George Harvey's Anglo American atmospheric landscapes

Despite critical success, Harvey struggled in vain for another decade to bring the project to fruition, even selling his Westchester property in 1846 to secure funds. After learning about the more than two thousand literary and scientific societies in Great Britain, and having attended illustrated popular lectures at the Polytechnic Institute of London, he began marketing the atmospheric landscapes by lecturing.28 John Barlow, secretary of the Royal Institution of Great Britain for the Dissemination of Useful Knowledge, invited him to deliver eight lectures there “On the Discovery, Resources and Progresses of North America,” illustrated by lantern slides.29 To that end Harvey converted his watercolor images into hand-painted glass slides that were projected to sixteen by eighteen feet by a magic lantern—a technology that also enabled him to redress earlier criticism about the intimate size of his watercolors.30

The magic lantern, known for centuries, consisted of an oil lamp, a lens, and images on glass plates. Newly perfected machines, first with two and then three lenses, allowed pictures to be dissolved and changed more rapidly, and the mid-century invention of the oxy-hydrogen limelight further revolutionized the medium. Called the Drummond Lamp after the Scottish engineer Lieutenant Thomas Drummond (1797–1840), it eliminated flickering candles and malodorous oil burners, and Harvey advertised his use of this novel technology in his pamphlets.

Little is known about the anonymous painters of magic lanterns slides.31 Harvey may have obtained his painters through the successors to Rudolph Ackermann (1764–1834), who had been involved in related backlit paintings called transparencies as early as 1799, the year he published Instructions for Painting Transparencies. It was only a short jump to the moveable lantern slides Harvey used in his lectures. In 1971 Kennedy Galleries in New York had four of Harvey’s slides, at least three after atmospheric landscapes: two (currently untraced) copied watercolors now in the New-York Historical Society, Indian Summer—Grist Mill on the Frederictown Railroad, Maryland and the one in Figure 9.32 The others depicted Niagara Falls (Fig. 14)33 and Winter—Impeded Travellers in a Pine Forest, Upper Canada (private collection).34

Harvey’s lectures about his landscapes were so popular that he repeated them in two series of six lectures each at the London Institution and at 22 Russell Place, Fitzroy Square,35 and he also toured in cities like Coventry, Lynn, Birmingham, and Cambridge. With the slides, Harvey positioned his art in the popular sphere with a nod to science, optics, and technology, eventually precipitating a notice to his subscribers in November 1850 that he was canceling publication of Harvey’s Scenes.36

Later in 1850 Harvey established his own hall, grandly designated in a souvenir booklet as Harvey’s Royal Gallery of Illustration. Here he presented nightly lectures with slides for the cost of a shilling, exhibited watercolors (thirty-seven of the original atmospheric landscapes, including the seasons) and oil paintings, and offered Bennett’s aquatints for sale. In the booklet Harvey commented that he engaged “artists and opticians” to paint his slides,37 and the 1850 Bulletin of the American Art-Union reported that they were “superior to that class of painting in general.”38

Claiming that ill health forced him to close the London gallery soon after it opened, Harvey returned to the United States and revised his lectures in 1851 for an American audience, introducing diverse themes outlined in two pamphlets.39 The first begins with a map, a discussion of climate, and images of the seasons.40 The second, which describes new and recycled scenes, stresses American history, commencing with slides of the Mayflower and of the Pilgrims landing. Harvey’s poetic text, which resembles voice-overs in documentary films, refers to the dissolving views of magic lanterns, like one related to Figure 8: “to make the illustration more veritable, a dioramic effect in the picture is now taking place, the deepening gloom betokens a storm,—see, snow begins to fall.”41

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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