John Thomas Serres was born in London in 1759. His father, Dominic Serres, was a marine painter and one of the founders of the Royal Academy. Instructed by his father, John became a well-known painter specialising in maritime scenes. He exhibited more than 100 paintings at the Royal Academy and the British Institution during his life. Upon his father’s death in 1793, John succeeded the elder Serres as official Marine Painter to King George III. In 1800, he became Marine Draughtsman to the Admiralty. He was also a drawing instructor at the Chelsea Naval School in London, and in 1805-6 published Liber Nauticus, and Instructor in the Art of Marine Drawing.
Unfortunately, Serres’ personal life was fraught with troubles. In 1791 he married Olivia Wilmot, herself a painter and pupil of his. During their marriage, John travelled throughout Britain and Europe to paint, and Olivia had several affairs in his absence. In addition, Olive became convinced that she was the illegitimate daughter of Prince Henry, the king’s younger brother. Calling herself Princess Olive of Cumberland, she spent money profligately and damaged her husband’s reputation at court. The couple divorced in 1804.
By 1818 Serres had been imprisoned for debt in Edinburgh, and he died in a debtor’s prison in London in 1825.