Admiral 1st Earl Beatty
Sale: Sotheby's, London, March 12, 1986, lot 17, illustrated
Christie's, New York, February 13, 1997, lot 109, illustrated
Alan Russett, Dominic Serres, R.A., War Artist to the Navy, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2001, p. 143
Dominic Serres painted three separate stages of the battle between the English 36-gun frigate Flora and the similarly-sized French La Nymphe within just a few months of the actual engagement on August 10, 1780. Relying on descriptions or perhaps even simple sketches provided by a surviving crew member, Serres produced the serial images of the Flora's conquest in time to exhibit the sequence of paintings at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1781, offering his London audience an early example of you-are-there-journalism that was still quite novel for an art form more frequently associated with events of greater historical distance.
The confrontation between the Flora and La Nymphe took place in the midst of the War of American Independence, as the British navy established a far-flung blockading effort along the American coast and around most of the major European ports. In the attempt to prevent Britain's enemies from supplying the colonies, Captain William P. Williams was commanding the recently commissioned Flora off the coast of Brittany when he encountered a convoy of merchant ships escorted by a French frigate. Just beyond Ushant (L'Ile d'Ouessant), Flora bore down on La Nymphe, who apparently began the engagement with a fusillade (The Beginning of the Action), perhaps to allow the unarmed vessels to escape into the nearby port of Brest. Despite a heavy exchange of cannonfire (The Fight in Progress), the Flora was able to broach La Nymphe and force the French gunship to strike its colors (The Surrender of the Nymphe). La Nymphe was taken into the British navy under the simple anglicization of her name to The Nymphe.
Shortly before Serres undertook the Flora pictures, he was named Marine Painter to his Majesty the King, a singular honor for a French-born artist who had only taken up painting in his thirties, after serving in the Spanish navy and being captured by British forces in the West Indies during the War of the Austrian Succession. Natural talent, genuine experience with the sea, and an apparently easy ability to move in both artistic and naval circles quickly made Serres the artist of choice for many successful officers who wished to commemorate their triumphant moments at sea. In 1768 Serres was a founding member of the Royal Academy and its first marine painter.
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