An important early view of Boston, taken from the vantage point of Castle William across the Harbor to the southeast. From left to right one makes out South Cove, South Battery, Fort Hill, a line of vessels docked along Long Wharf, and the mouth of the Charles River. Behind Long Wharf are visible the three peaks of the Trimontane, of which only Beacon Hill remains today. In the near foreground the fortifications of Castle William command the shipping channel between Castle and Governor’s islands, though which two British naval vessels have just safely passed.
The British army had long been home to talented surveyors, draughtsmen and artist who, either as part of their official responsibilities or in the long hours of tedium, used their talents to map or sketch the regions they were serving in. There was a much-trodden, but even today poorly understood, path that brought these manuscript materials into the hands of interested London map and print-sellers, who would see these manuscripts into print, and then retail them to a fascinated public from their shops in London’s high-end shopping streets.
The French and Indian War, the American theatre of the broader Seven Years’ War, took many officers and civil administrators to the Americas and created a huge demand for such illustrations, serviced by map- and print-publishers such as such as Thomas Jefferys, John Bowles and Robert Sayer, who employed the finest engravers of the day in their preparation.
These prints were originally sold separately, as they came to hand, but with victory in the Seven Years’ War, a consortium of London printsellers came together to publish a volume, the Scenographia Americana (1768), a set of twenty-eight of the finest of these American images, at the substantial price of four guineas. The set conveyed, in a triumphalist manner, a complex and varied experience of the American landscape: the relative familiarity of Quebec, Boston, New York and Charleston; awe at the enormity of wonders such as the cliffs of the Tappan Zee and the ranges of the Catskill Mountains; and confidence in the potential for taming the wilderness and opening it to settlement.
The principal contributor to the set was Thomas Pownall (1722-1805), an English colonial administrator. He was appointed Governor of New Jersey in 1753 and of Massachusetts in 1757 and served in that post until June 1760, when he returned to England, never to return. These were important years in the French and Indian War, which Pownall successfully navigated. By natural inclination he was sympathetic to the political interests of the colonies, earning the trust, respect and friendship of figures such as Ben Franklin, John Adams and John Hancock.
This friendship with Franklin is reflected not least in the dedication of Lewis Evans’ landmark map of the Middle Colonies, published by Franklin, to Pownall, and then the loan of the copperplate to illustrate Pownall’s Topographical Description of North America (1776), an important text published in the earliest years of the Revolutionary War.
Despite the prominence of its publishers, and the propitious timing of its publication, the Scenographia Americana is very rare; ESTC records but one complete copy in the United Kingdom, with no set in the British Library or British Museum, and but three in the th United States (Library of Congress, American Antiquarian Society and Boston Public).
Creswell, The American Revolution in Drawings and Prints, #23; Stokes and Haskell, American Historical Prints, #1758-B-86; Winsor, Memorial History of Boston, p. II:127. For background see Graham Hood, “America the Scenic” on the web site of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.