In the 17th century artists based their views on a few first- and second-hand accounts of the Falls, leaving their depictions quite fanciful. In 1683, travel writer Louis Hennepin described ‘an incredible Cataract or Waterfall, which has no equal’ — conveying his wonder, but leaving out any details that could be useful to those drawing the site.
‘The first depictions of the Falls were wildly inaccurate,’ explains Nicholas Lambourn. ‘What is particularly interesting about this work is that Davies was not only painting on the spot, but was a military surveyor — he was trained to show things accurately.’
An inscription at the bottom of the piece confirms the purpose of the drawing, recording the ‘perpendicular height of the fall’ at 162 feet. ‘This is not a fantastic or romantic work,’ insists Lambourn, ‘but a scientific document.’
The painting is also one of the first depictions of Fall in North America, depicting the trees of the Ontario forest turning from rich green to red and orange.
In the foreground of the picture, two Iroquois survey the landscape. ‘The falls were deep in what was called Indian Territory,’ explains Lambourn.
At the centre of Davies’ painting, a rainbow arches from the foreground into the distance — a phenomenon that would have held symbolic significance for viewers of the artist’s work. ‘In the 18th century a rainbow signified the divinely instituted covenant established between man and God after the Flood,’ Lambourn explains.
‘Captain Thomas Davies has envisaged a ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ in the very midst of the Seven Years’ War,’ Lambourn concludes, ‘adding a deeply poetic dimension to a topographical drawing.’
Captain Thomas Davies (1737-1812), 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, 1762. Watercolour on paper. Estimate: £40,000 — £60,000
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