Born on 12 December 1759 John Thomas Serres was the eldest son of Dominic Serres (1722-1793) and his wife Mary Caldecott. His childhood coincided with the years of his father’s ever-increasing success and recognition as an artist on a national scene. The Seven Years War (1756-1763) generated great public interest and an increasing demand for pictures of topical events which the already established marine painter Dominic Serres was well placed to meet. Many of these works were commissioned by senior naval commanders, such as Commodore Augustus Keppel, who formed part of Dominic’s growing network of friendships. Alongside these important patrons were the family’s artistic friends and connections. From 1765 the family lived in Golden Square, close to artists such as Samuel Scott, Charles Brooking, and Thomas and Paul Sandby brothers. Along with the Sandbys, Dominic was elected as a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768.
Growing up in this atmosphere, it’s hardly surprising that John Thomas followed his father into an artistic career. Under Dominic’s tuition John Thomas learned the importance of preliminary drawings, as well as the techniques of engraving and oil painting. His skills as a draughtsman enabled his appointment as Drawing Master at the Maritime School at Chelsea in 1779, where he instructed naval cadets in the art of drawing marine subjects, in particular of coastal views from seaward. Although John Thomas left the school when it closed in 1787 his period as master was to have a great impact on his subsequent career and legacy.
In 1793 after his father’s death, John Thomas succeeded him to the position of Marine Painter to George III and the Duke of Clarence. Following this he was appointed Marine Draughtsman to the Admiralty in 1800. Ever since Piercy Brett, George Anson’s first lieutenant in the Centurion on the voyage round the world (1739-44), made drawings of the coastlines they passed, which were subsequently engraved, the Admiralty had been aware of the value of such views in identifying landfalls. The necessity of more hydrographic work to produce charts showing coast, islands, isolated rocks and other hazards had been thrown into sharp relief by the increasing hostilities with the French and the need for more accurate representations of the coastlines of France, Spain and the Mediterranean to aid the Admiralty and the Naval fleets. Serres was tasked to sail in a variety of naval ships around the coasts of Britain, France, Spain and the Mediterranean making drawings in the form of elevations, a selection of which were then published in The Little Sea Torch (1801). These graphic and atmospheric drawings are remarkable, not only because of their accuracy in representing the features of the coastline for navigational purposes but also because of the conditions in which Serres was working: on a rolling ship, with limited resources and considerable time pressure.
Serres later published Liber Nauticus (1805) which aimed to help students draw ships and combined plates after his own work and that of his father, illustrating different types of vessels. Alongside these successes as a draughtsman he continued to paint topographical views, sea battles and other maritime subjects and was a regular contributor to the Royal Academy. His unceasing desire to paint and find new outlets for his abilities was partially due to the profligacy of his wife, Olivia Wilmot, an extravagant woman with delusions of grandeur. She claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, and styled herself ‘Princess Olive of Cumberland’. The marriage proved to be disastrous as her behaviour and debts ultimately ruined Serres, who died in a debtors’ prison in London on 28 December 1825.
The present work dates from 1790, the year after John Thomas Serres first visited the Navy’s great western base at Plymouth. In the summer of 1789, perhaps because of his father’s ailing health, John Thomas travelled to the West Country, possibly coinciding with the royal family’s first holiday to seaside resort of Weymouth. Although there are no known pictures by Serres specifically commemorating the royal visit to Plymouth and Mount Edgcumbe, Serres painted a number of works of the entrance and harbour of Plymouth that are dated to 1789. The current work brings the action inshore showing a large First Rate of the White Squadron, passing Drake’s Island as she enters Plymouth Sound. The small yachts and frigates viewed in the left quarter of the scene create a sense of the continual activity of the busy naval port and dockyard, and the family of fisherfolk gathered in the foreground, a common feature in Serres’s paintings, adds to the liveliness of the scene. However the crowning glory of the piece, highlighted by the shafts of sunlight streaming through the break in the clouds, is the flagship gently heeling in the breeze and flying the flag of command of the Admiral of the White at her main-masthead as she arrives at the anchorage.