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Part I: Founding Cities

Boston was founded by Puritans on the irregularly shaped Shawmut Peninsula, a near island surrounded by the Charles River on the north and west, and a sheltered harbor to the east and south. The peninsula’s first English inhabitant was an Anglican minister who came in 1625. When the Puritans determined to establish their “plantation” there in 1630, the peninsula was marked with three distinctive elevations (known as Trimountain or Tremont). In the 19th century, earth from these “mountains” was excavated to fill in the Back Bay area, which greatly increased the surface area of the city, expanding it from a peninsula to a solid piece of the coast. This topographic transformation is evident in the map and views at right, from the Pelham map showing the peninsula still tenuously tied to the mainland by a thin strip of land, to two picturesque views drawn from the disappearing hills, to the 1870 bird’s-eye view of the still-growing connection to the coast.

Long an important seaport, Boston was the first major metropolis in the English colonies, and the largest American city until Philadelphia and New York overtook it in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. A central player in the American Revolution, the city has long been key in America’s historical and cultural consciousness.

A Plan of Boston in New England with Its Environs
Francis Jukes (British, 1747–1812), after Henry Pelham (American, 1749–1806)
Etching and aquatint, published by Henry Pelham, 1777
Deák 148

Soon after the start of the American Revolution, the Loyalist-leaning Henry Pelham began work on a map of Boston and its surrounding areas for use by British intelligence. He was issued a pass, reproduced in the upper corner, giving him “Permission to take a plan of the Towns of Boston and Charlestown and of the Rebel works round these places in doing of which he is not to be obstructed or impeded but has leave to pass and repass to and from.” This map was shipped to London, where it was etched by Francis Jukes using the newly introduced tonal method of aquatint. Fewer than twelve impressions of this attractive and accurate map are known.

Son of the prominent mezzotint artist Peter Pelham, Henry was also half brother to the great colonial painter John Singleton Copley. Soon after making this map, he joined the Copleys and left for England, where he would remain until the end of his life.

A View of Boston
Colored etching and aquatint, from The Atlantic Neptune, published by Joseph F. W. Des Barres, 1779
Deák 136

The topographical views from The Atlantic Neptune, the collection of charts and views of America prepared for the British Admiralty as the Revolutionary War was getting under way, were intended to supplement the atlas’s marine charts by giving seafarers visual clues for recognizing the approaches to major harbors. The choice of charts and views in each individual set of The Atlantic Neptune was made according to the needs of the ship for which it was intended, although the final deluxe edition of 1784 included 258 plates.

Des Barres involved himself critically in the printing and publishing of the plates, much as he had seen to the accuracy of the surveys. This is apparent, for example, in the use of the new technique of aquatint in views such as this one of Boston harbor. In aquatint, the surface of the copper plate is coated with a granular substance that acts as a resist, and when acid is applied, the copper is bitten away from the exposed areas around the grains. The etched areas will gather ink, producing wash-like areas of tone when printed.

View of Boston from Fort Hill
After William H. Whitmore (American, 19th century)
Ink and watercolor, ca. 1849
Deák 252

This scene of Boston from Fort Hill is almost identical to a wood engraving published in Justin Winsor’s four-volume Memorial History of Boston (1880–81). The wood engraving is labeled as a view of the city in 1806; the watercolor shows the same view minus foreground figures, but was updated to include the Custom House, which was completed in 1849. According to Winsor, the source of the wood engraving was a painting by William H. Whitmore [could it be the prominent Boston historian of the same name (1836–1900)?], although the relationship between the print and this watercolor remains unclear. The Phelps Stokes Collection, although predominantly composed of prints, contains a number of drawings, watercolors, and paintings.

The fort on Fort Hill was built in 1637, and by the early 19th century, the area had become a neighborhood of fine houses and gardens, as seen here. By the mid-1860s, however, all the beautiful houses and landscaping had turned into turf-less tenement squalor. Winsor reported that between 1866 and 1872, as part of a grand city improvement plan, 547,628 cubic yards of earth were removed from Fort Hill at a cost of $1,575,000. The earth from Fort Hill and Boston’s other promontories became the landfill that created the Back Bay area.

City of Boston
John Hill (American, b. England, 1770–1850), after Joshua Shaw (American, b. England, 1776–1860)
Etching, with wash and watercolor, unpublished plate for Picturesque Views of American Scenery, ca. 1820
Deák 318

Joshua Shaw and John Hill collaborated on a landmark of American landscape, the Picturesque Views of American Scenery, a series of prints published in 1820–21. This view was originally planned as part of the Picturesque Views, but only half of the planned views were included in the original edition.

Shaw was already an accomplished painter in England before he came to America in 1817. For this series he drew light-filled pastoral scenes, which launched the Romantic movement in America. Hill, another Briton, settled in Philadelphia in 1816, and was a key figure in American printmaking for bringing the technique of aquatint from his homeland. For Picturesque Views, he first etched the lines of the scene, and then built up tonal areas using aquatint. In this print, one of five views that were made for the series but never published as such, we are able to see the image in its early stage. As he was in the habit of doing, Hill added wash and watercolor to indicate the areas where aquatint would be applied.

Boston, from City Point near Sea Street
William James Bennett (American, b. England, 1787–1844), after his own design
Etching and aquatint, published by John Levison, ca. 1853–56
Ford Collection
Deák 408

Along with John Hill, another English émigré, William James Bennett, helped to bolster the development of printmaking in America. Trained at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Bennett arrived in New York in 1826. He continued the practice begun by Hill of issuing finely crafted city views inspired by the English topographical tradition. Bennett’s nineteen large folio views of American cities favored harbor vistas that allowed him to express a sense of atmosphere and light that became an integral part of the American landscape tradition.

View of Boston
F. Fuchs (American, 19th century), after his own design
Chromolithograph, printed by New England Lithographic Company (Boston lithographic firm, 19th century), published by John Weik, 1870
Deák 826

Bird’s-eye, or aerial, views of cities originated in 16th-century Europe. They reemerged in the mid-19th century in North America as a popular method of recording the continent’s rapid urban development. Typically, the artist would sketch a city’s layout from an elevated vantage point, and also make detailed sketches of the facades of individual buildings. He would then combine the information thus gathered to create a vista of the city as seen from an imaginary aerial viewpoint.

Boston’s important role as a seaport is perfectly captured in this aerial view, which shows both the growing metropolis and the crowded harbor. Chromolithography, in which the color is printed instead of laboriously applied by hand to each impression, was widely used by companies such as the New England Lithographic Company throughout the second half of the 19th century.

Note to the checklist. “Deák” refers to the catalogue of American historical prints in the New York Public Library’s collections: Deák, Gloria Gilda. Picturing America 1497-1899. Prints, Maps, and Drawings bearing on the New World Discoveries and on the Development of the Territory that is now the United States. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

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