June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
A British Officer Portrays Colonial America
We owe a considerable debt to the British army for our visual perception of the eighteenth-century American scene. Among the officers London posted to North America were a number skilled with sketch pad and paintbrush who spent off-duty hours recording the landscape around them and the campaigns in which they fought. None of these soldier-artists was more observant than Thomas Davies, Royal Artillery.
Davies began his military career as a “gentleman cadet” at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1755. Woolwich’s instruction of officers included topographical drawing, a skill that Davies took to enthusiastically. Two years later, a second lieutenant of artillery, he was on his way across the Atlantic for service in America. From 1758 to 1760 he served under Sir Jeffery Amherst in the expeditions against French Canada that brought the French and Indian War to a climax. When not manning his guns, the young artilleryman was busy with sketchbook and water colors, producing a unique set of pictures of these campaigns. With the coming of peace he was assigned to military surveys, an undemanding duty that allowed him to sharpen his eye for landscape.
Following a stint in London as Amherst’s aide-de-camp, Davies, now a captain, returned to America in 1773. His full service record in the Revolution is unclear, but we do know that he fought under Sir William Howe in the conquest of New York in 1776. His two best-known pictures—to American eyes at least—depict Howe’s capture of forts Washington and Lee guarding the Hudson, which dealt a severe blow to the American cause. Placed in charge of the artillery at captured Fort Washington, he apparently saw no further combat duty. Unhappily for the pictorial record of the Revolution, he was recalled to England in 1779.
Late in the 1780’s Davies sailed again for North America. Stationed at Quebec, he continued his spare-time painting, producing superb views of the Canadian scene. He returned home in 1790 and served out his military career uneventfully at various garrison posts. At his death in 1812 he held the rank of lieutenant general.
The two most notable features of Davies’ forty-odd North American views are his articulate, precise view of topography, no doubt the result of his early training at Woolwich, and his fine sense of color. He was, first to last, an amateur artist, determined to report in careful detail what he saw. There were few enough such documentary artists of the period working in America, and the historical record is much the better for Thomas Davies, the artistic artilleryman.