Prewar Harpers Ferry in art… and some thoughts

Posted on August 7, 2012 by


A little something different this evening…

While I have my fair share of Troiani battle scenes on my walls, I’m finding myself more drawn to pre-Civil War art these days. It might be that the bigger draw is the humanity… that calm in years before the storm. Sure, they had their own problems, even in peace, but those prewar prints… such as those featuring Harpers Ferry, from as early as 1838… do have a peacefulness about them that seems to open the door for more considerations of place, people, and time.

One of the earliest sets of prints (after Thomas Doughty’s works of ca. 1825)… and my favorites… come from William H. Bartlett, who arrived in the United States in 1835, with the objective of drawing images of the buildings, towns, and scenery of the northeastern states. The images were later published over a thirty month period, from 1837 to 1839, along with text by Nathaniel Parker Willis, in George Virtue’s American Scenery; or Land, Lake, and River: Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature. Bartlett captured three scenes of the landscape around Harpers Ferry…

Looking toward the town and the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers

From Jefferson Rock, looking south down the Shenandoah River

Looking toward Harpers Ferry, from across the Potomac, on Maryland Heights

I think the color scenes offer something that the black and whites fail to do (although some of Bartlett’s works were later reproduced as black and white images… and just don’t have as much appeal). Instead of the window to the past being trapped in the black and whites of time, they bring the past to life a little more… almost as if infused with a lifeblood, adding rich dimension and character. It’s difficult to choose, but out of the three, I have two favorites… the one looking south down the Shenandoah, and the one looking toward Maryland Heights (as opposed to looking at the town from Maryland Heights) and the length of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. If you look hard enough, you can even see a flatboat moving along the canal. Amazing to think that the canal had just reached Harpers Ferry in 1833 and wouldn’t make it as far as Hancock, Maryland until 1839. This scene also preceded my third great grandfather’s affiliation with the canal, which didn’t begin until around 1858.

Other pictures that are also nice… though, in my opinion, not quite as nice at Bartlett’s… include two from Gleason’s Pictorial (1854), a weekly news magazine similar in format to Harper’s Weekly and The Illustrated London News.

From Gleason’s Pictorial, July 1854… from about the same vantage point of Bartlett’s work of the same scene

Another Gleason image, but from Jefferson Rock

Another image followed in 1846, with a steel engraving by Walker, but seemed to wipe clean all signs of human habitation… no buildings or people.

The Meyer steel engraving, on the other hand, seemed to return, once again, to the familiar vantage point of both Bartlett and Gleason. This particular image was published in Germany, in 1857, appearing in Meyer’s Universum, by the Bibliographic Institute in Hildburghausen.

Meyer’s 1857 image

There are other scenes as well, made in years after the war, that convey a more “calm after the storm” feel, such as this image by Harry Fenn…

Fenn's 1864 piece

… and Granville Perkins (I wish his were in color!)…

Perkins, ca. 1872

Perkins, ca. 1872/1874

Another ca. 1874

But, apart from the Perkins 1872/74 piece (Moonlight over Harpers Ferry moves me as well, as I can see the train moving near the canal, and I’m reminded that, at about this time… that third great grandfather I mentioned above, had transitioned from the C&O Canal to his job a a conductor on the B&O Railroad, and was operating out of nearby Martinsburg), those in postwar years seem to be missing something. Maybe it’s the whole “calm before the storm” that stirs me the most. Is something lost… some innocence (imagined or real?), perhaps, from the images of Harpers Ferry before John Brown’s Raid and the Civil War that followed?