National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 25, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Lyttleton's View of Halifax: Microscopic Cosmos

by Alexandra E. Carter

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Halifax As Seen by Other Artists

Halifax has a distinctive and unique physical appearance which has made it an inviting subject for a variety of reasons and talents. The earliest views were intended as visual documents to be sent back to England. An unmistakable appreciation for attention to detail is apparent in all these early topographical views. Richard Short's Halifax from George's Island 1759 (fig. 7) is one of the earliest and represents, in effect, a telescoped version of Lyttleton's, taken from a smaller island within the confines of the harbour, George's Island. The land in the foreground of the Halifax view forms a pyramidal surface pattern similar to that of McNab's Island in the Lyttleton work and draws the eye across the apex to the opposite shore.

The focal point in the 1759 version, however, is not the actual town which lies to the left of centre, but His Majesty's Dock Yard.

The closer proximity of land masses in Short's work increases the surface area of the harbour and clearly reveals more information of navigational concern. The viewer is able to assess at a glance the available anchorage facilities and degree of protection provided by the shoreline boundaries. In addition, Short gives information about the depths of the harbour waters: the passage to the harbour on the west of the island, on the left in the picture, admits larger ships while the shallower channel on the east can only accommodate schooners and smaller craft. He includes two impressive square-rigged ships to advertise this point. It is understandable that Short's interpretation of Halifax was expressed in nautical terms and that his interests were primarily military in nature: he was purser of H. M. S. Prince of Orange and served during the siege of Quebec; he looks at Halifax to discover the possibilities for a defensive bastion.

Petley's Halifax from the Mill at Dartmouth 1834 (fig. 8), rendered in pen and ink over pencil, is from the Canadiana Department, Royal Ontario Museum. In this view Halifax is seen from the shore of its twin settlement, Dartmouth. The harbour is quite narrow at this point and affords an excellent vista of the eastern part of the town which begins at the wharves along the water's edge and gently climbs up the side of the hill crowned by the citadel fortification. Again, George's Island at the tip of the town provides a reference point for establishing the orientation of the scene. The somewhat rough rendering of the windmill on the left of the picture, as of other architectural elements, contrasts sharply with Lyttleton's draughtsmanship.

William Bartlett was not a product of the British military system but rather an ambitious artist interested in the commercial venture of publishing romantic scenes to sell to the Victorian clientel hungry for information of distant places. He was commissioned by George Virtue to prepare sketches for a book which was later published, Canadian Scenery Illustrated, and this Halifax from Dartmouth (fig. 9) was no doubt among the first pictures he produced upon his arrival in 1837.

Bartlett's vantage point in Dartmouth is not far removed from Petley's position, judging once again by the location of George's Island in the picture, but the nature of the two works is entirely different. Bartlett's scene is composed to bring the picturesque qualities to the fore: the vegetation in the foreground is a foil for the figures on the right, and then left of centre, intended to "humanize" the remaining wilderness, the eye of the viewer jumps to the settlement of repetitious box-houses on the left in the middle-ground and thence across the water to the city of Halifax. Church spires and domes lend an air of authenticity, but are so subordinate to the much more carefully described citadel that the town becomes a symbol of civilized complacency under the protection of the British Crown. Lyttleton combines the best attributes of both Short and Bartlett in his Panoramic View of Halifax Island.

Landscape Art and Lyttleton's "View of Halifax"

The question of the extent to which the camera obscura was employed during Lyttleton's time remains something of a mystery, but Scharf suggests that one can reasonably assume most artists engaged in the vast production of voyages pittoresques in the eighteenth-nineteenth century did make use of it. (23) The degree of accuracy obtained by use of this mechanical device would have appealed naturally to the military topographers. Whether it was actually used in North American locales like Chebucto Harbour, familiarity with it may have tended to limit the artist's range of vision. (24)

At the turn of the century an Edinburgh artist, Robert Baker, conceived the idea of producing a full 360 degrees view as seen by the eye from a single vantage point in an uninterrupted panoramic sweep, by joining a series of roughly eight consecutive camera obscura scenes. (25) It is interesting to speculate whether Lyttleton was influenced by this novel and far reaching idea when he composed his watercolour of Halifax as it has a distinctive panoramic quality and far exceeds the limit of the vista presented in the 1853 view.

In actual physical size Lyttelton's work is again the largest, measuring 31.9 x 76.8 cm (12-9/16 x 30-1/4 in.), and is a single sheet of paper. The fact that these dimensions greatly exceed those of the average water colour sketch raises questions about the sources of Lyttleton's paper. Clearly he intended to convey this wide expanse with physical drama and was at pains to obtain paper of suitable dimensions to do so.

As a result of the tremendous popularity of painting in watercolour, a great number of societies were formed for the purpose of encouraging the art and holding public exhibitions. Lyttleton would have had many opportunities to view the works of contemporary watercolour artists in England if he followed the well-established Haligonian custom of taking frequent visits to Britain on the regularly scheduled Cunard ships. A daguerreotype was taken of Lyttleton and his wife on one such trip in 1872. (26)

Yet there seems to be no resemblance between Lyttleton's work and that of any of his contemporaries which he might have seen exhibited in England. Much earlier, Thomas Girtin had portrayed English landscapes in wide perspectives with a sweeping treatment of the foreground leading the eye across untrammeled spaces. Girtin's compositional arrangement, which places attention and contemplation in the far distance, is comparable to our Panoramic View of Halifax. On the other hand, the detailed attention given to English sky formations by Girtin and artists of the intervening period, as Constable and Turner, did not exercise the same fascination for Lyttleton.

The one artist to whom Lyttleton bears closest resemblance stylistically is his contemporary Edward Lear (1812-1888). He is best remembered for his Nonsense poems for children, but he referred to himself as "landscape artist" and many books of his views were published including: Journal of a Landscape Artist in Corscia (1872); Views in Rome and its Environs (1841); Illustrated Excursions in Italy, 2 vols (1846).

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