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

Bulletin 25, 1975

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Lyttleton's View of Halifax: Microscopic Cosmos

by Alexandra E. Carter

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5 


Captain W. W. L. Lyttleton painted the watercolour Halifax Harbour Seen from McNab' s Island, now in the Canadiana Department of the Royal Ontario Museum, sometime after 1840 when he was assigned to a tour of duty in that city (fig. 1). (1) Among the wealth of works treating the same subject during the years since the settlement was founded in 1749, this picture is exceptional because of the remarkable breadth of vista it describes, as well as the stylistic qualities it exhibits.

Monographs on individual subjects in Canadian art are all too rare, but surely Lyttleton's panoramic view deserves such treatment. In this article I shall briefly de scribe the physical setting, Halifax Harbour, as illustrated in works from the mid-eighteenth century onward, in relation to this work of Captain Lyttleton. Lyttleton was unusual among various garrison artists who passed through Halifax in the extent of his connections with the area and the interpretative power which he developed from the standard military training in topographical painting. The large view of Halifax in the Royal Ontario Museum is the masterpiece among the exceedingly small number of his works known today. Finally, there are interesting possibilities in the relationships between this water-colour of unusually large dimensions and three contemporary phenomena : the uses made of the camera obscura, the popularity of the panorama, and the development of English landscape painting in water-colour.

Lyttleton 's View of Halifax

Lyttleton views the city from a distant and elevated vantage point on the northern tip of McNab's Island at the mouth of the harbour, approximately three miles from the Halifax shore. The city serves as the focal point for a panoramic sweep which includes the entire land formation encompassing the harbour entrance from Sandwich Point in the south-west, midway on the left side of the picture, to the land adjacent McNab's Island (originally Cornwallis Island) in the north-east, on the right-hand side (fig. 2). Discernible on the horizon are four important landmarks which are carefully rendered : the Martello towers commanding Halifax Harbour, each of which is identified in an unknown hand (possibly Lyttleton's) below the picture, on the mount. (2) Near the left edge is York Redoubt, which still exists, and toward the right is the Duke of Clarence T over, which was demolished years ago. The total distance between the two towers is approximately three nautical miles and the angle of the view, as nearly as one can determine, is 180 degrees.

The Northern portion of McNab's Island constitutes the foreground (fig. 3). Included is the homestead of Lyttleton's brother-in-law, Lieutenant A. L. Hugonin, with a notable Georgian house seen from the back and side, enclosed by a well-painted wooden fence, various out-buildings, and a pasture. (3)

The foreground forms a pyramidal mass with a variety of compositional roles. The broad base provides immediately a sense of stability and repose. The apex directs the eye of the viewer to two focal points: the blunt point of the triangle formed by the scrub-covered knoll, and immediately adjacent to it, the distant city. The considerable distance between the two is suggested by Lyttleton's effective use of alternating dark and light areas. The origin of these shadows is somewhat obscure in the absence of dense cloud formations, but the rhythm thus established is continued by the play of light on the water and the distant shore. Basically, the composition terminates abruptly at the horizontal barrier of elevated land encircling the town, and this line, tangential to the rounded formation in the foreground, further rivets the attention on the microscopic cosmos.

The elongated shadows cast westward by the rotund sheep in the foreground indicate that a summer sunrise, rather than a sunset, is responsible for the variegated sky which fills the top half of the picture. From the brilliant cobalt blue in the upper left corner, the colour and intensity gradually diffuse, first into a neutral beige tone in the atmosphere where the oblique rays are most concentrated at this time of day, and finally into an almost opaque gold at the horizon on the right. Highlighted within this particular chromatic scheme is the city. The sky is a transitional device with a composite role: it serves as a two-dimensional band leading the eye down a surface diagonal toward the focal points; it also creates a specific spatial organization resulting from the inherent "projecting-receding" characteristics of warm and cool colours

Lyttleton in Halifax

Captain Lyttleton arrived in Halifax in October 1840 with the detachments of the 64th Regiment, and changed his status from visitor to adopted son by marrying the eldest daughter of one of the oldest and "best" families. (4) Joanna McNab was the descendant of "Governor" McNab, one of the original settlers who purchased the island from the brothers of Edward Cornwallis, the founder of Halifax. (5) The 1793 assessment lists Peter McNab (Joanna McNab's grandfather) as a farmer, residing on the island and owning two horses, twelve cows, and two hundred sheep. The McNab land was purchased by Lyttleton and his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Hugonin, whose house is included in Lyttleton's View. (6) Lyttleton lived in Halifax or on the island for seventeen years. (7) This could explain his choice of location from which to render this view of Halifax.

Westcott Witchurch Lewis Lyttleton (1818-1879/86) (8) was following the prescribed path of British military families when he entered the Royal Military Academy and received the commission of Ensign in 1837. (9) There is little recorded information about his formative years; he was born in Ceylon in 1818, the third child and eldest son of Lieutenant William Thomas Lyttleton, then serving with the 73rd Regiment. At some point the family moved to Scotland, then migrated to Tasmania in 1825. In February 1835, he left for London which he reached the following August. His military record appears to have been properly uneventful; the course of his advancement is indicated by the entry of his name in the army lists as Lieutenant in 1839, and as Captain in 1845. There is no further mention of him after 1848; however, his commission as Captain of the Royal Newfoundland Company in 1849 is in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. Harper records that Lyttleton served a second tour of duty in Canada in 1849-1866. (10) He retired to McNab's Island and enjoyed a position of considerable importance in the community. An active member of St Paul's Anglican Church, he was church-warden for the year 1867. (11) He served on the committee of the National School in Halifax in 1868-1869; the minutes of the Nova Scotia Institute of Natural Science reports that Captain Lyttleton "had waited on the Lieutenant Governor to be a patron," indicating he had been chosen to present the petition of incorporation for the organization; he served a five-year term as treasurer, 1862-1867. (12) Lyttleton took an active role in the Provincial Exhibition, 1853, as subscriber, prize winner for sheep, and one of the judges of the fine arts section. (13) A decade later, he was instrumental in organizing an important art exhibition held at the Halifax armoury; several of his water-colours were included in the show. (14)

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