THE PROPERTY OF THE HEIRS OF THE LATE DIANA, COUNTESS OF ALBEMARLE (1909–2013)
The terms of Spanish capitulation were concluded on 13th August, and this painting shows British land forces in flat boats going to take possession of the Punto Castle and the north gate of the city. On the left His Majesty’s Sloops of War Bonetta (10 guns) and Cygnet (18 guns) can be seen assisting to open the boom defence, whilst the Union Jack flies from the flagpole atop the ruins of the heavily shelled fortress of El Morro. To the left is a magnificently detailed and extensive panoramic view of the walled city of Old Havana, surely the finest and most important early view of the city ever painted. The skyline is punctuated by the spires of Havana's many churches and each building is meticulously delineated, demonstrating the intimate first hand knowledge of an artist who had spent several years living in the city in his youth. Beyond lies Havana's grand harbour, the jewel of the Caribbean, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation.
The composition of this painting is similar to that in Orsbridge's print of the same subject, though with several notable differences.1 Here Serres raises the perspective giving a more panoramic view of the city, its harbour and the surrounding countryside. The viewpoint is also changed, being shifted slightly to the north-west, altering the angle from which the Morro Castle is seen and allowing for a more direct view down the mouth of the channel and into the harbour. The position of the two sloops and the flat boats loaded with troops are also different. This sweeping vista, with its ‘strong landscape element in which he excelled’,2 is one of Serres' most sophisticated views and clearly demonstrates the influence of Canaletto, who came to London at about the same time as Serres and who he could even have met through his close friend Paul Sandby. Compare for example the balancing of the sweeping cityscape with the numerous flotilla of small boats and the bustle of foreground activity with Canaletto's majestic view of London and the River Thames with St Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day (Lobkowicz Palace, Prague, fig. 1).
The composition was clearly a popular one and a version in oil that is signed and dated 1767, though again with a number of differences in the composition and significantly smaller in size, was recently sold in these rooms, 9 July 2014, lot 60 (together with a view from inside the harbour). Another small version is in a private collection. In terms of quality, scale and provenance, however, none can be compared to the present painting, which is arguably one of the finest paintings Serres ever produced.
1. For a reproduction of the print see Russett 2001, p. 55, pl. 29.
2. Russett 2001, p. 57.
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