Vistas of Portsmouth Harbour from the open sea, showing warships entering or leaving port, have been a common theme for generations of British marine artists, whereas views from inside the harbour looking out are far rarer. In this engaging composition by Dominic Serres, he not only displays his usual artistry in the fine portrayal of the arriving man-o'war shortening sail at the harbour mouth, but also provides an unaccustomed perspective of Fort Blockhouse as it was in the final quarter of the eighteenth century, before the subsequent alterations completed in 1816 radically transformed its appearance.
The short spit of land, known as 'The Point', on the western side of the harbour entrance was first fortified in 1417 after the French sacked and burned both Portsmouth and Gosport during the Hundred Years' War. Improved in 1495 to accommodate "five pieces of ordnance" (cannon) in the earliest reference to "the King's Blokkehouse", there were many other additions and alterations over the next two centuries, although these were usually interspersed with long periods of neglect in times of peace. Substantially rebuilt between 1708 and 1714 to counter the threat posed by the War of the Spanish Succession, a new powder magazine was added in 1748 after which the gun platforms were renewed in 1755. By the time the eighteenth century drew to a close, the fort had become, as one later commentator remarked, "a motley collection of buildings of indeterminate age and doubtful architectural interest" and, indeed, once the French Revolutionary Wars began in 1793, yet another decision was taken to transform and modernise it. Surviving pictures of its pre-1793 appearance are therefore extremely scarce and this particular view is a pleasing addition to the repertory.
Marine Painter-in-Ordinary to George III, Dominic Serres' work was widely applauded: 'Serres is the best painter I know...', so says a letter from Captain Hyde Parker on board the Invincible in 1777. In the same year Serres was commissioned by Hyde Parker to paint episodes from the American War of Independence (1775-82). It is entirely probable, therefore, that he would have travelled to New York and the Hudson River from Portsmouth, as the shortest route from London. It was during this time that Serres also met George Romney (1734-1802), with whom he was later to collaborate on a number of portraits.