John Thomas Serres was a marine and landscape painter, who was drawn to portraying dramatic weather conditions, and also represented Thames-side life in sensitive detail.
John Thomas Serres was born in London in December 1759. He studied under his father, Dominic Serres, a successful marine painter of French origin. Specialising in marine subjects and landscapes, he worked as a drawing-master – both at the maritime school at Ormonde House in Chelsea and independently – and exhibited from 1780 at the Royal Academy of Arts. (However, unlike his father, he was never elected an academician.)
Staying in Paris during the fall of the Bastille in 1789, Serres went on to Rome and Naples, an experience that encouraged him to sign himself ‘Giovanni T Serres’ for some time after. In 1791, soon after his return from the Continent, he married his former pupil, Olivia Wilmot, the daughter of a house painter employed by the Earl of Warwick. She bore him four children between 1792 and 1802.
On the death of his father in 1793, Serres succeeded him as Marine Painter to George III.
Moving to Liverpool three years later with his family, his paintings and aquatints of the city demonstrated his industry. Yet, by 1799, they had returned to London (and were sharing the same address as J M W Turner).
In 1800, Serres was appointed Marine Draughtsman to the Admiralty, so undertaking to spy as well as record the coastlines of France and Spain. As a result of these activities, he translated and illustrated René Bougard’s The Little Sea-torch, or True Guide for Coasting Pilots in 1801. Then, four years later, he produced Liber Nauticum, and Instructor in the Art of Marine Drawing, under joint authorship with his late father. During the same period, he was one of three artists involved in founding the British School, a short-lived exhibiting society (1802-4). Subsequently, he would show work at the British Institution and Suffolk Street.
Serres and his wife agreed to separate in 1802, as the result of her infidelities and his inability (or unwillingness) to support her to the degree that she desired. Yet by the time that they divorced in 1804, their animosity had increased. When Serres abducted one of his daughters, he was charged with breaching the trust by the daughters’ trustee - Olivia’s current lover, the artist George Fields – and consigned to prison for six years. In the intervening period, Olivia established herself as both a writer and artist, and was even appointed Landscape Painter to the Prince of Wales in 1806.
On his release in 1808, Serres began to disperse his father’s collection of drawings – by Old Masters and contemporaries – in order to obtain some ready money. He then fled to Edinburgh, but was pursued by his wife’s creditors, and again imprisoned for up to a decade, during which time he gave drawing lessons (the Duchess of Montrose being notable among his pupils).
Following his eventual release, Serres attempted to improve his fortune by becoming a partner of the Royal Coburg Theatre (now the Old Vic), which was built in London from 1816 and opened in 1818. He decorated its marine saloon, and designed sets for some of its early productions. Yet, he seems to have gained little from the venture, and again headed for Scotland.
In 1822, Serres attempted to secure the position of official draughtsman to George III on his royal visit to Scotland. However, the pretensions of his former wife impeded his success; for, from 1817, Olivia had begun to create a scandal by claiming to be the natural daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, the king’s brother, and styling herself ‘Princess Olive of Cumberland’. Undeterred, Serres still ‘produced a set of large and well-crafted watercolours recording the event’ (Stephen Deuchar, Jane Turner (ed) 1996, p 482).
Imprisoned for a third time for debt, Serres was released on health grounds in December 1825, but was required to live within the rules of the King’s bench. He died in London on 28 December 1825. His memoirs were published a year after his death.
He frequently appeared in the diaries of Joseph Farington, who referred to him as Jack Serres.
His work is represented in the collections of the National Maritime Museum, Tate and the V&A.
Further reading: D D Aldridge, ‘Serres, John Thomas (1759-1825)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 28, pp 481-482; Stephen Deuchar, ‘Serres’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 8, pp 832-834