We have been unable to trace any other portraits of non-British vessels by Thomas Whitcombe in any public collections or sold at auction in recent years thereby making this work a significant discovery. However, a study of the painting under UV light reveals a tantalising clue as to its origin, namely the Portuguese flag flying at the stern of the frigate has, in fact, been carefully painted over a British Red Ensign, almost certainly by the artist and very close to the time of completion. As to why this should have happened, a glance at the early nineteenth century history of Portugal provides the answer.
Portugal, long since a pawn in the centuries old power struggle between Spain and France, was occupied by French troops under Marshal Juno in October 1807, precipitating the flight of the entire Portuguese Royal Family to Brazil the following month. The Royal Family, escorted by ships of the Royal Navy, also took with them most of Portugal’s own navy but, thanks to a British expeditionary force, managed to hold on to the island of Madeira. Thus, the island became an instant haven for Portuguese citizens driven from their homeland by Napoleon’s army and, thanks to the continuing presence of warships of the Royal Navy, was able to maintain its independence. Over time, ships of the Portuguese Navy returned from Brazil anxious to assist in the fight against Napoleon, but their officers lacked battle experience with the result that some 35 British naval officers were recruited to serve in the Portuguese Navy between 1807 and 1814. We believe that one of those officers commissioned Whitcombe to paint this portrait of his wartime command and the artist wrongly assumed that the ship in question would be flying British colours. When the mistake was pointed out to him, Whitcombe then simply overpainted the Red Ensign with the Portuguese flag to correct the error.