Saturday, March 13, 2010

Thomas Davies: Early English Military Artist in Canada

by Jim Burant

Thomas Davies

(circa 1737-1 812), a Royal Artillery officer whose first service in Canada began at Halifax in 1757.
"Davies, an important figure in Canadian military history, recorded unique views of the campaigns at Louisbourg and in the St. John River valley during 1758, the campaign against the French forts in the Lake Champlain and Richelieu regions in 1758, and the St. Lawrence River valley campaign against Montreal in 1760.

His watercolour view of Amherst's troops descending the rapids of the St. Lawrence in the 1760 campaign (Figure I) was widely reproduced in print form, since it formed the background to the famous dedicatory portrait of Jeffrey, Lord Amherst, painted by Joshua Reynolds and published in 1765.

It is a moving and extraordinary rendering of the difficulties faced by Amherst during his rugged journey. Davies served in North America throughout his career, including duty in the years of the American Revolution, during which he again drew many views of battles fought against revolutionary troops.

A Davies sketchbook recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada contains superb views of British military operations around New York, as well as sketches relating to Canada.4 The most interesting of all Davies' work, for the military historian,are sketches now held by the National Archives of Canada showing different types of military formations as well as 'A South View of Crown Point' with the pitched tents of the army's camp laid out before the observer (Figure 2).5."

editor comment:

English officers in training were taught how to paint in watercolours, since these paintings provided valuable pre-photographic records of locations and situations.
So, its important to look at this work, not as the work of an artist, but as a military record. The sailing boat in mid picture is so innoculous that its hardly worth calling it a subject, for in fact it isn't. The overall scene of the campaign is in itself, the subject.

Davies does have some modest compositional skills as seen in his foreground rocks and trees. These give the work darker values and a feeling of distance. And, he has also used trees and landscape contours to surround the central area of his painting.

The documentary nature of the work superscedes it as a work of art. Colours are suppressed and muted with earth tones. But, this is to be expected for it was painted by a military officer who was constrained into using his watercolours to record a military event.

I wonder if this style of painting didn't influence non documentary watercolour artists. Traditional English watercolour painting has, for instance, been characterized by a 'greying down' of bright colours.

note: figure 2.5 can be seen on this link: [PDF]
from:The Military Artist and the Documentary Art Record
Archival Journals, article 12435 by Jim Burant.
Simon Fraser University. [pdf] file

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