'The Entrance to Plymouth Sound' by John Thomas Serres – £30,000 at Charles Miller.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Sold for a double-top-estimate £30,000 to the London trade, it was painted by an “exceptionally talented” artist who founded the Royal Navy’s watercolour school.

Serres was employed in the 1790s to go aboard ships and produce views of headlands leading into harbours to aid navigation. The navy realised that a bird’s-eye image of a line drawing was insufficient to show topographical details so a pool of midshipmen who could be taught how to paint watercolours was created.

“You could take the watercolours and engrave them in the corners of maps to say this is the landmark you are looking for,” said Miller.

Serres went on to create large, beautiful images such as this oil, which was in very good original condition, albeit with some yellow staining – “probably nicotine after hanging in an old study but nothing serious”. Consigned by a private collector after family descent, it had not been seen in public for over 50 years before this sale.

Despite his talent, Serres made a very poor marriage to a “high-maintenance lady who spent his money faster then he could ever earn it”, added Miller, and this Plymouth view from 1808 was possibly even painted from memory when he was in Scotland on the run from debtor’s prison and needing to raise funds.