At Sotheby’s | Four Paintings of the British Siege and Capture of Havana

Posted in Art Market by Editor on June 8, 2016


Dominic Serres, The Cathedral at Havana, August–September 1762: View of the Church of San Francisco de Asís, oil on canvas, 83.5 × 122.3 cm (estimate: £300,000–400,000)

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Press release (6 June 2016) from Sotheby’s:

This summer, Sotheby’s will present for sale some of the earliest views of Havana, Cuba (Evening Sale of Old Master and British Paintings, London, 6 July 2016, Sale L16033). Painted by Dominic Serres between 1770 and 1775, the four spectacular pictures depict specific stages of the British siege and capture of Havana in 1762. There were made either for General George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle (1724–1772) or for his brother, Admiral Augustus Keppel, 1st Viscount Keppel (1725–1786), both of whom played a decisive role in the British victory. Unseen on the market for almost 250 years, the works boast exceptional provenance, having remained in the possession of the Keppel family ever since they were painted.

Talking about the sale of the paintings, Julian Gascoigne, Specialist, British Paintings at Sotheby’s, commented: “These four views are not only of great historical significance; they are also remarkable works of art and some of the greatest British marine pictures ever painted, demonstrating the influence on Serres’s work of both Canaletto and Vernet, two masters of eighteenth-century Europe.”

Based on drawings made on the spot as events unfolded, the works belong to a group of eleven paintings depicting the siege and capture of Havana, all of which were—from 1948 onwards—on loan to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, and six of which now remain in the permanent collection there. The Albermale Havana Views demonstrate how Serres was intimately acquainted with the topography of the city and its surrounding environs. The French-born painter went to the West Indies as a young man and spent several years in Havana working as a ship’s captain on Spanish galleons, before being captured by the British and taken to London. In 1752 he returned to Havana once again, this time as master of an English merchantman.

The British capture of Havana in 1762 was the last major engagement of the Seven Years’ War and the decisive military action that finally brought to an end a conflict that ravaged the globe between 1756 and 1763. A contest for global supremacy, the war involved most of the major European powers of the day, as well as their colonies, divided into two giant coalitions led by Britain and France respectively. In 1761 Spain joined the conflict as an ally of France, and between March and August 1762 British naval and ground forces—under the joint command of General George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle and Admiral Sir George Pocock—besieged and captured the city of Havana, the capital of Spanish Cuba and Spain’s principal naval base in the West Indies. Also serving among the British forces were two of Albemarle’s younger brothers: Admiral Augustus Keppel, later 1st Viscount Keppel, who was second-in-command of the fleet, and Colonel William Keppel, who was one of his eldest brother’s two divisional commanders and later succeeded him as British Governor of Cuba.

Dominic Serres, View of the Morro Castle and Boom Defence before the Attack, 1770, oil on canvas, 85.5 × 176.5 cm (estimate: £400,000–600,000)
This painting shows the Spanish preparations before the siege. The port of Havana was a vitally important strategic target as both the capital of Spanish Cuba and Spain’s principal naval base in the Caribbean. On 6th June 1762, the British fleet was spotted approaching the city from the North. The Spanish garrison at Havana had expected an attack from the West, and the unexpected sighting of the fleet in the North created panic among the city’s defenders. A council of war was held by the Spanish governor, Juan de Prado Mayera Portocarrero y Luna (1716–1770), at which it was decided to sink three large ships across the narrow mouth of the harbour to block the British from entering but also trapping the Spanish fleet inside. To the left of the painting can be seen the Castillo de los Tres Reyes de Morro, known to the British as the Morro Castle, guarding the mouth of the harbour. On the right is the narrow channel that gave entrance to the harbour itself, blocked by the sunken ships and a floating boom defence strung across its mouth, whilst men and supplies are loaded into the fort. The large cloud of smoke rising from behind the fort indicates that the British bombardment from the landward side has begun.

Dominic Serres, The English Battery before the Morro Castle, 1770, oil on canvas, 84 × 122 cm (estimate: £200,000–300,000)
The British forces under General Albemarle had the benefit of a fairly detailed report on the defences at Havana. He knew that the weakest point in the Spanish defences was the rocky ridge of the Cabana hills, known to the Spanish as Los Cavannos. On high ground to the South-East of the city, the Cabana heights overlooked the Morro Castle, which commanded both the entrance to the harbour and the town on the west side of the bay. Whilst the castle itself was virtually impregnable, the Spanish defences on the ridge were relatively light. The British landed troops on 7th June, and on the 11th a successful assault was made on the heights. This painting shows the inside of the British battery. Beyond can be seen the fortress of El Morro, with its formidable ramparts. On the left is the bell tower of Havana cathedral silhouetted against the hills beyond.

Dominic Serres, The Taking of the Havana by British Forces under the Command of the Earl of Albemarle, 14 August 1762, oil on canvas, 125.7 × 187.9 cm (estimate: £800,000–1,200,000)
On 22nd June 1762, four British batteries of 12 heavy cannon and 38 mortars opened fire from their newly captured Cabana heights on the Morro Castle. By the end of the month, British gunners were scoring 500 direct hits a day, inflicting heavy casualties and exhausting Spanish efforts to repair the Castle walls. Finally on 29th July the British stormed El Morro, mortally wounding the Spanish commander during the fierce hand to hand fighting that ensued. With the fort captured, the British began their domination of the city. On the 11th August, following Spanish refusals to surrender, Albemarle opened fire on Havana. By 2pm, the Spanish governor was forced to surrender. This painting shows British land forces sailing to take possession of the Castle and the north gates of the city following conclusion of Spain’s capitulation terms on 13th August. On the left, the Union Jack fly from the flagpole atop the Morro Castle, whilst to the right is a magnificently detailed panoramic view of the walled city of Old Havana, arguably the finest and most important of its kind.

Dominic Serres, The Cathedral at Havana, August–September 1762: View of the Church of San Francisco de Asís, oil on canvas, 83.5 × 122.3 cm (estimate: £300,000–400,000)
This is one of two scenes painted by Serres depicting Havana after its capture by the British, the other being part of the National Maritime Museum’s collection. The central building is the monastic church of San Francisco de Asís, dating from the 1730s. In this picture, Serres is at pains to show British troops and Spanish civilians in harmony, reflecting the contemporary concern to grant the defeated Spanish magnanimous terms. The composition is taken from one of six prints produced by Elias Durnford, an engineer stationed in Havana under General Albemarle. The composition shows a debt to the work of the artist’s close friend Paul Sandby, as well as to Canaletto.

The works will be on view in London, 2–6 July 2016.

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