Capturing slices of time through artwork
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.