As we approach another Fall in our Fort Town, I can’t help thinking of those who came before and how they might have viewed the mighty St. Lawrence as they painted – or photographed – her shores, her skies, and her stories.
By exploring the development of painting and photography in Upper Canada and into the early 20th century, one can better appreciate the visual record we have of the St. Lawrence River, near Prescott.
The earliest painters in our region were British Army Officers. Many of these men were trained in landscape watercolour painting. They were topographers, surveyors and chroniclers of engineering feats, such as the building of the Rideau Canal.
Records of James Peachey, an officer of the British army, begin with the first of his three visits to North America, when he worked in the Boston office of Samuel Holland, surveyor-general of Québec. His earliest dated artwork depicts various scenes in Québec which he produced on his second trip, but he is best known for his watercolour sketches of contemporary events, such as the arrival of the Loyalists along the St. Lawrence River. He also illustrated The Book of Common Prayer, translated into the Mohawk language by Joseph Brant, in 1787.
One of the most prolific painters in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa areas was Thomas Burrowes. As the Rideau Canal was being constructed, he travelled its length and recorded each lock along the way. A large collection is retained by the Archives of Ontario.
In 1842, N.P. Willis’ Canadian Scenery Illustrated, From Drawings by W.H. Bartlett and Coke Smyth’s Sketches in the Canadas were both published in England. These must have helped increase interest in travelling to the Canadas.
Our knowledge of George Harlow White’s six years in Canada (1871-77) is based almost entirely on hundreds of small pencil drawings and some watercolours. They are catalogued in the John Ross Robertson Collection, at the Toronto Public Library. His studies of forests, lakes, trees, and pioneer life in the bush, as well as street and waterfront scenes are an interesting contribution to our knowledge of 19th century Canada.
With the advent of photography in the late 1840s, a new medium became available for capturing landscapes, although most who opened studios at the time were portrait photographers like A.W. Ferguson, who operated in Prescott from 1862-90.
Born in Scotland, Alexander Henderson learned photography in Montreal about 1857. His artistic and technical progress were rapid and in 1865, he published his first major collection of landscape photographs. Encouraged by the reception of his book, he opened a studio in Montreal, advertising himself as a portrait and landscape photographer. Although his favourite subject was landscape, he usually composed his scenes around human pursuits, such as cutting ice on a river. He travelled widely throughout Québec and Ontario, documenting cities and resort areas, and the building of the railway. In 1892, Henderson accepted a full-time photography position with the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Active from the late 1890s to about 1931, Marsden Kemp took scenic photos of many eastern Ontario communities, including Prescott. He was known to have travelled through these communities by bicycle, camping along the way. Many of his photos are preserved at Queen’s Archives, and many are available online through the Archives of Ontario.
There is no early artist, however, who better captures the landscapes we see every day – today – living in Prescott, than Prudence Heward (1896-1947).
“I think that of all the arts in Canada painting shows more vitality and has a stronger Canadian feeling…” (Prudence Heward, 1942)
Heward was one of a small group of women artists who were active in Montreal between the First and Second world wars, and was associated with The Beaver Hall Group. She was the daughter of Arthur R.G. Heward, a railway executive, and Sarah Efa Jones, whose mother, Eliza Maria Harvey Jones, was known throughout Leeds and Grenville counties, and beyond, for the dairy cattle and the horses she bred.
She, like other members of the short-lived Beaver Hall Group, learned from the well-known Montreal teacher, William Brymner, whose father had served in Ottawa as the Dominion’s first archivist. Heward and her colleagues were encouraged to explore new (modernist) approaches to painting, and Brymner, and later A.Y. Jackson, were instrumental in bringing the work of The Beaver Hall Group to the forefront of the professional art scene, at a time when women artists were viewed as little more than hobbyists.
Heward grew up in a large house in Montreal, summering at Fernbank, near Brockville. Later in her life, Fernbank would serve as a gathering place for sketching picnics that included friends such as A.Y. Jackson, Isabel McLaughlin, and Sarah Robertson.
Prudence Heward, and her colleagues, are the subjects of an exhibition produced, in 2015, by The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group), that is touring North America and Europe.