Grey Room

“A Better Idea than the Best Constructed Charts”: Watercolor Views in Early British Hydrography

Kelly Presutti

John Thomas Serres. The Combat at the Entrance of Brest … , 10 June 1800. Drawn onboard La Nymphe. United Kingdom Hydrographic Office.


“Every [French] ship is furnished, at the public expense, with a superb set of charts of every part of the known world.” So lamented a British prisoner of war in 1794: “Those of our country are particularly excellent; there is scarcely a little harbour in Britain or Ireland which is not laid down in them.” British pilots could not say the same of their collection of views of France, or anywhere for that matter. Sourced from Continental adversaries, those charts they did have were frequently incomplete and unreliable. According to the Admiralty’s top brass, what was needed was a means to provide “a better idea than the best constructed charts.”

That “better idea” would net a doubly surprising yield: a set of watercolor views. From 1799 to 1800, in the midst of the Revolutionary Wars, the British Admiralty commissioned artist John Thomas Serres (1759–1825) to travel aboard warships and survey the coasts of France in support of a proposed blockade. Over the course of two summers, Serres produced dozens of views that extended down the French Atlantic into Spain, expanding well beyond his original purview and giving the Admiralty much more than an account of coastal topography. In addition to a completed sketchbook, Serres produced twenty-four horizontal watercolors (approximately ten centimeters high and ranging in width from twenty centimeters to nearly a meter), objects that were housed in a wooden box colloquially known as the “coffin.” But, how would naval interests have been advanced by the production of “views,” a mode of representation often seen as incidental, secondary to, or supportive of the weighty politico-epistemological order of the map? And why watercolor—a technique edging in 1790s Britain toward the polite, academic respectability to which its historiography has since been condemned?