The Captured Spanish Fleet at Havana, August-September 1762

A depiction of an episode from the last major operation of the Seven Years War, 1756–63. It was part of England's offensive against Spain when she entered the war in support of France late in 1761. The British government's response was immediately to plan large offensive amphibious operations against Spanish overseas possessions, particularly Havana, the capital of the western dominions, and Manila, the capital in the east. Havana needed large forces for its capture and early in 1762 ships and troops were dispatched under Admiral Sir George Pocock and General the Earl of Albemarle. The force that descended on Cuba consisted of 22 ships of the line, four 50-gun ships, three 40-gunners, a dozen frigates and a dozen sloops and bomb vessels. In addition there were troopships, storeships, and hospital ships. Pocock took this great fleet of about 180 vessels from Jamaica and sailed through the dangerous Old Straits of Bahama, to take Havana by surprise.

The scene refers to the conclusion of the naval operation. The painting is a complex panorama depicted from the southern end of the harbour, showing the captured Spanish warships at anchor, ships on the stocks being burnt at left and the sunlit fortress of El Morro seen down an open sightline at the centre right. The tropical cloud formation in the background is an important element of the composition and execution. It is part of a series of pictures painted by Dominic Serres (of which the Museum holds 6 out of 14 identified) to illustrate the principal events of the campaign for the Keppel family, of whom three distinguished brothers served at Havana: George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle (1724-72) was the army commander-in-chief; Commodore the Hon. Augustus Keppel (1725-86), who was naval second-in-command and Colonel the Hon. William Keppel (1727 -82), who directed the storming of the Morro Castle. The series consists of two groups, six larger paintings with naval emphasis, and five smaller ones (including this) which focus more on the army and the town. It is assumed that the naval ones were painted for Augustus, and the others either for George or William.

Serres was a well-born Frenchman from Gascony who ran away to sea in merchant service rather than follow the family wish that he enter the Church. He probably arrived in England as a naval prisoner of war, took up painting and settled there. His early paintings show the influence of Brooking and Monamy's interpretations of Dutch art but he rapidly achieved recognition for his more documentary visual accounts of sea actions of the Seven Years War, 1756-63, becoming established as England's leading marine painter. His work was even more in demand in the 1770s and 1780s, recording the naval history of the American Revolutionary War. In 1768 Serres was a founder member of the Royal Academy and at the end of his life its librarian. A well-respected and sociable man, he was appointed Marine Painter to George III in 1780.

This picture is signed and dated 1768 and may be the one exhibited at the Society of Artists exhibition that year (no. 153) as ‘A view of the Spanish men of war, frigates, and galleons in the harbour of the Havannah at the reduction of that place, with a view of the Moro-Castle at the mouth of the harbour’ (though there is at best one frigate and no 'galleons' shown): the blue pigment of the sky is remarkably unfaded, unlike in many of Serres paintings long exposed to bright light.

Object Details

ID: BHC0416
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Serres, Dominic
Events: Seven Years' War: Capture of Havana, 1762
Date made: 18th century; 1768
People: Royal Navy
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the National Maritime Museum, 1983.
Measurements: Painting: 1080 mm x 1804 mm; Frame: 1332 mm x 2052 mm x 110 mm

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