• U.S.


2 minute read

HE British army officers of the 18th century performed with pen as well as sword. Cadets were instructed in sketching, not to encourage fine art but so they could draw readable pictures of forts, gun redoubts, and details of military operations. One of the few who far surpassed these minimum military requirements was Thomas Davies, a British artillery officer whose American and Canadian watercolors were brought to light in Britain only two years ago On display this week at Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa, they have already established Davies as “the father of Canadian landscape painting.”

As an officer, Davies had a distinguished career. In the French and Indian Wars, he commanded a naval force on Lake Champlain, which in a three-hour battle captured an 18-gun French frigate. He is credited with raising the first British flag over conquered Montreal. In the American Revolution, he served in battle against the American Continentals in the New Jersey campaign, later rose to become a lieutenant general and commander of Quebec. But as an artist Davies was almost unknown until a portfolio of his watercolors turned up in 1953 m England, in the Earl of Derby’s old library at Knowsley Hall. The New York Public Library bought the U.S. scenes, and Canada’s National Gallery snatched up the Canadian watercolors at bargain prices.

Included in the Ottawa collection are two of Davies’ earliest sketches done in 1758, one depicting the burning of Grymross, Nova Scotia, by British troops and another a detailed drawing of the new British fortifications with key points carefully labeled: “A. Fort Frederick. B. Huts built by the Rangers. C. Passage up the River. Davies’ later views of Montreal, Quebec and Halifax are valued as the first to be recorded in Canadian history.

In his later watercolors, done after the American Revolution, Davies was obviously painting for pure delight. Often naive, he included at times vegetation and animals more at home in the Amazon (Davies also served in the tropics) than along the St. Lawrence River. But at his best, he caught the primitive pioneer settlements, magnificent waterfalls, foaming rivers, the awesome virgin forests touched with the full richness of Canadian autumn, and recorded them with a freshness and charm that extends deft draftsmanship into the realm of art.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com