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Scene on the Edge of a Swamp No. 6, circa 1820
Joshua Shaw (1776 – 1860)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
14 x 18 inches
Status: American Civil War Museum Collection, Richmond, Virginia

Scene on the Edge of a Swamp, No. 6 is part of the fascinating history and rediscovery of Joshua Shaw, an intrepid English-American artist, author, traveler, and inventor. With the rediscovery of this work and other landscape paintings Shaw created during his 1819-1820 overland trip through the American South, art historians and collectors have increasing evidence with which to evaluate the artist’s significance in the development of a distinctive American landscape painting tradition. At present, more than 210 original paintings are known to be Shaw’s work or are attributed to him.1 As these works are added to the canon, Shaw’s role grows increasingly clear—as a mentor to a generation of painters and illustrators, as an important precursor to Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, and as a gifted artist in his own right.  

Paintings such as Scene on the Edge of a Swamp, No. 6 provide valuable information in regards to several aspects of Shaw’s life and career. They serve as documentary evidence of Shaw’s travels through the fledgling nation, while revealing his technical mastery of oil paints. Their production and promotion provide insights into several aspects of the art business in the early nineteenth century, including education and training, the publishing of works as illustrations, and the creation of lyceums and galleries. Finally, through the images and narrative essays he created for his most ambitious publication, Picturesque Views of American Scenery, Shaw imported key elements of English romantic painting—the sublimity of nature, mankind as a visitor in the landscape, and the power of nature to instruct and improve human character—to the United States.2

Born in rural Bellingborough, Lincolnshire, Shaw was impoverished at age seven when his father died, and for years led a difficult existence with little formal education and various jobs. He apprenticed to a commercial painter in Stamford in 1791, and took another position in Manchester around 1796, acquiring technical skills as well as a reputation for artistic talent in both towns. From there he went to London in 1802 and began exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy. Dissatisfied with his critical reception there, Shaw departed for Bath around 1804 or 1805. For the next seven years, he based himself at this fashionable resort city—where artists, patrons, connoisseurs, and beautiful landscape scenery merged to offer artistic opportunities and commissions. Shaw traveled extensively through the countryside, painting portraits and landscapes. Refining his talents in the modish picturesque British landscape tradition, he achieved noteworthy early success.

Shaw sent paintings to London’s Royal Academy exhibitions in 1805 and 1810, and in 1811 to the British Institution. He returned to London in 1812 and the following year his large-scale canvas, The Deluge, towards Its Close (circa 1813; Metropolitan Museum of Art), was exhibited at the British Institution, where it won a prize and brought him wide recognition and favorable press in comparison to J. M. W. Turner’s contemporaneous version of the subject.

During his rising career, he had befriended Benjamin West, the celebrated Pennsylvania-born expatriate artist, neoclassical court painter, and director of London’s Royal Academy. When Shaw decided to immigrate to America in 1817, West gave him letters of introduction and entrusted Shaw with the delivery of his famous large-scale painting, Christ Healing the Sick (1815) to the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia.

Thus Shaw arrived with considerable distinction and settled in the most culturally active city in America. In 1818, he began traveling to create sketches and narrative descriptions for his project, Picturesque Views of American Scenery, the earliest, most comprehensive aquatint portfolio of landscapes, rivers, and landmarks in the United States. The artist captured scenes in on-site sketches and studies, later working them up into oil paintings on canvas or wooden boards in his studio. Working in collaboration with Philadelphia engraver, John Hill (1770-1850), Shaw contracted with Philadelphia publisher Thomas Moses, but before any prints were generated, Matthew Carey and Son took up the project to issue thirty-six images in six “numbers,” or portfolios, each number containing six prints. Only three of the six numbers were ultimately released. These six, however, were sufficiently successful to warrant republication in an 1836 reprint edition by Thomas T. Ash of Philadelphia. 

Picturesque Views of America was a groundbreaking art publication endeavor. Certainly the project carried its own financial incentives, but it was also pursued with an artistic vision: to demonstrate to Americans—and Europeans as well—the majesty and variety of New World landscapes. In the album’s introduction, Shaw averred that “our country abounds with Scenery, comprehending all the varieties of the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque in nature, worthy to engage the skill of an Artist in their delineation: and as no well-executed work of this description has ever been produced, it is confidently hoped that the present will meet with due encouragement.3 He also wrote that “to exhibit correct delineations of some of the most prominent beauties of natural scenery in the United States is the object of the work.”

The modern-day identification and curation of so many of Shaw’s finished paintings, studies, drawings, and book illustrations has considerably enhanced an understanding of his place in the Southern landscape tradition, providing rich context for appreciation of Scene on the Edge of a Swamp and similar works. The artist was conscientious in documenting the visual splendor of these scenes in plein-air sketches and studies, as well as the finished works he submitted to John Hill for engraving. In addition, Shaw authored descriptive companion narratives detailing the geography of the scene and adding historical or anecdotal information that would appeal to readers and viewers. Just as many of Shaw’s studies and finished paintings intended for inclusion in Picturesque Views have survived, several of Shaw’s narratives have also been recently discovered, including the essay associated with Scene on the Edge of a Swamp, No. 6.
    
The latest group of Picturesque Views paintings by Shaw came to light in 2006. Purchased by the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina, this assemblage included two South Carolina scenes: View on the Reedy River, No. 8, circa 1820, depicting the river just south of the burgeoning village of Greenville; and a deer hunting scene on Stoney Creek of the Catawba River, simply labeled as Number 4. With respect to subject matter and numerical order, Scene on the Edge of a Swamp was surely executed as one of the same Picturesque Views series as the group of works acquired by the Greenville Museum. Its provenance also places the interesting deer hunting scene and narrative among a group of North and South Carolina and Georgia images that may have been destined to be a portfolio that followed the published third series.5 (While Shaw made several paintings of South Carolina and Georgia, not many of these states’ views were included in the first three series. However, those South Carolina and Georgia scenes that appeared in the Picturesque Views aquatints were distinguished ones, including Spirit Creek, Near Augusta, and Burning of Savannah.)

Whether as a result of his commercial savvy or simply his personal predilection, Shaw enlivened the works’ companion narratives with anecdotal history, often telling stories about his and his son’s exploits among backcountry families in Georgia and North Carolina. Each image’s specific location is essential to Shaw’s text and to the verisimilitude of the painting. According to information which complements Scene on the Edge of a Swamp, the image depicts a deer hunt underway at or near the confluence of Buck Creek and the Savannah River in Screven County, Georgia. Shaw had been traveling from Savannah, northwest to Augusta, the state capital, on a public road that ran roughly parallel to the Savannah River. He and his son stopped at Pearce’s Inn, a local landmark about halfway between the two cities. A Georgia state historical marker in Farmdale, Georgia has been erected near the site of the inn.  

Established by Joshua Pearce (1736-1816) and his wife Hannah Green Pearce, Pearce’s Inn or Tavern opened a few years prior to the American Revolution. Following the war, the inn was managed by their son Stephen Pearce and later passed to the Pearces’ grandson, Stephen Calfrey Pearce, who operated the enterprise well into the nineteenth century. The Pearces were well known for their hospitality, and the inn had been a regional attraction for years by the time Shaw visited in 1820. While touring the South, President George Washington had lodged there on May 16, 1791.  

Melding geography, local lore, and first-hand hunting tales, Shaw devised the Scene on the Edge of a Swamp essay to highlight the wildlife of the region and the pleasure of hunting. He wrote:

The accompanying representation is a scene I met with on the edge of a white-oak swamp, near Stephen Pearce’s half way house, as it is called, between Savannah and Augusta in Georgia. A buck and doe are breaking from the cover of a wood, whose foliage is so dense that it totally excludes the sun, and occasionally presents the appearance of a dark cavern, with here & there a gleam of light, which enables you now and then to see the game, or the hunter passing through it.

 

Shaw extolled the area’s promising hunting grounds, reporting that “these swamps are for the most part, alive with every beast and reptile that can infest a country, Panthers, Bears, Wolves and Alligators and Moccasin snakes.” He then recounted the story of a youth in Savannah who died within three hours of being bitten by a “Red Moccasin.” Another snake story involved being constricted by a non-venomous blacksnake while quail hunting. Anticipating readers’ responses to such frightening encounters, Shaw offered an explanation for his actions.

To those who are unacquainted with these risks, and have no interest in such amusements, it may appear madness in anyone to expose himself in this way. Reason, indeed, had but little to do with it, all was novelty, the wildness of these swamps, these dreary recesses of the wilderness, had charms far more alluring to me than an English stubblefield, & the game is as various as it is inexhaustible [sic].

A doe and buck dominate the foreground of Scene on the Edge of a Swamp. The pair is depicted crossing a creek to escape hunters and dogs far in the background. In this sense, the painting is thematically linked with Driving Deer, Scene on Stoney Creek, Catawba River, South Carolina, but that painting features field dogs harrying a buck midstream. The scene augurs success for the hunter in the background. Conversely, in Scene on the Edge of a Swamp, the buck and doe have eluded the hunters and their dogs.  

Shaw’s narrative also contains interesting information on stand-hunting, the traditional deer hunting method of the American South. His account of hunters being placed on stands by the hunt leader and then the quarry being driven by dogs through the forests and swamps is an accurate description of a hunting method threatened by land development and technological innovations in hunting firearms and equipment.

When the waters in these swamps are swelled by heavy rains, which fall on the distant mountains, the deer are driven near to their margins, and it is then common for as many as can be collected, say eight or ten persons, to enter them with dogs, while others of the party take particular stations at some favorite crossing point, and waylay the game as it passes by, and dispatch it with the rifle.

Shaw’s companion narrative to Driving Deer, Scene on Stoney Creek also offers an account of stand-hunting. The connection between the two paintings is strengthened by comparing the two texts. Of Driving Deer, Shaw penned:

I rose and prepared to proceed on my journey but my son informed me that there were both deer and wild turkeys in the neighborhood, and that the gentlemen of the house would be glad to have a hunt. I agreed and we started on the Expedition. I was placed in a situation where I was directed to keep perfectly still secreted as possible, in about half an hour after I had taken my station, I heard one of the dogs giving tongue & nearing the place where I stood at a point jutting into a pond of the creek—I was all ready, and in one minute a fine deer passed I fired, and was confident my shot had taken effect, the poor animal staggered for about 300 yards & when overtaken by the dogs one of  the buck shot with which my piece was loaded had passed through its body—this was the first prize of the kind I had made in America.8

For much of his adult life, Shaw pursued dual careers as an artist and an inventor of firearms components, and had unsuccessfully sought patents for his innovations in Britain. Following his early sketching tours in America, he concentrated on scientific efforts in Philadelphia, and from 1822 to 1832 worked at the Frankford Arsenal, refining his discoveries. He was eventually awarded several patents from the federal government for his copper percussion cap and related parts in “the art of gunnery.” 

In the 1830s and 1840s, Shaw resumed artistic activities, creating landscape paintings of British, American, classical, and historical themes. He exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Artists’ Fund Society, National Academy of Design, Apollo Association, and Boston Athenaeum, among other leading institutions. The artist moved to Bordentown, New Jersey in 1844, where he spent the last years of his life. 

In composition, content, quality of preservation, and by virtue of its place in Shaw’s overall plan to include many Southern scenes in his Picturesque Views of American Scenery, Shaw’s Scene on the Edge of a Swamp, No. 6 is signal achievement by an artist whose importance in the history of American art continues to ascend.


1Miriam Carroll Woods, “Joshua Shaw (1776-1860): A Study of the Artist and His Paintings,” Master’s thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1971, is the only monograph devoted to Shaw. The artist’s life and work figure heavily in William H. Gerdts, “American Landscape Painting: Critical Judgments, 1730-1845,” American Art Journal 17, No. 1 (Winter 1985): 28-59. Gerdts’ essay is particularly valuable because it quotes liberally from hard-to-find nineteenth century publications by artists and critical reviews of exhibitions.  

2Edward J. Nygren, “From View to Vision,” in Edward J. Nygren and others, Views and Visions: American Landscape before 1830 (Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986), 3-81. Pages 46-51, 58, 63, 64, 71, especially examine Shaw’s aesthetic values.

3Gloria Gilda Deák, Picturing America, 1497-1899, two volumes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), I: no. 315, p. 213.  Shaw’s prints for Picturesque Views are published in Deák, Picturing America, volume 2.

4Quoted from Nygren, “From View to Vision,” 46.

5See Greenville County Museum of Art, A Paradise of Riches: Joshua Shaw and the Southern Frontier (Greenville, SC: Greenville County Museum of Art, 2008) for more information on Shaw and his Southern paintings.

6Georgia State Historical Marker 124-10, Farmdale, Screven County, Georgia.

7Screven County History Project, The History of Screven County, Georgia (n. p.: Curtis Media Corporation, 1989), entries T16, F337; Archibald Henderson, Washington’s Southern Tour, 1791 (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923), 234.

8The painting and Shaw’s holograph essay are in the collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art. See Greenville County Museum of Art, A Paradise of Riches: Joshua Shaw and the Southern Frontier (Greenville, SC: Greenville County Museum of Art, 2008) for more information on Shaw and his Southern paintings.


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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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