Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Death of Sir Isaac Brock - 200 years ago today.

Death of Sir Isaac Brock. Battle of Queenston Heights. October 13, 2013.

Battle of Queenston Heights. artist unknown.

above: Push on Brave York Volunteers, by John David Kelly

unidentified artist

It can be argued that successful military battles play a significant role in helping nations define their identity. Canada is no exception, for our history was defined by such campaigns as were staged on the  Plains of Abraham, Queenston Heights, Batoche, and Vimy Ridge. The Battle of Queenston Heights was significant for several reasons, the foremost being that it represented a successful defense of our country  against a foreign invader.

These three depictions of the battle of Queenston Heights focused on the creation of a Canadian Icon - Sir Isaac Brock. Putting aside, the fact that the battle took place in British North America, and Brock was an Englishman leading English troops. While there are certain commonalities in the 3 works, i.e the battle, and the death of Brock, there are notable artistic differences in the way the scene is represented.

C.W. Jeffries, in the upper painting is hero focused.  Brock is the  prominent figure, and he is seen in dramatic posture, taking the bullet. Jeffries has him standing beside a native warrior to the right,  and a defending non military combatant. Its an artistic statement of  Brock, as a representative of the crown standing in the middle between a citizen and a native. The citizen represents the Canadian populace rising alongside the English to defend their country and the native warrior represents the Native Alliance, which was signed several months before with Tecumseh.

In the second painting we see a fallen Brock shouting encouragement to his troops.  But the painting was done long after the battle, and the words, "Push on Brave York Volunteers," became part of a national myth of Canada as a small nation, rising like David to defend itself against an American Goliath.

The third painting  by artist J.D.Kelly,  'Push on Brave York Volunteers,' is interesting in another way. The most likely truth is that Brock is said by a witness to have been shot on his breast, and that he reached up and put his hand where he was shot and then slid silently down to the ground.  If those words were shouted, it would have been most likely made by Brock before he was hit. This painting contrasts vividly with painting two. Painting two shows a well organized battle on a level field.  The reality is that Brock's troops were hurriedly thrown into battle and  they were small in number and were at a major disadvantage with the Americans being well positioned on the heights above them.

Interestingly, all three artists omit the small company of blacks who fought for the Crown. They seem to have been lost in the consciousness of most Canadians, except for the descendants of the early black community. The blacks were either the descendants of American slaves or were slaves who had escaped to Canada via the underground railway. There was a lot at stake for them in maintaining the independence of British North America.

 Its pretty clear from looking at the paintings that CW Jeffries was the better artist of the three. His picture is the most artfully composed. His Brock is the foremost person on the line of English troops and he  stands a the apex of an inverted triangle - the base being the line American militiamen. The soft mid painting violet tonalities dramatizes the red British uniforms.  Notice how Brock appears captured by a beam of sunlight. The grass around him is painted in the lightest of values and a vertical formation of white clouds rise above him.

The second painting presents the entire battlefield as a stage and it comes complete with boats on the Niagara River (top left) and soldiers from both sides locked in conflict. There is lots of action, cannon  and rifle smoke and men fighting, pressing and dying. It looks like the battle of Waterloo being waged in British North America.

The last picture, has a sort of inverted heroism about it.  The English are outnumbered, out positioned and the few we see have taken their share of hits.  The artist, gives us a leader who overcomes all odds. His actions inspire his soldiers to rise above themselves in spite of the formidable odds against them.

Each of the three pictures portray Brock wearing a sash around his waist.  The sash was a gift from Chief Tecumseh, who presented it to Brock after Fort Detroit was turned over to Britain in August 1812.
Brock presented Tecumseh with his sash and pistols andTecumseh in return gave Brock his sash. Brock wore it until the end of his life.

Written in collaboration with editor, Maureen Bayliss.

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