British 18th C, except portraits, Maritime Subjects 17 Which royal review does this painting depict, and which yacht? Is it by Dominic Serres?

Topic: Painting description

This image is of a ship-rigged royal yacht, apparently the 'Royal Caroline', leaving Portsmouth Harbour (before the western side was fortified). A fleet is at anchor in Spithead in the distance firing salutes, so the occasion shown is likely to be the start of the fleet review that formed part of the King's visit to Portsmouth 22th-27th June 1773, with HM on board the yacht as indicated by the Admiralty flag at the fore, Royal Standard at the main, and Union at the mizzen. Royal reviews didn't often happen – two or three maximum in the period – so it’s a question of trying to be sure which one. The picture couldn't be by Serres after 1793 since that’s when he died.

The picture is not entirely typical of Serres – though hard to tell from an image that may not be perfect – but if not by him I can't think who else (though John Cleveley the younger was another artist there and it’s not by him), so it would be useful to know if it is signed or otherwise substantiated by other records. There are plenty of newspaper reports of the 1773 review but unfortunately, they just speak of the 'yacht' without naming her: a good image, however, is John Cleveley the elder's, dated 1760 (she went on to 1820):

By coincidence I have to hand a letter of 21st June 1773 in which the writer (on board the 'William and Mary', yacht) says the King was expected at that point to take the review in the 'Augusta'. This was one of those that had come down from Deptford carrying Lord Sandwich, then First Lord of the Admiralty for the occasion (as had the 'W&M') and who would also certainly have attended him on board, so if this picture shows the 1773 event it’s also a case of 'yacht TBC', albeit the 'Royal Caroline' was the one George III generally used.

The collection comments that, other than the attribution to Serres, it has no information on the painting. The collection agrees that the picture is not entirely typical of Serres’s work.

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Cliff Thornton,

Pieter, could you say a few words about the number of guns which are showing through the ports. I believe I can make out 7 on the starboard side, so 14 in all? Surely that is too many for a Royal Yacht, but conversely, too few for a warship?

Bruce Trewin,

There are many similarities between the ship depicted here and the Royal Yacht Caroline as painted by Clevely, so I disagree with you there Cliff. Could the Royal yacht not have been ferrying the King out to the HMS Augusta where he was to take the review?

The useful -but occasionally adrift - Portsmouth Dockyard Timeline ( gives 22 June 1773 as the date of George III's first fleet review, though that's the day he arrived rather than undertook it on a visit that lasted to 25/26 June. He also started a five-day visit on 2 May 1778 (with Q Charlotte) during which he did his second -in the 'Augusta'- on the 4th, extending his stay to leave for London on the 9th, see:
(The Timeline and others apparently wrongly put this second visit in June).

This was the only other Spithead review he did, though he made one or two later visits, possibly in May 1781 and certainly in June 1794 (to congratulate Lord Howe on his victory of 1 June).

I can't think why I was originally so anti-John Clevely junior : I'm far from sure its him but it looks closer than Serres: see for comparison

Both artist and ship need further thought: Cliff is right. Yachts are generally 6 to 8 broadside guns (3-4 a side). Seven are visible here but none either in the fore-chains (cf that in the main chains) or forward of that which might suggest the ports are simply closed. So assume another 2-3 in the broadsides which gives 18-20, plus probably 4 chase guns fore and aft = 22-24 = a sixth rate. So if we can find a report of Geo III leaving Portsmouth in such a vessel, -with a gaff-rigged yacht apparently present, since also shown also ahead of him- we get the 'occasion'. Perhaps it is one of his other visits: there are online refs to one in May 1781 but it all seems a bit vague, but there may have been more of a non-review type. Ships are certainly saluting in the backgound, but it doesn't in fact look much like a review with ships dressed overall in bunting or drawn up in formal order (though the resolution is too low to see any detail): nor does it look like the aftermath of the Battle of 1 June 1794, with British colours flying over French on the prizes -of which there were at least four (but with the same limitation) and that would rule out D. Serres on date, as already mentioned. Hmmmm....

Inspection of the 'Annual Register' for the fleet reviews of 1773 and 1778 shows the only yacht used by the king was the 'Princess Augusta' (formerly the 'Augusta' of 1771), which was renamed and to some degree refitted/ rebuilt in July 1773, after the review on 22 June, with a reduction of guns from 8 to 6 it appears. On that day the king was rowed out of the harbour in his barge to do the review and only returned to harbour in the 'Princess Augusta', and then went in and out (saluted by the fortifications -as here where a salute is being fired from Blockhouse Point) over subsequent days to the 25th, but without the apparent further saluting from seaward shown here.

In 1778, (on 4 May) the Queen went out of harbour in an unspecified 'yacht' to see the review (plus salutes), the king again being rowed out in his barge to go round the fleet, only joining the 'yacht' afterwards anchored to windward, when all the flag officers and generals, plus royal suite, dined on its quarter deck. It is only on subsequent days (the visit ended on the 9th) that the 'Princess Augusta' was named specifically as being the one used for further 'outs and ins' from/to the harbour.

She had just previously already taken the king to a similar inspection at Chatham, returning him to Greenwich at midnight on 27 April, so would have had to get round to Portsmouth thereafter. The two reports run on from each other, and with favouring winds she could have sailed round by the 4th to be the unnamed 'yacht' used that day as well as later, but the ship shown here is apparently larger than either her or the 'Royal Caroline'. Given it might also have been a squeeze to dine a crowd in state on board either, one possibility is that some other vessel served temporarily as a 'yacht' on 4 May 1778 -though odd it is not named: the other and perhaps more likely is that it is some other occasion and if a yacht , as the decoration and general scale suggest, something bigger.

No yacht was used (only barges) when the King and Queen, and some of their children, visited the fleet at Spithead on 26 June in the wake of the Battle of 1 June 1794, but on Monday 30th they left Portsmouth in the 'Niger' frigate for Southampton,and thence by road for Windsor (AR, pt 2. pp. 16-18). This isn't that either.

Cliff Thornton,

I thought that the answer to the mystery ship might lie in the Georgian Papers at Windsor Castle which are now being put on-line.
Quen Charlotte was an excellent diarist, who recorded all sorts of daily details. Unfortunately, most of her diaries were destroyed after her death. There are a couple of her diaries on-line from the 1780s. They record a royal holiday in the West Country in 1789. Staying at Weymouth with a couple of frigates off shore, the royal couple thought nothing of going on board the Southampton or the Magnificent for a day, sailing around the bay. This apparent lack of protocol suggests that they did not stand on ceremony, and could have used any 6th rate to leave Portsmouth to reach the naval review.

The 1778 newspapers (eg Daily Advertiser, 7 May; Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser 8 May) make it clear that the yacht which carried Q Charlotte and apparently Lord Sandwich as First Lord of the Admiralty out to the fleet review on Monday 4th, with the king later joining on board and dining etc, was the Augusta, so apart from the number of guns the flags here seem to fit.

The 1778 newspapers (eg Daily Advertiser, 7 May; Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser 8 May) make it clear that the yacht which carried Q Charlotte and apparently Lord Sandwich as First Lord of the Admiralty out to the fleet review on Monday 4th, with the king later joining on board and dining etc, was the Augusta, so apart from the number of guns the flags here seem to fit.

By all means, but I suggest you wait until we formally wind up the discussion, since we might yet get a bit further on the yacht and thereby the occasion, if not the ones already mentioned.

Cliff Thornton,

Pieter, I must admit to being a bit of a landsman when it comes to naval architecture. Please can you suggest why there are no yards on the mizzen mast in the painting? There is print of the Princess Augusta in 1783, at the NMM at Greenwich (PAH3990) which can be viewed on-line at
This print shows the mizzen to have a crossjack and a topsail yard.
Whilst the stern is similar to that in the painting, there is a double window to the side of the great cabin, whereas the painting shows only a single window. Can we allocate such minor discrepancies, along with the number of guns, to artistic licence?

Take a closer look Cliff: there is a square mizzen topsail yard, with the foot of the sail clewed out to a cro'jack yard: it's easier to see on the larger Art UK-page image. As to windows, guns etc. the issue is still 'what yacht?' /other vessel being so used and when before taking the cop-out of 'artistic licence' - which I think unlikely by someone clearly a 'pro' marine hand - but I've not yet looked more closely at the lists/literature.

Cliff Thornton,

Thank you Pieter, I see the error of my ways. The yards on the mizzen mast are end-on to the artist, whereas I was looking for yards which were parallel with the yards on the main mast.
I have been scouring through Winfield's "British Warships in the age of Sail" and found something which might be relevant (p.261). Three 20-gun 6th raters were built in the 1750s, all based upon the lines of the Royal Caroline, They were Seaford (1754), Squirrel (1755) and Deal Castle (1756). I am trying to find images of these vessels to compare with the Portsmouth painting.

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