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

Bulletin 25, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 10 here for an enlarged image

Lyttleton's View of Halifax: Microscopic Cosmos

by Alexandra E. Carter

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5 

In 1856, Lear went to Corfu with the intention of producing another book which was never realized, but for which he made over three hundred sketches, "by my usual dilatory but sure process of penning out and colour, thanks to after dinner application and stayathomeaciousness." (27) These Corfu works, especially, bring Lyttleton to mind (but earlier works do so as well) because of the wide vista, the tension created by interest focused simultaneously on foreground detail and the distant horizon, the delicacy yet sureness of the contour outline seen in the silhouetted hills, and finally the impression of detail achieved with only the slightest indication of line or stroke. A drawing from the Corfu period titled Ithaca (28) (fig. 10) shows the landscape anchored by a large tree in the left contracting in a wedge-shape pattern to the right, curving, sweeping back to the left, and together with a distant land mass, enveloping a large body of water. The impression of vastness is analogous to the effect of Lyttleton's Panoramic view of Halifax. Lear included a group of men working in the field in the middle-ground: with a few brief strokes he subordinates these within the larger framework yet he describes each particular and individual gesture, as well as suggesting the characteristic details of costume such as headdress and trouser belts. Lyttleton achieves a comparable effect with the deftly - yet convincingly - rendered sheep in the centre foreground. An early steam vessel entering Halifax Harbour appears to be no more than a single horizontal stroke, yet conveys such specific information as the prow configuration, the semicircular form which encloses the paddle wheel, and the smokestack between the two masts. (29) A square-rigged vessel at the left of the picture is another example of microscopic accuracy.

The variety of line and brushstroke which the two men display adds interest and expression. (Lyttleton relied almost exclusively on watercolour, while Lear frequently favoured the pen.) The vertical lines forming the slender tree trunks are evidence of Lyttleton's firm control and sense of authority. Leaves arc formed by deft strokes of a fairly dry brush, and the shadows are imparted by quick sweeps of a heavily-charged brush over the surface.

What one is to make of the analogy between Lyttleton and Lear is hard to know.


Captain Lyttleton's View of Halifax from McNab's Island follows the tradition of the British topographical watercolour, but within the confines of the format becomes an exceptional artistic statement in its own right. This is in part owed to the unusual and unique compositional qualities, the panoramic breadth of the vision, and the variety of stylistic detail. It is, perhaps, significant that Lyttleton was not a transient, as were so many artists who "viewed the Canadian scene through British spectacles." (28) He developed a feeling for it and identified with it. Lyttleton becomes far more than an artist in this instance; he is a man of property, of the very McNab's Island in the fore-ground, and he chooses to view the city in the distance across the water much as a symbol of the civilized and superior uniqueness of his own existence. In that sense he was set apart from Short, Petley, and Bartlett. Lyttleton's interpretation of the Halifax environment is enhanced by those intrinsic qualities resulting from attachment with, and belonging to, a specific locality. Such attributes arc not to be found in works by other artists treating the same subject.

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