart with their share. Cruising off Cádiz, watching the Straits of Gibraltar, the squadron’s wits were sharpened by the immense value of the treasure ships, sailing from Montevideo with the bullion that had helped to sustain the Spanish economy ever since Cortez first stood ‘silent upon a peak in Darien’.


The four Spanish frigates were carrying 4,736,153 pesos of bullion: 1,269,669 pesos in gold and 2,158,850 pesos in silver for private individuals, along with 1,307,634 pesos in silver for the government. In addition, they were laden with Vidona wool, cascarilla[6], ratinia[7], seal skins and seal oil, tin and copper. The value of the three captured frigates amounted to about £1 million (£72 million in today’s money), with about 30% more of the total value lost with the Mercedes. Alas for the captains and crew, the British government took the lion’s share of the prizes, although the captains received ex gratia payments of about £22,000 each (£1,584,000 today). As was usual, the captured Spanish frigates were taken into the Royal Navy. Medea was renamed Imperieuse, Fama kept her name and Santa Clara became Leocadia.


In human cost, the British had two men killed and seven wounded, with very little damage to their ships. The surviving Spanish frigates had twenty killed, eighty wounded and 600 captured. The Mercedes lost the whole of her 280 crew and passengers, except the second captain and about forty men, who were taken off the ship’s forecastle after it had separated from the rest of the hull, and two passengers who had gone aboard Medea just before the action began. These were General Diego de Alvear (1749-1830) and his eldest son, who were called into Bustamante’s flagship as interpreters during the negotiations with the British officers. The General was returning to Spain with a fortune of £30,000 garnered over thirty years in South America. His wife, four daughters, and four younger sons perished in the Mercedes. By bitter irony, having lost his family, the British repaid Alvear his fortune. He was well treated as a prisoner of war in England, later marrying a young Irishwoman he met there, returning to Spain, and fathering a further ten children.  


In both countries controversy raged about the legality and the morality of the action, Britain seeing it as a ‘necessity of war’ and Spain ‘an act of piracy’. On 12th December 1804 Charles IV of Spain declared war on Britain. She was once again facing the threat of a combined French and Spanish fleet, a threat finally to be demolished on 21st October 1805, at the Battle of Trafalgar.


Sartorius made another version of this painting, of the same size, also signed and dated F. Sartorius 1807, which is in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich[8]. It differs only in minor details, such as the light on the waves and the flags and pendants, which are shown at slightly different angles. The action was of great public interest and the frigate captains were wealthy with prize money, so it is not surprising that there was demand for more than one painting of the subject from Sartorius. He made another view, depicting the action from the stern of the rear ships, which was sold at Sotheby’s London on 22nd May 1991, lot 25[9]. The battle was also portrayed by Nicholas Pocock[10].




A modern sequel


The drama of the capture of the four treasure ships was plundered by CS Forrester and Patrick O’Brian, the finest twentieth century writers of naval fiction. It features in Forrester’s Hornblower and the Hotspur and in O’Brian’s Post Captain, where the fictional Jack Aubrey commands the Lively and captures the Santa Clara and the Fama.


In 2007 the Florida-based company Odyssey Marine Exploration salvaged 574,553 silver coins, 212 gold coins and other artefacts from a wreck that was identified as Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a treasure that was potentially worth $500 million, the richest shipwreck haul in history. The Spanish government claimed the cargo and after a five-year battle won its case. In 2012 the sixteen tons of gold and silver were shipped back to Spain in military cargo planes and have been declared national heritage. In 2014 the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid will mount an exhibition on The Last Voyage of the Frigate Mercedes, telling the historical story from every angle and putting the case for properly conducted marine archaeology and the preservation of maritime heritage. 



Note on provenance


This painting belonged to the leading architect Professor Sir Albert Richardson, KCVO, PRA, FRIBA, FSA (1880-1964). He lived and worked at his Georgian townhouse, Avenue House at Ampthill in Bedfordshire, filling it with eighteenth century artefacts and pictures. A founder of the conservation society the Georgian Group, Richardson worked on the conservation of many outstanding classical churches, including St James’s, Piccadilly and St Alfege, Greenwich. His own buildings were inspired by the Georgian idiom but never slavishly copied it. His austerely monumental Financial Times headquarters, Bracken House (1958) in the City of London, was the first Post-War building to be Listed. 


Richardson was an eccentric who would not tolerate electricity in the Georgian ambience of Avenue House, but always had a Rolls-Royce or Bentley in his garage. He liked to travel to dinner parties in a sedan chair carried by his architecture students, dressed as liveried servants. He loved sitting of an evening at his piano, singing sea shanties or The Beggar’s Opera. Richardson embraced the drama, the achievements and the fun of the astonishingly vibrant Georgian era and his collection reflected this philosophy. 



                                                                           Susan Morris














Commodore Moore’s log in the Indefatigable. FRANCIS SARTORIUS THE YOUNGER

1781 – London – after 1808



Francis Sartorius the Younger was part of the dynasty of sporting painters of German origin. He was the second son of John Nost Sartorius (1739-1829) and grandson of Francis Sartorius (1733/4-1804). His elder brother John Francis Sartorius (1779-1831) followed the sporting art tradition, while his other brothers Charles (1794-after 1821) and George William (fl.1773-1779) were marine and still life painters respectively.


Francis exhibited marine paintings at the Royal Academy from 1799 to 1808. He may have died shortly after 1808, as no later dated paintings by him are known. Sartorius specialized in storm scenes, naval voyages and actions, particularly featuring the daring of the Royal Navy’s frigates, for which there was enthusiastic demand in the years of the Napoleonic Wars. In the earlier stages of the war Napoleon’s armies had swept almost unchallenged across Europe and the morale of Britain was kept alive by the successes of the Royal Navy. Those who took part in the actions commissioned paintings of them, while public demand was assuaged by popular prints.


Sartorius painted detailed, highly accurate views of naval actions which have an intense sense of drama. Seven of his works are in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.




[1] WM James, The Naval History of Great Britain, vol. 3, 1800-1805, London 2002, p.280.

[2] The capital of modern-day Uruguay.

[3] Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson, London 2005, p.640.

[4] William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: a History from the Earliest Times to 1900, London 1997 (repr. of 1900 edn.), vol. 5, p.351.

[5] Clowes, op. cit., p.351.

[6] Powdered eggshell, used as a cleaner.

[7] A medicinal herb.

[8] Inv. no.BHC0535; 24 x 36 in / 61 x 91.5 cm.

[9] Signed. 25 x 34 in / 63.5 x 86.5 cm.

[10] Sold Bonhams New York, 20th January 2012, lot 2065.

MarineFrancis Sartorius The Younger