Lady Georgiana Eyre’s premier view of Toronto 1857

Lady Georgiana Eyre, Valley of the Don, Toronto, 1857. Watercolour with gouache over graphite on ivory wove paper

Lady Georgiana Eyre, Valley of the Don, Toronto, 1857. Watercolour with gouache over graphite on ivory wove paper, 36.7 x 51.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Historically significant, the watercolour Valley of the Don, Toronto by Lady Georgiana Eyre (1808–98) is a superb indication of the artist's talents. Very little is known about her in the art world about her, yet this is not unexpected. The biographies of early 19th-century British artists in Canada (usually officer-artists), are based largely on military records and published accounts of their travels. If Lady Eyre kept a diary or her correspondence, unfortunately neither was placed in the National Archives in Kew, alongside the papers of her husband Sir William Eyre.

From various parish records and census lists, however, it is possible to piece together some details of her life. She was born Georgiana Lucy Bridgeman Simpson in 1808 at Babworth, Nottinghamshire, England, and married British army officer William Eyre on 16 February 1841, soon after he returned from his first posting to Canada (1839–41). From the limited number of examples of her art known today and the few references in the Eyre fonds, it is evident that she travelled with her husband on his postings: first to South Africa and the Cape of Good Hope in 1845–47 and 1851–52; then from July 1856 to June 1859 to Canada where William was Commander-in-Chief of the British forces. When illness forced William to retire in 1859, they returned to Bilton Hall in Rugby, Lady Eyre’s family home, where he passed away within the year. Shortly afterwards, she moved out of Bilton Hall (where her unmarried sisters continued to live) into Bilton House. She lived there until her death on 2 April 1898 at the age of 90, the last of her eleven siblings. She had at least one son, Arthur Hardolph Eyre, based on the 1861 census, where he is listed as age 10 and as visiting from his school in Cape Town.

Even fewer details are recorded about Eyre’s artistic activities. Since formal education, such as at the Royal Academy of Arts, was not open to women, it can be supposed that she was tutored privately or semi-privately. Her accomplished technique and apparent knowledge of current artistic devices support the impression that she was not strictly self-taught, and there is evidence that she took her art-making seriously. Correspondence between William Eyre and Edmund Head, Governor General of the Province of Canada until 1861, indicate that Head was asked to show Georgiana Eyre's watercolours to the famed art dealers Colnaghi, while he was in England in 1857. Also mentioned in their correspondence is that her reputation as an artist was known and her art admired. In one of his letters, Head writes: “Tell Lady Eyre that the other day the Spencers saw me get into a railway carriage and followed me into it – they asked much after you and expressed the greatest admiration of her drawing which is in his hands – everyone who has seen it is of the same opinion.”

Map of the City of Toronto, 1866. Lithographed, Printed & Published by W.C. Chewett & Co.

Map, City of Toronto, 1866. Lithographed, Printed & Published by W.C. Chewett & Co. 17 & 19 King St. East, Toronto. Library and Archives Canada. Photo: LAC e010859336-v8

While stationed in Montreal, travel to Toronto – then the capital of the united Province of Canada – was essential for the Commander-in-Chief, and Eyre accompanied her husband on these trips in order to visit Head's wife, Lady Anna Maria Yorke Head, who was also an accomplished artist. Valley of the Don, Toronto is inscribed “Sept 1857”, possibly representing Georgiana Eyre's first visit to the city. It shows a panoramic view of the valley, looking towards the harbour. From an elevated vantage point, the location may be from the site of Castle Frank, the house built by John Graves Simcoe. The celebrated Greek Revival cottage was destroyed by fire in 1829, but the site remained a landmark. Another possibility is that it was drawn from a slightly closer location, the Toronto Necropolis cemetery (founded 1850), near Winchester and Sumach streets.

Through the framing device of trees and foliage, the Don River is represented as an idyllic winding stream. In fact, it was important as a trade route, with many sites of exchange between Indigenous nations along its length. During later colonial times, the river was used for the establishment of industry in Toronto. In the horizon are the tops of larger buildings, such as Little Trinity Church (built in 1843 at King Street East and Trinity Street) and possibly the original Legislative Buildings on Front and Berkeley. Although the city is romantically portrayed in soft light, it is nonetheless clear from the span of the buildings that Toronto was already a commercial centre at this time.

Eyre's watercolour technique is highly skilled, as demonstrated in the fluid and controlled application of washes to build the form of the hilly landscape with its grouping of trees and dense underbrush. Touches of gouache are added to heighten the blue of the Don River, which serves to draw the viewer’s eye into the composition. The dash of yellow of the distant tree, situated almost at the centre of the picture, is a bold touch that also marks the first sign of fall approaching. The placement of trees to either side in the foreground – creating a "window" – is a common pictorial device of the time and indicates that she was cognizant of contemporary artistic trends during this period, known as the "Golden Age of Watercolour."

WIlliam Armstrong, Arrival of the Prince of Wales at Toronto, September 1860, 1860. Watercolour, pen and black ink over graphite on wove paper, mounted on canvas

WIlliam Armstrong, Arrival of the Prince of Wales at Toronto, September 1860, 1860. Watercolour, pen and black ink over graphite on wove paper, mounted on canvas, 33.6 x 57.6 cm. Purchased 1961. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Relative to the number of images of Québec City and Montreal, views of Toronto are rare in the Gallery’s collection of works on paper. There are five other mid-19th-century prints and drawings relating to Toronto: two depicting the arrival of the Prince of Wales during his visit in 1860 and three later architectural drawings. None of these offers as splendid and accurate an overview of the city at this stage in its growth as Eyre's depiction.

Despite the limited information that survives, Eyre was by all accounts a fascinating woman who travelled extensively and captured her impressions in her art.  Given that she was a talented artist (as Valley of the Don reveals) and that she had ambitions (as her connection to Colnaghi indicates), why have only four of her works found their way into public knowledge?  Although woman artists were active participants in this important watercolour movement, relatively few are included in Canadian public art collections. Works on paper by women of this era, if valued and kept within the family, have most often been placed in archives, while work by their male counterparts was collected by art institutions. When considered alongside the drawings of artists of the same period, however, there is little doubt that Lady Eyre’s Valley of the Don, Toronto belongs among them.


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