Cap­tur­ing slices of time through art­work

The Gananoque Reporter - - COMMENT - Su­sanna McLeod is a writer liv­ing in Kingston.


cru­cial for deputy sur­veyor James Peachey. Record­ing to­pog­ra­phy, lay­ing out mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions, prop­erty parcels, road­ways and vil­lages for fu­ture set­tlers­de­manded ex­act­ness and a good eye. Since therewere no cam­eras in the late 1700s, the same valu­able skills were re­quired to cap­ture slices of time. With his art tools, Peachey pro­duced breath­tak­ing images doc­u­ment­ing the peo­ple and coun­try­side in the wilder­ness set­tle­ments of soonto-beUp­per and Low­erCanada.

Trained in tech­ni­cal as­pects, sur­vey­ors and engi­neers also of­ten had artis­tic back­grounds. Oth­ers re­ceived les­sons in draw­ing and paint­ing as part of their sur­vey­ing ed­u­ca­tion. Not in­tended for the en­joy­ment of view­ers, the art­works were im­bued with mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion; how­ever, Peachey’s art­work ap­pealed to both civil­ians and his mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­ors.

The­ex­pe­ri­enced eyes of the artist’s col­leagues and su­per­vi­sors, “fa­mil­iar­with the­march­ing for­ma­tion, the neat­ness of uni­form, the sci­ence of for­ti­fi­ca­tion, and the art of to­pog­ra­phy, could read­ily judge the abil­ity of an of­fi­cer to see and record faith­fully these top­ics,” JimBu­rant said in“TheMil­i­tary Artist and the Doc­u­men­tary Art Record” (Archivaria 26, Sum­mer 1988). Com­bin­ing both as­pects, the works pro­vided a vivid vi­sion of liv­ing in ear­lyCanada.

Thetask of sur­vey­ing and pre­par­ing sketches was ar­du­ous. “Skilled French-Canadian ax­e­men were needed to hack and slash through thick forests and dense swamps that were im­pass­able on horse­back,” Her­itage Pas­sages de­scribed in“TheFirst Sur­vey of the Rideau Route.” Work­ers re­ceived cuts and bruises, and “the dif­fi­culty in travers­ing the land­scape­made ac­cu­rate mea­sure­ments next to im­pos­si­ble, and sur­vey­ors of­ten be­came hope­lessly lost.”

To per­formtheir jobs, sur­vey­ors each car­ried a set of tools, por­ta­ble and easy to use for spon­ta­neous plein air paint­ing. “Be­cause loose pa­per­was dif­fi­cult to trans­port, note­books or sketch­books, gen­er­ally of a small size and wrapped in wa­ter­proof oil­skins, were the stan­dard equip­ment of a mil­i­tary artist,” Bu­rant stated. “This en­sured that most sur­viv­ing ‘on the spot’ wa­ter­colours and draw­ings are less than 8” x 10” (18.7 x 25.4 cm) in size, al­though­many ‘fin­ished’ works, that is, works re­drawn for pre­sen­ta­tion pur­poses, are larger, up to 20” x 24” (50.8 x 61 cm) in size.”

Peachey came toNorth Amer­ica sev­eral times, first in 1773, to up­date maps for Sur­vey­orGen­eral of Que­bec Sa­muel J. Hol­land. Seven years later, the artist re­turned to work in­Que­bec for clients and Gen. Haldimand. Early in the next decade, the draughts­man again was work­ing­with­Hol­land as deputy sur­veyor. (Peachey’s date and place of birth are un­known. He­may have been Bri­tish.)

Sur­vey­ing east­ernOn­tario, “Peachey­win­tered in the vicin­ity ofCataraqui (Kingston), where in as­so­ci­a­tion­with [Lewis] Kotte un­til 1784 he con­tin­ued the sur­veys of Adol­phus­town and Fred­er­icks­burgh (North and South Fred­er­icks­burgh) town­ships be­gun by John Collins the pre­vi­ous year,” Martha E. Cooke and BruceG. Wil­son said in Dic­tionary of Cana­di­anBiog­ra­phyVol. IV.

There­was­much to or­ga­nize in the­new­coun­try, and sur­vey­ors in­clud­ingPeachey “trav­elled the length of the St. Lawrence River val­ley and into theMar­itime Prov­inces, lay­ing out town­ships and record­ing such mil­i­tary con­struc­tion ac­tiv­ity as AView of the Bridge over the River Mask­i­nonge con­structed onorders of Gen­er­alHaldimand, 1784,” ac­cord­ing toBu­rant. (En­larged, the paint­ing­was “grey and blue wash over pen­cil: 31.7 x 54.4cm.)

Many ofPeachey’s art­works fea­ture the finer points in cloth­ing, build­ings and sur­round­ings. While fa­cial fea­tures are not al­ways as com­plex, his in­tri­cate images rep­re­sent­ing such things as the­birch sec­tions in birch bark ca­noe con­struc­tion and the di­vided colours of pad­dles, demon­strate suf­fi­cient de­tail to be used as ref­er­ence for con­tem­po­rary life in the 18th cen­tury.

Along­with FirstNa­tions and set­tlers in­Up­perCanada, the artist painted pic­turesque sceneswith a mil­i­tary flavour, such asASouth WestView of St. Johns, Show­ing the Fort and Block­house (1784). A uni­formed­sol­dier car­ry­ing a ri­fle with awoman and child are cen­tral in the fore­ground. The­block­house is nearby, and a half-dozen or more sail­ing ships ap­pear­ing to be at an­chor across the har­bour. Drawn with a pre­cise hand, the rig­ging for sails is vis­i­ble on each ves­sel, the block­house metic­u­lous in struc­ture.

Re­turn­ing to Lon­don at the end of 1784, Peachey put his en­ergy into art. Ex­pand­ing his skills, he cre­ated a range of pieces. “He also sought pro­fes­sional as­sis­tance to pro­duce aquat­ints, pub­lished in Lon­don in 1785 and 1786, after his Canadian views,” Cooke and Wil­son men­tioned.

(De­vel­oped in the late 1700s, aquatint, ac­cord­ing to Eng­land’s Na­tional Por­traitGallery, is a method of print­ing re­lated to etch­ing, which looks sim­i­lar to wa­ter­colours. “The­p­late used is cov­ered in­apow­dere­dresinand is put into acid, which bites be­tween the grains to give a finely gran­u­lated sur­face.” Images are drawn on, the sur­face var­nished to pro­duce tones, and then prints­made.)

Giv­ing book il­lus­tra­tion a try, Peachey­made etch­ings for a chil­dren’s book plus aprayer book, re­lated to theMo­hawk­lan­guage and Joseph Brant.(The­men­were ac­quainted, and the artist painted a scene fromBrant’s newly con­structed house on­the­wa­ter­front in­Kingston.) AndPeachey ex­hib­ited his poignant works at theRoy­alA­cademy, paint­ings ofMon­treal andQue­bec, and set­tlers, in1786 and 1787.“His works­may­have in­flu­enced the per­cep­tion that English­men formed ofCanada,” Cooke andWil­son noted.

“On Oc­to­ber 3, 1787, Peachey ob­tained an en­sign’s com­mis­sion in the 60th Foot un­der Haldimand’s com­mand,” Cooke andWil­son said. “He ar­rived at Que­bec in Au­gust 1788 to join the 1st bat­tal­ion, then­mus­tered at Ni­a­gara.” Mov­ing with the reg­i­ment through­out the re­gion, Peachey ad­justed sur­vey plans and pro­duced new sur­veys. At the end of Oc­to­ber 1793, the draughts­man was pro­moted to lieu­tenant, and less than two years later, was back in Eng­land. Peachey earned fur­ther ad­vance­ment, made cap­tain in July 1795, at­tached to the 43rd Foot in 1797.

Sta­tioned in­Mar­tinique, West Indies, that same year, the 43rd Reg­i­ment of Foot lost­many mem­bers to dis­ease. Recorded in the Reg­i­men­talMuster Roll ac­cord­ing to Cooke, it is un­der­stood that James Peachey died onNov. 24, 1797, due to the epi­demic.

Al­though a num­ber of Peachey’s art­works did not sur­vive the test of time, enough re­mained to cel­e­brate his sig­nif­i­cant skill. Aseries of 17 scenes “thought orig­i­nally to have been on a large-scalemap of the St. Lawrence River re­gion” is held byNa­tional Archives [ofCanada], BruceG. Wil­son said in “Records of our his­tory: Colo­nial Iden­ti­ties” (Min­is­ter of Sup­ply and Ser­vices, 1988). In all, the archives has 42 of Peachey’sworks— paint­ings, etch­ings and aquat­ints.

Pro­lif­i­cally paint­ing and sketch­ing vivid art­works that in­stilled a sense of time and place, James Peachey brought ear­lyCanada to life.

“A South-East View of Cataraqui (Kingston),” Au­gust 1785, by James Peachey. Water­colour, pen and ink over pen­cil on paper.

“A South-East View of Cataraqui (Kingston),” Au­gust 1785, dis­play­ing in­tri­cate de­tail­sJames Peachey in­cluded in his paint­ings.

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