In 1759 General James Wolfe launched a daring British offensive up the St. Lawrence River to attack the robustly fortified city of Quebec, the heart of French colonialism in North America.
Hailed as the “battle that won Canada”, the ensuing battle on the Plains of Abraham outside the city is often cited as an event that instigated the end of French colonial ambitions in North America. Working as an aide-de-camp to General Wolfe, Sir Hervey ‘Henry’ Smyth was at the battle and proceeded to sketch its events in a compilation image. His sketch, which would become known as A View of the Taking of Quebec, depicts the amphibious landing of British troops, their scaling of the cliffs and the arrival of French troops onto the plains. The sketch was reworked over the years, published in several forms and eventually became a popular print.
Originally, Smyth created and published the image not in pursuit of commercial success, but as part of a hobby of sketching landscapes and as a means of documenting history. I will argue that the reworked black and white engraving published by the Bowles family was used to educate the gentry of London, though it soon became a viable commercial item. Finally I will argue that the coloured image published by Laurie and Whittle was published solely as a commercial print for the public.
Sir Hervey Smyth sketched many landscapes on the campaign to Quebec in 1759, all in the pursuit of a leisurely distraction from war, as opposed to the pursuit of commercial success. As a member of the upper middle-class of England, heir to a baronetcy and claimant to his father’s estate, Smyth had no need for a secondary occupation. Like other officers in the British army, Smyth had purchased his commission, which at the time was a luxury available only to those who could afford it. Officers like Smyth therefore “considered themselves ‘gentlemen’ and continued their gentlemanly interests in the service”, including the pursuit of artistic aspirations. It is not surprising that many of them sketched landscapes as a distraction from war. One such artist, Major Petley, commented in 1837 that his sketches “were originally not intended for publication but merely done to while away some… idle hours of a soldier’s life abroad”. Smyth had similar motivations. To occupy himself on the campaign, Smyth sketched several landscapes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A View of The Taking of Quebec was in fact the final landscape he sketched in Canada. Injured at the battle itself in 1759, Smyth returned to England, taking with his sketches. The injury was the central reason why Smyth’s sketches were published as early as 1760. Smyth’s diversion in wartime, his sketching, would become an unexpected source of wealth after his return to England.
Having returned to England, Smyth sought publication of his sketch, as seen above, in an effort to document history. He achieved as much, in 1760, in William Rider’s A New History of England. Smyth’s sketch published therein and engraved by James Hullet, was a pivotal visual aid for Rider’s text. The left hand-side of the image mirrored Rider’s detailing of “Colonel Howe [and] his light infantry” capturing a “four gun battery”. Crucially, this prevented the guns being used against British forces in the ensuing battle. The bottom right paralleled his description of the disembarking British forces. A single piece of artillery is also depicted in the bottom right of the image, mirroring Rider’s comment of both armies being “destitute of artillery” and the British having only a “single gun”. Smyth’s support of historical documentation led to commercial success, with Rider’s history “very well received by the public”. Crucially, the success of Rider’s history meant that Smyth’s image was spread into the British public consciousness.
There is evidence to suggest that during the siege of Quebec, Smyth himself kept a written account of events, possibly wishing to use this account with his sketch to document history. C.P. Stacey advances the idea that it was either Smyth or Thomas Bell, another aide-de-camp, behind the “pungent and literate” account of events. Stacey however misses crucial circumstantial evidence that supports his conclusion. Suggesting that the account was written in England retrospectively in the winter of 1759-60, Stacey fails to connect this with Smyth’s injury, which instantly forced him to return to England and hence fits Smyth within this timeframe perfectly. The account also ends rather prematurely at the end of the battle, without disclosing further information about the actual capture of the city, the pursuance of French troops or the French counterattack and siege over the winter. This again would link to Smyth’s injury, disallowing him from further documentation of events. Interestingly, the account describes the disembarkation of British troops and the actions of Colonel Howe in a way that very closely resembles Rider’s history. From these clues it seems plausible that Smyth returned to England, was unable or unwilling to publish his account of events and therefore gave it as a primary source to Rider.
The inclusion of A View of the Taking of Quebec within Rider’s account would have served as a form of pictorial citation and recognition of Smyth’s contribution. From this evidence it can be argued that Smyth had ambitions for A View of the Taking of Quebec to be published alongside historical writing, even if not his own account of the siege.
The circulation of the image reached new heights with its second incarnation, as seen above, published by John and Carrington Bowles in The London Magazine in 1760, where it was used to educate and entertain or divert the intellectual elite of Britain. . First published in 1732, The London Magazine promised its audience a range of topics from “politicks [and] history [to]… poetry”. Smyth’s image had been appropriated for the magazine by the engraver Thomas Jefferys. Jefferys had taken the approach of many engravers of the period, who viewed their work as “improving on a deficient original”. Jefferys’ version, as seen in image two, was still in black and white but had a new perspective. He enhanced the disembarkation section, centring the focus on the troops by enlarging and detailing them. He included several more details of the battle. British soldiers are shown to be fighting to gain access to the Plains of Abraham. The French General Montcalm’s rout is shown in explicit detail, with the French retreating towards the city of Quebec. These additions were made in consideration of the context of the image in The London Magazine. The image appeared alongside an article on the Battle of Sainte-Foy, the French counter-attack and siege of Quebec over the winter.
The image therefore served as a stand-alone prequel to the text, encapsulating the original siege of the city by British forces. Most readers would have never before seen the Canadian landscape. The image therefore served the dual roles of a geographic and historical educational tool.
After its publication in The London Magazine, publishment of A View of the Taking of Quebec soon became a viable commercial opportunity for John and Carrington Bowles. Dealing under the name of John Bowles and Son, they were primarily known in the 1760s for their publication of maps and social satires. However, A View of the Taking of Quebec was one of several historical prints that they began publishing. At the time geographic and historical publishing were intrinsically linked. Adding historical prints to catalogues allowed patrons to gain a “social construction of geographical knowledge”. Its geographical link was one of several reasons the print was successful. Its subject matter was another reason for the print’s success, glorifying the British Empire and the fighting prowess of British troops. Also in demand were “narrative pictures” or historical pictures that could act as “conversation pieces”. A View of the Taking of Quebec fit this market perfectly and achieved consequent success. As a print, the image had the added bonus of affordability for a wider market. It was noted at the time that “printshops (sic) [had become] the gallery of the ordinary citizen”. The Bowles family themselves advertised their prints as being “at the lowest prices”. Hence the print was marketed to a much larger market than it had previously been exposed to, building on its previous publication in Rider’s history and The London Magazine.
Once the print started to gain commercial success, other printers began viewing it as a viable acquisition for publication. The problem with such interest was the question of copyright and legal ownership. According to the Engravers’ Copyright Act of 1735 Hervey Smyth, the engravers he commissioned and the Bowles family had legal copyright of the image for a period of fourteen years. The engraver behind the black and white version in The London Magazine, Thomas Jefferys, therefore, had publication rights until 1774. A problem arose however when Thomas Jefferys became bankrupt in 1766, with an official certificate of bankruptcy issued in 1767. Facing grim prospects, Jefferys had to rely on “friends… compassionate enough to re-instate [his] shop”. One such friend was Robert Sayer, a printer of dubious character who soon gained a senior partnership in publishing Jefferys’ works. During this partnership, Sayer gained an “important slice of Jeffery’s stock in trade… [including] copper plates”. After his death in 1771, Jefferys’ will dictated that all of his stock should be sold off, allowing Sayer to purchase even more of his engravings. Amongst these collections was A View of the Taking of Quebec.
Interestingly, there is no evidence that Sayer himself ever published this newly acquired engraving. There are several possible explanations, the most likely being that he never received permission from the image’s “inventor” Hervey Smyth, which was necessary under the law. Having already commissioned the Bowles family to publish the work, Smyth may have seen an added publisher as a burden rather than a boon. Regardless, the print was republished years later by Sayer’s successor, Robert Laurie, to even greater commercial success.
Robert Laurie and his business partner James Whittle republished the print in 1797 -years after the copyright had expired- aiming solely for commercial gain. Colour was added to the print to achieve this aim, as seen in image three above. It had always been possible to hand-paint colours onto prints, however such a process was tediously slow and expensive. In 1774 Laurie invented a process of printing engravings in colour, which allowed for a much larger output of stock. Having been apprenticed to Robert Sayer, Laurie and Whittle succeeded him and took over his business after his death in 1794. Gaining access to his stock, they began to republish his backlog of prints, including A View of the Taking of Quebec. Adding colour to the image gave it newfound life and popularity. At the time, any print related to America would sell well, for “the interest in America far exceeded… the information that existed”. A View of the Taking of Quebec was in fact visual information, allowing buyers to “gain access to… [an] historical event only read about or imagined”. The print would have most likely appeared in dining rooms throughout Britain, where “printed views of landscapes” were especially popular. Even more so, if they had a “sharp linear perspective” as this one did. Coloured prints in general had gained popularity over time and Sayer’s firm and apprentices had always been known to produce affordable work to significant public demand. The popularity of the print also fell to the specific subject matter it depicted, allowing owners to revel in the accomplishments of the British Empire.
A View of the Taking of Quebec had a complex and diverse publication history in the late eighteenth century. Originally created as part of Hervey Smyth’s hobby of sketching during war, it was not aimed at commercial success. Instead Smyth wished to publish his work to help document history. The work would go on to educate the gentry of Britain through its publication in The London Magazine. The Bowles family and subsequently Laurie and Whittle used the print for commercial purposes. The diversity of the print’s publication proved its popularity. Centred on a battle that glorified Britain, it is not surprising how successful the print became.
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