The Winkworth sale on 1 April included some truly historic early Canadian images – Captain Thomas Davies’s An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara (1762); William Raphael’s midwinter Bonsecours Market, Montreal (1880); and the ice cone at Montmorency, a popular winter excursion for the Quebec garrison depicted by Cockburn, Légaré, Krieghoff, and so many other artists in Quebec in the 19th century. We travelled to Canada in March to show highlights of the collection at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto and took the opportunity to visit these three famous sites.
Davies’s Niagara view is the first ever taken on the spot and we visited the falls to get as close to his vantage point, his ‘east view’ taken from the Canadian side. The falls have eroded back over the ensuing 250 years, and much of the river’s flow has been redirected to supply hydro-electricity, but the now embanked vantage point is similar enough to understand his point of view, looking upriver over the fall, with the American Falls to the left, and the same constant vapour cloud rising above the chasm.
We surveyed the falls from the elevated eyrie of our hotel before walking down in Davies’s footsteps to the very edge of the horseshoe fall. Peering over the wall, as if to give us an instant demonstration of the power of the site, a little duck was swept past rotating in the hurtling current before vanishing backwards over the edge – only to reappear a few seconds later flying to safety out of the clouds of vapour below.
William Raphael (1833-1914), Bonsecours Market, Montreal. Signed and dated ‘W. RAPHAEL / 1880’ (lower right); oil on canvas. Sold for £218,500, 1 April 2015
In the centre of old Montreal, the city where Davies himself had raised the conquering British flag in 1760, we looked for Raphael’s viewpoint for his celebrated painting of the city’s marketplace in winter. His crowds were no longer there, but the buildings are almost exactly as they were in 1880, and our specialist Helena Ingham tweeted images of the painting and the present day view – the market’s silver dome sparkling in the clear blue sky, just as in Raphael’s painting. Unseen by the public for generations, the painting was secured in the Winkworth sale by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
Our Canadian tour ended in Quebec where we walked across the snow-laden Plains of Abraham to view the site of the death of James Wolfe, and crossed the frozen St Lawrence to Point Levis, to see the often painted view of the city. Finally, an excursion out of town to the Montmorency Falls to see the famous ice cone, formed by the vapour of the fall freezing over the winter months. This was a favourite weekend excursion and tobogganing spot for the officers and wives of the British garrison in the early decades of the 19th century, and we followed in their sleigh tracks, crossing the frozen waters of the lake below the falls and clambering onto the cone, to put ourselves literally in the pictures of Cockburn and Krieghoff.