American Scenes

1839 Engraving of Northampton, Massachusetts, based on a drawing by W. H. Bartlett (photo: Susan Barsy)

While I was out of town over Thanksgiving, I bought this hand-colored engraving in an antique shop in Milwaukee.  I’m not even sure why.  Partly because the print is so old—1839—and was made at a time when printed pictures were still something of a rarity.  This picture is a steel-engraved print to which color was added by hand after its printing.  It shows the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, a place that I see through this print for the first time.

Back when the print was made, ‘media,’ as we call it now, was at a simpler stage.  There were newspapers (without illustrations).  There were letters (which circulated privately).  Photographs were just coming into being, but they were laborious to make and couldn’t be reproduced—every photographic image was unique and singular, bound to metal or glass of some kind.  So this type of engraving, which was becoming increasingly viable as a ‘mass medium,’ was a spectacular technological breakthrough, enabling printers and artists to share visual information with a broad audience for the first time.  Short of traveling, looking at an engraving or lithograph was about the only way a person could glimpse a place far away.

This picture of Northampton was printed in London by George C. Virtue (1794-1868), whose publishing company specialized in such scenes.  He worked with the artist, William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854), also English, who traveled widely, depicting the sights, landscapes, and peoples of America, Europe, and the Middle East.  Various engravers then had the job of rendering Bartlett’s drawings; in the case of the Northampton print, the engraver credited was one “R. Sands.”  Virtue published black-and-white versions of the etchings in books, the most famous of these being the 1840 volume, American Scenery.  The engravings were exotic in that they depicted places most viewers had never seen.  Bartlett’s subjects included large American cities and the most famous US buildings (such as the White House and the Capitol), as well as many small towns and other spots of scenic interest.

How soothing yet tantalizing such limited glimpses would be!  Imagine if this were the whole of my knowledge of Northampton: a prosperous place, with decent buildings—a wide verandah to lounge on, a steeple to contemplate, birds fluttering on the baluster, noble trees like something out of a Longfellow poem.  A pink house gleaming at the end of the green.

Click on image to enlarge.

7 responses

  1. Interesting how the column splits the picture right down the middle between the left and right side of the image; any significance to that division–church and state? Just coincidence? I was in Northampton recently and it has changed a bit since this engraving was created. It is still a beautiful small city.

    • Good question, Carole. It certainly makes the picture more interesting; I wonder if Bartlett was using the porch as a framing device–kind of like those famous photographs by Joel Meyerowitz? This photograph (which I took with my iPhone rather hastily) doesn’t allow you to read the sign hanging down from the hotel, which identifies the artist’s location specifically. I believe it says “J. Vinton” (the proprietor). I’d have to learn more about the buildings, but there is a contrast between the left and right sides of the view.
      Bartlett’s ability to warp perspective contributed to the power of many of his scenes. Here it seems a little out of hand–the figures on the porch are absurdly tiny, but that too is something I like about this piece.
      I would like to see the present-day town one day.

    • Jennifer Lilienthal, a nice lady on the LinkedIn discussion group “Genealogical and Historical Research,” pointed me toward the ‘Historic Northampton’ website, which has a page describing what buildings are pictured in Bartlett’s drawing:
      At left is the 4th meetinghouse of the First Church of Christ, while on the right is “Merchants Row” with the Edwards Church at the very end. The artist’s perspective is from Warner Coffee House, which stood on this spot from the time of the town’s early settlement and which between 1832 and 1840 was operated by one J. B. Vinton.
      In 1870, a fire destroyed most of the buildings in the picture. The 5th meetinghouse of the First Church of Christ (presently standing) was built in the late 1870s after fire struck again.

  2. Nice information you were able to dig up concerning the who, what, where, and when of that lithograph. I found it interesting that was printed in London and then (who knows when) crossed the Atlantic and found a home in the U.S.

    • Sam–Thanks for the nice notes–I too found that fact interesting–Americans were still very dependent on England culturally, and the creation and circulation of this print of Northampton is one instance among many. Educated Americans would have still been reading a lot of books that were written and printed in England, and traveling to Europe to be more fully educated.