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 George Heriot  (1759 - 1839)

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Lived/Active: Quebec / Canada/United Kingdom      Known for: painting, sketching, illustration, topography, printmaking

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from Auction House Records.
View of Greenwich, London (recto); and A river landscape (verso)
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
George Heriot (1759 – 1839) (1)

“In fact he was probably Canada’s first resident English-speaking artist.” – Dennis Reid (2)

“George Heriot was one of the most important landscape artists in Canada in the 19th century.” – McCord Museum of Canadian History (3)

An early Canadian painter, draftsman, illustrator, printmaker, topographical artist, author and civil servant, George Heriot was born in Haddington, Scotland; lived in Quebec City, Canada from 1792 to 1816; and died in London, England. His life and work are discussed in dozens of Canadian history and art history books; and hundreds of his paintings, drawings and prints are in the permanent collections of Canadian, American and British museums. (4) 

His most well-known mediums were watercolors, aquatints*, etchings*, ink and pencil; however he did produce some oil paintings in the 1800s. His subjects were portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, figures, interiors, genre*, marine scenes, farming activity, Indians, historic events, wildlife, ruins, castles, rivers, Niagara Falls, and military activity. The painting locations are from his extensive travels in colonial Canada, New York, Washington (D.C.), England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands, the Azores (Portugal), France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Spain, and the West Indies. His style was Realism*. AskART has some good illustrations of his typical work.

His formal art education included studies as a cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, London (c. 1781 – 1783), under Paul Sandby [see AskART]. Before graduation, Heriot left the academy and the army to work as a civilian clerk with the Board of Ordinance. In 1792 he was posted to Quebec, where he continued to work for the Board of Ordinance in a senior capacity until 1813. In 1799 his duties were added to when he was appointed Deputy Postmaster General in charge of British North America, a post he held until his resignation in 1816.

Heriot’s paintings were shown at the Royal Academy*, London, England in 1797; in the American ‘Centennial Exposition’*, at Philadelphia in 1876; and in the Canadian centennial exhibition "Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art" at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa in 1967. His works were also featured in “Treasures of Canadiana”, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (1962); “The Painter and the New World”, Montreal Museum of fine Arts (1967); “The Ontario Community Collects: a survey of Canadian painting from 1766 to the present”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (1975); “Landscape Painting in Quebec (1800 – 1940)”, Quebec Museum of Fine Arts, Quebec City (1979); and in “Landscapes of the Mind: Images of Ontario”, McMaster University Art Gallery, Hamilton, Ontario (1986). “George Heriot: Painter of the Canadas”, a two year traveling exhibition toured Canada beginning in 1978. It was shown at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario (1978); the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (1979); the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal (1979); the Art Gallery of Windsor, Ontario (1979); and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (1979).

According to the Canadian Heritage Information Network* and individual museum websites, in Canada his works are in the permanent collections of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Kingston, Ontario), Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (B.C.), Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario), Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (Halifax), Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), Art Gallery of Windsor (Ontario), Beaverbrook Art Gallery (Fredericton, New Brunswick), Canadian Museum of Civilization (Gatineau, Quebec), McCord Museum of Canadian History (Montreal), Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Quebec), Owens Art Gallery (Sackville, N.B.), Quebec Museum of Fine Arts (Quebec City), Riverbrink Art Museum (Queenston, Ontario), Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), Vancouver Art Gallery (B.C.), and the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa).

According to the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System – SIRIS*, in the USA his works are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, Massachusetts), the New York Historical Society (New York City), and the Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, Massachusetts).

According to individual museum websites, in Great Britain his works are in the collections of the British Museum (London), the Government Art Collection (London), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), and the Whitworth Art Gallery (University of Manchester, Manchester).

Heriot was the author of A Descriptive Poem, Written in the West Indies (1781), The History of Canada (1804), and of Travels through the Canadas (1807), which has been described as “Perhaps the best known of early nineteenth-century travel books in English...” (5) (6)
 
Footnotes:
(1) Please note: Some published sources and institutions such as the British Museum, the Canadian Heritage Information Network* and SIRIS* use Heriot life-dates of 1766 to 1844; however, modern scholarship generally agrees that his life-dates are 1759 to 1839, these dates are used by the National Gallery of Canada, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Getty Union List of Artist Names, and most books written in the last 25 years. Additional sources: Benezit Dictionary of Artists (2006); Canadian Art: From its Beginnings to 2000 (2002); A to Z of Canadian Art: artists & art terms (1997); and Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Volume VII 1836 – 1850 (1988) [see all in AskART book references].

(2) Source: Page 27, A Concise History of Canadian Painting (see AskART book references).

(3) The McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal has 105 George Heriot works in its collection. Source: Canadian Heritage Information Network*.

(4) Please note: Some sources say he may have been born on the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands. One such source is E. Benezit Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs, et Graveurs (1999) (see AskART book references).

(5) Quote source: Page 40, History Of The Book In Canada: Volume One – Beginnings To 1840 (see AskART book references).

(6) Please note: The 1813 edition of George Heriot’s book “Travels through the Canadas is a free Google E-Book and can be accessed at:  http://books.google.ca/books?id=NXABAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
 
Sources:
Benezit Dictionary of Artists (2006), English version (see AskART book references)
History Of The Book In Canada: Volume One – Beginnings To 1840 (2004), by Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Gilles Gallichan and Yvan Lamonde (see AskART book references)
Biographical Index of Artists in Canada (2003), by Evelyn de Rostaing McMann (see AskART book references)
Canadian Art: From its Beginnings to 2000 (2002), by Anne Newlands (see AskART book references)
The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar (see AskART book references)
Krieghoff: Images of Canada (1999), by Dennis Reid (see AskART book references)
A to Z of Canadian Art: artists & art terms (1997), by Blake McKendry (see AskART book references)
The Dictionary of Art (1996), edited by Jane Turner (see AskART book references)
Art and Architecture in Canada (1991), by Loren R. Lerner and Mary F. Williamson (see AskART book references)
Art Gallery of Ontario – Selected Works (1990), by William J. Withrow, et al. (see AskART book references)
Masterpieces of Canadian Art from the National Gallery of Canada (1990), by David Burnett (see AskART book references)
Catalogue of the National Gallery of Canada Ottawa: Canadian Art Volume Two G – K (1988), general editors Charles C. Hill and Pierre B. Landry (see AskART book references)
Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Volume VII 1836 – 1850 (1988), edited by Francess G. Halpenny (see AskART book references)
The Illustrated History of Canada (1987), edited by Craig Brown (see AskART book references)
The Dictionary of British Water Colour Artists Up to 1920: The Plates Volume III (1986), by H.L.  Mallalieu (see AskART book references)
The Canadian Encyclopedia (1985), edited by James H. Marsh (see AskART book references)
W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana – Paintings, Water-Colours and Drawings (1983), by W. Martha E. Cooke (see AskART book references)
Canada Illustrated: The Art of Nineteenth-Century Engraving (1982), by Albert Moritz (see AskART book references)
Landscape Painting in Quebec (1800 – 1940) (1978), by Claude Thibault (see AskART book references)
Landmarks of Canadian Art (1978), by Peter Mellen (see AskART book references)
Enjoying Canadian Painting (1976), by Patricia Godsell (see AskART book references)
The Ontario Community Collects: a survey of Canadian painting from 1766 to the present (1975), by William C. Forsey (see AskART book references)
The History of Painting in Canada – Toward a Peoples Art (1974), by Barry Lord (see AskART book references)
Canadian Watercolours & Drawings in the Royal Ontario Museum (1974), by Mary Allodi (see AskART book references)
A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1973), by Dennis Reid (see AskART book references)
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume Two, G – Jackson (1970), by Colin S. MacDonald (see AskART book references)
Early English Watercolours (1970), by Iolo Williams (see AskART book references)
Early Painters and Engravers in Canada (1970), by J. Russell Harper (see AskART book references)
Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art (1967), by R.H. Hubbard and J.R. Ostiguy (see AskART book references)
Painting in Canada: a history (1966), by J. Russell Harper (see AskART book references)
The Development of Canadian Art (1964), by R.H. Hubbard (see AskART book references)
Art and Man: The Modern World Book Three (1964), by P.H. Brieger, G.S. Vickers and F.E. Winter (see AskART book references)
An Anthology of Canadian Art (1960), edited by R.H. Hubbard (see AskART book references)
George Heriot, Author-Artist by J.C.A. Heriot – a six page article written in 1910 and available free online at: http://www.archive.org/stream/georgeheriotauth00heriuoft#page/n0/mode/2up.
Canadian Heritage Information Network* (biographical information and museums)
National Gallery of Canada (biographical information and library)
Art Gallery of Ontario (exhibition and book summaries online)
Library and Archives, Canada (biographical information)
Smithsonian Institution Research Information System – SIRIS* (museums)
Getty Union List of Artist Names (biographical information)
Simon Fraser University (online library records)

--------------
Following is additional information.

HERIOT, GEORGE, office holder, landscape artist, and author; b. 1759 in Haddington, Scotland, eldest of four children of John Heriot, sheriff clerk of Haddington, and Marjory Heriot; d. unmarried 22 July 1839 in London.

As a member of the Scottish minor gentry, George Heriot received a sound classical education. He appears to have initially attended the Duns Academy and the grammar school at Coldstream. Subsequently he studied at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, from 1769 to 1774, under two eminent classical masters, Luke Fraser and Alexander Adam.

Between 1774 and 1777 Heriot seems to have resided in Edinburgh, where he most likely received instruction in drawing and painting. He was befriended by that Scottish Maecenas, Sir James Grant, who encouraged him to pursue a career in art. In 1777 Heriot left for London planning to take up this vocation, but for some inscrutable reason did not; instead he sailed to the West Indies. During four years there he made many notes and sketches of the life and landscape of the islands and composed a poem based on his experiences. A descriptive poem, written in the West Indies was published on his return to Britain in 1781.

Back in Britain, Heriot enrolled as an officer cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich (London), where he was given instruction by the academy’s chief drawing master, the eminent topographical artist Paul Sandby [see AskART]. Officer cadets were trained in landscape drawing, valuable in the field for the planning and execution of strategy and for the recording of troop movements and deployment. It was perhaps also under the tutelage of Sandby that Heriot was introduced to the concept of the Picturesque*, that connoisseurship of scenery wherein nature is examined in terms of art. The essential characteristics of the Picturesque in nature as in painting are irregularity of form and balanced compositions. Subjects chosen to convey these characteristics are often localized and rural; the style is present in Heriot’s water-colours and sketches of the mid to late 1780s and in a series of etched picturesque views of the Channel Islands which he published in 1789–90. Indeed, evidence of the Picturesque was to survive in Heriot’s art until the end of his career.

By about 1783 Heriot was no longer formally associated with the Royal Military Academy, although he continued to live and work in Woolwich, as a civilian clerk attached to the Board of Ordnance, and to make sketches there as well as in the Channel Islands and locations in southern England. In 1792 he was posted to Quebec and promoted clerk of the cheque in the Ordnance department. Heriot was to remain in Lower Canada until 1816, except, apparently, for two periods of absence, in 1796–97 and in 1806. His first years at Quebec are not well documented. Sketches record visits in and about Quebec and Montreal, perhaps on Ordnance business. In November 1792 he published a sketch of Jersey in the Quebec Magazine and the following year he prepared a view of Quebec, perhaps also intended for publication. When he returned to Britain in 1796 he resided in London, travelled to the south coast, and made at least one sketching foray into Wales. From the autumn until Christmas he was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. He then returned to London. A watercolour prepared from his sketches of Wales and two Canadian views were accepted by the Royal Academy of Arts for exhibition in the spring. Heriot probably sailed for Lower Canada soon afterwards, taking notes and making sketches on the voyage.

The impact of his visit to Britain was considerable. While there he had been stimulated by the art he had seen and by his success as an artist. He returned with a fresh enthusiasm for the Canadas; he began to read about their past and to make elaborate notes and numerous sketches of the places he visited and the peoples he encountered. His sojourn abroad had affected his artistic vision of the Canadas; his drawings and water-colours assumed a new confidence and his landscape forms developed a new strength and grandeur. In London he had probably studied the simply handled and remarkably strong water-colours of younger British artists such as Thomas Girtin, Joseph Mallord William Turner, and John Varley. Either in Britain or in Lower Canada he had also become familiar with Lieutenant George Bulteel Fisher’s Six views of North America . . . (London, 1796). He was influenced by this work, especially by Fisher’s use of the Picturesque in depicting Canadian landscape.

The visit to Britain apparently benefited Heriot still further. In 1797, through the influence of his brother John, a prominent Tory newspaper editor there, he added to his post as clerk of the cheque the more senior position of assistant storekeeper general, under John Craigie. Two years later, on learning that Heriot held both offices and received two salaries, the commander-in-chief of the forces in British North America, Prince Edward Augustus, removed him from the senior post. While in Britain, however, Heriot had met, again through his brother’s connections, Prime Minister William Pitt, and in 1799 Pitt recommended him for the position of deputy postmaster general of British North America when it became vacant on the removal of Hugh Finlay. Heriot was appointed on 18 Oct. 1799.

The office of deputy postmaster general, which Heriot assumed at Quebec the following April, at first seemed well suited to his talents. In his Ordnance post, which he did not relinquish, he had proved himself a capable administrator; now he worked hard to establish the mails on a better footing. His predecessor had begun twice-weekly service between Montreal and Quebec, but east and west of those centres, on poor roads which passed through sparsely settled countryside, service was much slower. Heriot embarked on an ambitious program of improving the mails between Quebec and Halifax, as well as through Upper Canada [now Ontario]. His initial enthusiasm was dampened by the inflexibility of postal regulations and by the lack of interest and understanding of the postmaster general in London, to whom he was directly responsible. Regulations required that any postal service be self-supporting, that expenses incurred in expanding or improving a service be justified by a corresponding increase in revenue, and that all profits be forwarded to the postmaster general in London. Thus, Heriot’s scheme of using excess revenue from the more populated parts of Upper Canada to finance improvements in service to the isolated but rapidly expanding southwestern section of the province was blocked by his superiors in London. He did, however, receive aid from the lieutenant governor, Peter Hunter, who was anxious to improve communications within the province. To put into effect his proposals for more frequent service, he made in 1801 the first of several trips to Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake). His plans were not entirely successful, but by 1805 he had managed to increase winter service to Niagara from one delivery during the entire season to one delivery per month, and additional couriers were placed on the Montreal–Kingston route.

His posts in the Ordnance and the Post Office brought him into contact with the military and administrative élite of Lower Canada. He was probably a friend of Lieutenant-Colonel John Nairne, whose seigneury at Murray Bay he had visited as early as 1798, and he was on close terms with his cousin Frederick George Heriot, a British army officer. In 1807, at least, he was a member of Quebec’s exclusive Barons’ Club, composed of prominent administrators and merchants such as Herman Witsius Ryland and George Hamilton.

Heriot’s first years as deputy postmaster general were difficult ones, but he found solace in writing. As a result of his interest in Lower Canada’s past, he published in London in 1804 The history of Canada, from its first discovery. Based largely on Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France . . . (3v., Paris, 1744) by Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, the work was one of the first histories of Lower Canada published in English. Like Charlevoix’s work, it ended in 1731. Although he had envisaged more than one volume, Heriot never published a second.

Heriot seems to have enjoyed his traveling. Improvement of postal facilities took him on frequent journeys between Quebec and Montreal and in 1807 he visited New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. That trip resulted in a warm and lasting friendship with judge Edward Winslow. His travels provided him with the opportunity to make notes and sketches of the country and of the inhabitants he met. So rich a collection of material, both notes and sketches, did he amass that he decided to write a book about his journeys illustrated with his own views and figure studies. In 1807 in London he published his well-known Travels through the Canadas. The first part of the book is largely a topographical description of the towns and settlements he had visited or read about, from Newfoundland to Lake Superior, with particular attention paid to picturesque geographical features, especially Niagara Falls which “surpass in sublimity every description . . . the powers of language can afford.” The second half, highly derivative, describes the manners and customs of various Indian nations. Yet Travels is significant within the Canadian context. It is one of the earliest books to describe the Canadian landscape largely from the point of view of the Picturesque.

Although his writing and sketching provided him with pleasant relaxation, Heriot had been constantly plagued by problems with the post caused by a growing population. Not only did mail regulations frustrate his plans for improving deliveries and opening new routes, but he had difficulties with the administration at Quebec. He lacked tact and diplomacy, was strong-willed, and displayed an exaggerated sense of self-importance. The combination proved to be unfortunate: his attempts to gain the cooperation of the colonial government often ended in failure. Late in 1801, within days of Finlay’s death, Heriot wrote to Sir Robert Shore Milnes, lieutenant governor of Lower Canada, requesting two posts held by his predecessor. Heriot probably considered them not only his due, but necessary for the smooth functioning of the postal system. A seat on the Legislative Council would lend him the government’s ear, and the appointment as superintendent of post houses would enable him to control the transportation and lodging on which the postal couriers were dependent. He obtained neither. Milnes defended his choice of Gabriel-Elzéar Tascherea as superintendent to the colonial secretary and added criticisms concerning Heriot’s character and lack of qualifications. Relations between Heriot and the lieutenant governor began to deteriorate. In 1805 Heriot was asked by Milnes to accept, after hours, dispatches for delivery to a ship anchored in the Quebec harbour; he refused. When Milnes sent a stinging rebuke, Heriot wrote back in a less than conciliatory tone: “I consider the sending [of] papers to me without any written request . . . as highly disrespectful, and that I am by no means officially obliged to cause any Letters or dispatches to be sent on board of Vessels.” Outbursts of this sort created resentment among colonial officialdom that increased as the years passed and resulted in complaints being lodged against Heriot in London.

In 1806 Heriot returned to Britain, probably on family business. The next year, back in Quebec, he faced mounting criticism from the business community in the colonies concerning the slowness of the mails. Problems escalated during the War of 1812. The colonial administration began to make demands on him and his service which he felt were excessive and in certain cases unjustified. In 1813 he wrote to the postmaster general complaining that the governor, Sir George Prevost, was meddling: “He has made it a practice to interfere with the Post Office, as if that Department were solely under his Controul.” Prevost’s conduct was “unlike any that I have ever before experienced.” Attending this difficulty was Heriot’s increased responsibility, which did not diminish with the ending of hostilities. As a result, he found fewer opportunities for “cultivating society.” In 1815 he wrote to the postmaster general of the growing burden of work associated with his established duties and the addition of new responsibilities, which now included the superintendence of postmasters and couriers, the examination of the various post office accounts, the writing of the controllers’ sheets (originals and duplicates), and the payment of employees. His request for a raise in salary was refused; word had reached London concerning the difficulties which Heriot was causing the colonial administration.

Heriot’s request for an increased salary had likely also been prompted by the fact that he had lost his Ordnance post as clerk of survey, to which he had been promoted in 1804. In 1813 a member of the Board of Ordnance with whom he had quarreled earlier took his revenge. He ordered Heriot to Kingston [Ontario], knowing that his responsibilities as deputy postmaster general necessitated his presence at Quebec. When Heriot refused to take up the Kingston post he was suspended from the service.

In 1815, after a visit to New York and Washington to discuss the restoration of postal deliveries from Britain through the United States, Heriot began to contemplate resignation. The decision was precipitated by the harassment of Sir Gordon Drummond, administrator of Lower Canada, who in a letter to Heriot at the end of October insisted that he immediately carry out some postal reforms. Heriot replied but he did not answer Drummond’s lengthy questions. Drummond sent a fiery missive to London complaining of the deputy postmaster’s unconscionable behaviour. Although Heriot considered travelling to England to explain his administrative problems to the postmaster general, in January 1816 he decided instead to resign. The following summer he sailed from Quebec for England, knowing that he had seen the Canadas for the last time. After his return to Britain, Heriot made frequent trips abroad – visiting France, Italy, Austria, Spain, and Germany. In 1824 he published two numbers of an illustrated travel book. Entitled A picturesque tour made in the years 1817 and 1820, through the Pyrenean Mountains, it was to be his last work. He continued to travel and to sketch – indeed, almost until the last year of his life. He died in London in July 1839, the cause of death being indicated as “decay of nature.”

Two other British topographical artists working in Canada whose backgrounds were similar to Heriot’s were Thomas Davies [see AskART] and James Pattison Cockburn [see AskART]. Their landscape water-colours of Canada, like those by Heriot, were painted mainly in leisure hours and were kept as attractive reminders of the places they had visited. Cockburn enjoyed recording the urban scene; Davies, like Heriot, showed a preference for the countryside and outlying settlements, although both were attracted to the grandeur of Canada’s rivers and forests.

Heriot’s significance is threefold: as an energetic office holder, as a writer, and most important, as an artist. As deputy postmaster general he began an ambitious program of improving deliveries and increasing postal stations from Halifax to Sandwich (Windsor). His attempts to create a better service were a mixed success. Postal regulations fettered him and attempts to gain the cooperation of the colonial administration often failed, largely owing to his abrasive personality. As a writer, he made a contribution to the early travel literature of Canada. As a colonial landscape artist, he is more significant. His water-colours and drawings (which received no serious attention until the beginning of the 20th century) are supremely attractive works of art, often felicitously coloured and sometimes quite precisely detailed. As unconscious social documents they are invaluable. They provide eloquent witness to a life and landscape long since gone. On another level of significance they mirror the culture and skill often associated with those many-selved individuals whom 18th-century Britain cultivated and from whom the colonial service and settlements greatly benefited.

By Gerald E. Finley
A detailed list of George Heriot’s water-colours, oil paintings, sketch-books, and engravings can be found in a biography of him by G. [E.] Finley, George Heriot, postmaster-painter of the Canadas (Toronto, 1983). Heriot is the author of A descriptive poem, written in the West Indies (London, 1781); The history of Canada, from its first discovery, comprehending an account of the original establishment of the colony of Louisiana (London, 1804); Travels through the Canadas . . . (London, 1807; repr. with intro. Toronto, 1971); and A picturesque tour made in the years 1817 and 1820, through the Pyrenean Mountains, Auvergne, the departments of High and Low Alps, and in part of Spain (London, 1824), of which only two parts were published.

Source:
Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Volume VII 1836 – 1850
(1988), edited by Francess G. Halpenny; University of Toronto Press.

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see AskART.com. Glossary http://www.askart.com/AskART/lists/Art_Definition.aspx.

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke.




** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.
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