Thomas Davies and other British military artists in the Atlantic theater of war, 1757-1758

Denis Robillard

In the spring of 2015, a watercolor dated to 1762 entitled An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara was sold at a Christie’s auction house in London for the stunning price of $217,000. The painting is one of the earliest works by Thomas Davies, an artillery gunner who did several tours of duty in North America, including Nova Scotia in 1758. Davies’ works, along with those of other highly trained military artists of the period, are some of the earliest views and records of early British history in Canada. Thomas Davies’ role as an iconographer of colonial North America, and the aesthetic quality of his work, which combined training in topographical images with self-taught talent, make him an important Canadian artist.

Thomas Davies was born in Kent in 1737 to a Welsh family. He became a professional soldier after a brief stint as a cadet at the Royal Military College at Woolwich. Opened in 1741, Woolwich was the first tertiary school to furnish advanced engineering and scientific courses to prospective officers and artillery engineers. Within a span of a few years, academy graduates like Davies became well versed in weapons training, fortifications, topography, road works, harbors and canal systems. They honed their painting skills there too, with both cartographical and meteorological training. Each student was expected to excel at various drawing techniques before graduation.

At Woolwich, Davies was taught by several talented and influential instructors including, Gamiliel Massiot,[1] and the mathematician John Muller whose mathematical influence on Davies can be seen in Oblique Fires (1759) and Cross and Square (1759).[2] John Lodge Cowley was the master of cartography.[3] Another instructor was John Ellys who was closely associated with the St. Martin’s Lane Academy and often sent cadet recruits there to further their artistic ambitions. By the age of 19, Davies, encouraged by his mentors, was already reaping financial rewards from his artistic talents.[4]

Still fresh from his drawing master’s tutelage, on July 9th, 1757 Davies arrived with vice admiral Francis Holburne’s fleet to Halifax to commence battle with the French forces already assembled in Cape Breton during the French Indian Wars (1757-1763). An early blunder for the British navy, the first mission across the Atlantic had to be scrubbed due to poor planning. The French were still very much strongly entrenched at Louisbourg and offered no quarter. In 1757, their staggering numbers would prevail against combined British forces at their doorstep. However, the next year through stealthy planning, the British beefed up their fleet and powered up their compliment of soldiers to reap the desired results of overtaking Louisbourg. The flourishing naval base, fishing port, and commercial centre came under attack from over 13,000 British soldiers aboard a massive fleet overwhelming its hapless 4,000 French defenders.

Besides Davies there were other military artists present on the Nova Scotia shore recording history. A Captain Charles Ince from the 35th regiment was one such eyewitness sketching the British invasion. Another observer was Royal engineer officer William Brasier of the same 35th regiment. Brasier was fresh from desk work at the Tower of London and was now hired to make new maps of the Canadian coast. He also recorded pivotal events from the siege in a diary that has been preserved.

As the three-week siege of Louisbourg came to an end, Davies put his knowledge of perspective to the test. He likely witnessed the sinking of the French fleet hidden aboard a bomb ship poised near Lighthouse Point or along an island vantage where these ships could be seen. His first paintings, on that very spot, make an accurate representation of the event. He sketched from the center redoubt looking east of the six-gun battery about 2 miles from the fort a diagrammatic representation of the landscape perceived through a concise military lens of grid lines and proportions befitting his fresh Woolwich training. He executed the harrowing scene while his fellow soldiers were engaged in close hand-to-hand battles on the shore. His painting also accurately shows the various artillery positions surrounding the beleaguered fortress of Louisbourg as it was bombarded between July 21st and July 25th. Davies’ painting depicts a smoldering Entreprenant set ablaze and exposed in the harbor with its charred remains. The Burning of the Prudent and the Taking of the Bienfaisant as engraved by Pierre Canot shows a similar final act of submission by the French ships.[5] Canot’s version may very well have used Davies’ sketches for inspiration as Canot was not present at this actual battle. He would have surely received some visual cues from the British drawings once they were sent back to London. Captain Ince also produced a view of the second siege taken near the lighthouse.

The Burning of the Prudent and the Taking of the Bienfaisant, engraving by Pierre Canot

Louisbourg fell on July 26th 1758. Two weeks later a deportation order was issued to expel remaining Acadiens from nearby Prince Edward Island. After their successful engagement in Nova Scotia, Hardy and the redoubtable General Wolfe, 1500 men strong, ranged the fishing coast of New Brunswick. Their mission: to harry and harass the French settlements in the fish laden pools of the gulf.[6] The British landed in the waters of the Bay of Fundy by September 20th then moved swiftly upriver to violently drive out the French, destroy villages, and murder and imprison residents.[7] Military artists were onboard the ships pressed into service on these burning missions, including Captain Hervey Smythe who was aboard the troopship The Vanguard. Several of his paintings of the Maritimes survive. Climbing up through the military echelons, he caught the eye of General Wolfe who soon marshalled him in to be his ADC[8]. Smythe was at the battle of Louisbourg in 1758 before moving on to Quebec in 1759. He is remembered for some of his realistic views on that spot such as his Six elegant views of the most remarkable places in the river and gulph of St Lawrence.[9] Oil paintings were subsequently executed on several of the same military subjects during this war, some by the English marine artist, Francis Swaine, another Smythe contemporary. Swaine was credited with some canvasses painted from sketches done by Smythe of scenes along the St Lawrence River gulf after 1759.[10]

A small fort, later to be called Fort Frederick was erected and Davies stayed there briefly. At this new garrison, he was joined by 5 companies of the 35th which included his painter friend William Brasier who made a sketch of the new fort. Also present for a time was Captain Ince. Muster rolls say Ince’s regiment had besieged Fort William Henry in 1757. He completed several paintings in Nova Scotia including one called ‘Huts Built by the Rangers” done in 1758. His views would rival the early works that Davies produced.[11] His drawings of Louisbourg, were also rendered on the spot and later engraved in England. They were sold as a popular military image imprinted by Thomas Jeffreys in 1762. Jeffreys would go on to produce and sell several military prints done in Canada including those rendered by Davies between 1760 and 1768

By the fall of 1758, The British had instigated a “scorched earth” expedition against French settlements in New Brunswick. Davies, with sketch pad at the ready, accompanied Colonel Moncton’s and Hardy’s forces to what is now Gagetown, New Brunswick. He went down river along with 400 of Colonel Monckton’s men from the 17th Regiment to burn French homes. While others plundered, stole and torched, Davies and William Brassier casually recorded, firsthand, the burning of Grymross village. The result of this was a monochrome watercolor painting by Davies in 1758 called A View of the Plundering and Burning of the City of Grymross.[12]

A View of the Plundering and Burning of the City of Grymross.

William Brasier’s diary offers a perspective of the scene witnessed and depicted by Davies. A full regiment and three companies of rangers embarked in sloops and schooners. The St. Jean River was of “considerable breath and extremely beautiful appearing in several places like a large lake with many islands and small rivers emptying themselves into it.” “At the village called Grimross,” Brasier notes: “a few “shagling” houses, these destroyed with some cattle and gardens and fields of Indian corn. The inhabitants fled into the woods with their effects.”[13]

By November, three Royal American companies were garrisoned at the newly constructed Fort Frederick for the winter including Davies and the British artillery unit. Royal Engineers built two strong blockhouses before several remaining troops embarked for winter quarters at Boston, Annapolis Royal and the Bay of Fundy. Davies would complete his third ever painting while guarding New Brunswick. He imagined the newly constructed fort in 1758, built in honor of Colonel Monckton. It is a bucolic and almost naïve view he called “A North View of Fort Frederic on the Entrance of the St. Johns River, 1758”. It depicts a serene view of military men engaged in fishing pursuits on the St. Johns river. Davies may even have included himself in this early portrait as one of those men.[14]

A North View of Fort Frederick Built by Order of the Honourable Colonel Robert Monckton, on the Entrance of the St. John’s River in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, 1758. Watercolour, pen and black ink on laid paper, National Gallery of Canada.

After completing a brief set of paintings depicting Halifax, Louisbourg and New Brunswick, Davies and his colleagues moved on to their next mission, unaware of their historical bearings on early maritime iconography. They next plied their skills imagining new waterways, streams and myriad rivers in New York for the Royal Engineers department. Always on the move in time of war, there would be several new views to paint as the army headed into Quebec and New York for the balance of the conflict.

Thomas Davies not only painted the first maritime genre in early Nova Scotia history, but he was also very much interested in natural history and depicted early scenes of Canadian birds, mammals and butterflies that were highly praised in the ranks of the Royal Society and Linnaean Society. Davies began to make rumbles in the art world in 1953 when the National Gallery began to purchase his paintings. His unique scenes not only documented the topographical landscape of early Canada but have found a way to shape our collective psyche as well. He has been dubbed the father of Canadian landscape painting, one who has learned to express the inner mystery of the scene in front of him. 

Denis Robillard is an English teacher in Windsor, Ontario. He is currently completing a biography of Thomas Davies.


[1] Massiot, French, Jewish and a Freemason was the drawing master at Woolwich from around 1744.

[2] A German-born mathematician, who taught trigonometry, conic sections, mechanics, chemistry, the art of fortifications and bridge building.

[3] Cowley was a cartographer, geologist, and mathematician.

[4] If one opened up the pages of the General Evening Post or The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure on Wednesday January 21, 1756, you would have witnessed one of the first times the Davies name came into print. That night’s announcement came courtesy of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Commerce, Craig Street. That week, preeminent connoisseurs of art from the William Shipley School and St. Martin’s Academy art studio near the Strand, sat to adjudicate various artistic modes and pieces from young underlings now studying at those respective academies. A young 17-year-old Thomas Davies appears here for the first time amidst a group of like-minded young men. In that sweep, he would encounter seasoned instructors and well- known figures in the London arts community. Men like Hogarth, Hudson, Francis Hayman, Arthur Pond, and Robert Strange. Their task was simply to judge the best “fancied designs” by candidates under 17 years old. Davies among them. The premiums were adjudged as follows:  Elias Durnford first prize (5£). Second prize went to Henry Pingo (4£) while the third prize was taken by Thomas “Davis” (also reported as “Davies” in another paper). Davies obviously made an early impression on the judges that day having earned 3£ for his unique designs. He bested William Pars and William Pether who also took smaller premiums home. The newspapers went on to say that “these gentlemen were nominated by the (Royal Arts) Society (RSA) for their specimens of pattern drawings.” Nothing further is known about this brief notice in the London papers but it does offer up a small glimpse into his early connections with the RSA before striking out as a soldier in Canada.

[5] The Burning of the Prudent and taking of the Bienfaissant in Louisbourg Harbor was executed by Richard Paton then engraved by Pierre Canot.

[6] Davies’ movements here can be traced through period newspapers and other military sources. The Pennsylvania Gazette for October 12, 1758 reported  that “on Monday last his majesty’s ship HMS Squirrel sailed from this place [Halifax] for the Bay of Fundy, having under convoy the transports with the troops destined for the reduction of Fortresses in the river St. John, chiefly inhabited by renegade neutrals.” According to the Journal of the Royal Artillery (1951) after the resounding defeat of Louisbourg, the British expedition sailed under escort with the HMS Squirrel on August 30, 1758. Stationed in Halifax from September 5th to 12th, they sailed again with 19 transports, arriving at the mouth of the St. John’s River, 7 days later. Their mission was to destroy and plunder New Brunswick.

[7] Brigadier Monckton continued to disembark British transports nearby while 200 native people lay in ambush waiting for them to land. Secured behind their temporary forts, the British formulated a plan of attack to repel them and harass the French. Within days they burned down 147 French dwellings, destroyed hogs and cattle and even scalped men, women and children leaving death and destruction in their wake. Captain Bird’s detachment indiscriminately burned down several dozen houses, plundered fishing boats and stole hordes of fishing equipment. On the Gaspe coast in the late summer of 1758 they took countless residents prisoner. All told, Wolfe and Hardy led a force of 1500 troops in 9 vessels into the Gaspe Bay region, then into Miramichi that fall to assume control of the coast.  Ships pressed into service on these burning missions, include Hardy’s Royal William, the troopships Bedford, The Vanguard and Devonshire.  At the end of it all, Hardy commandeered 4 schooners, destroyed 200 shallops and took more than 200 French prisoners.

[8] Raised in Blackheath, Wolfe himself may have known many young cadets at that Academy.

[9] It was engraved by various hands and published in London by Thomas Jefferys in 1761.

[10] Two of these canvasses are presently in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. Two others reside at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

[11] The New Brunswick museum in St. John’s has an original copy of captain Ince’s paintings. . According to military muster and pay lists Ince was at the siege of Quebec in October 1760 where he was later killed in action at the heights east of the Montmorency falls near Quebec.

[12] Barry Lord, in his The History of Painting in Canada (1974) says that “on the moonlit night that Davies depicts, they (the British) stole up river and burned the defenseless town to the ground. Lieutenant Davies commanded one of these burning and plundering platoons and watched as its French speaking inhabitants withdrew to the hills.”(62) The painting reflects truth in naturalistic values “the light of the flames is reflected on the waves, great clouds of smoke billow into the dark sky in the moonlight, the shoreline recedes to a distant horizon and the ships at anchor in the river are rendered with exact detail.”(63) Lord finishes off his Davies essay in a fitting homage to his talents by saying “ [a]lthough he had painted Grymross at night in grey monochrome, in most of his subsequent pictures he succeeded more than any of his fellow officer-artists in recording the brilliance and range of hues in the Canadian landscape.”(63)

[13] “Seven Years’ War journal of the proceedings of the 35th Regiment of Foot” (1757). John Carter Brown Library. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:576523/

[14] For over a year, Davies and the Royal artillery along with their Royal American counterparts camped there in huts and guarded against native attacks. The winter of 1759 at Fort Frederick was fraught with peril and uncertainty. It brought with it turns of both the horrible and fantastical for men of the 35th, the 17th and the Royal Artillery. We learn through Brasier’s journal that a Captain McCurdy was killed by a felled tree near the new fort that early February. It was a harsh winter filled with depravations at every corner. The troops barely survived the grueling, frigidly cold temperatures. They constantly withstood harried attacks from the Maliseet and their depleted provisions left them perilously close to starvation.

Featured Image: An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara/Done on the Spot by Thomas Davies Capt Royal Artillery. / The Perpendicular height of the Fall 162 feet Breadth about a Mile & Quarter/The Variety of Colours in the Woods shews the true Nature of the Country (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_East_View_of_the_Great_Cataract_of_Niagara_-_Thomas_Davies.jpg)

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