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HMS Indefatigable joining other ships of the squadron offshore

This beautiful watercolour of the Indefatigable is the work of John Thomas Serres who served as  Admiralty artist with the Channel Fleet between 1799 and 1800. During this period Serres spent some time aboard the Indefatigable, though by this stage Captain Sir Edward Pellew, had been unwillingly promoted to the ship of the line Impetueux, and the frigate was under the command of Captain the Honorable Henry Curzon.

JT Serres was born in 1759, the son of Dominic Serres, a renowned French-born artist who served as Marine Painter to George III.  JT Serres’ promising, and initially successful, artistic career was blighted by his deluded and profligate wife the former Olive Wilmott.  Olive styled herself Princess Olivia of Cumberland and claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of the king’s brother.  Despite signing a deed of separation from Olive in 1803 Serres continued to be held accountable for his wife’s debts and he spent time in the debtors prison in Edinburgh in 1808 as a result of her extravagances.

In 1817, in an effort to revive his fortunes and settle his wife’s debts Serres joined a business partnership with James King and Daniel Dunn, formerly of the Surrey Theatre, to found a new theatre in Lambeth.  Serres initially had some success and secured the royal patronage of Princess Caroline and Prince Leopold  who took out a subscription for the theatre and consented to it being named the Royal Coburg in their honour. The centre piece of the theatre was a Grand Marine Saloon, decorated by Serres with fashionable marine panoramas, including one of Admiral Lord Exmouth’s recent victory at Algiers, represented by a vista of the fortifications with Britannia and Neptune triumphant.

Serres hopes regarding the Royal Coburg Theatre were short lived. By 1819 takings were falling and in order to repay his debts Serres had to forfeit any right to future profits from the theatre. The Royal Coburg Theatre survived its precarious birth and exists to this day as the prestigious Old Vic Theatre.

Olive’s increasingly outrageous claims to royal birth continued to blight Serres reputation and damage his prospects and career. He was refused permission to accompany the Royal Yacht squadron to Scotland in 1822 and the king withdrew the last vestiges of royal patronage the same year. Another spell in debtors prison followed which did irreparable damage to Serres’ health. Despite the efforts of his remaining friends, who succeeded in saving him from further incarceration, Serres died in 1825 at the age of 66. His funeral was paid for by the Society of Arts and John Thomas Serres lies buried with his parents at St Mary’s Church, Paddington.

Two years previously in 1823 Olive’s claim that she was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, the younger brother of King George III, was thrown out of Parliament, which refused to sanction any official investigation into the allegations. The soi-disant “Princess Olive of Cumberland”, otherwise known as Mrs Olive Serres, died in penury in 1835 at the age of 62.

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