Skip to content Skip to navigation

A View of Part of the Town of Boston

A View of Part of the Town of Boston

A View of Part of the Town of Boston in New-England and Brittish [sic] Ships of War Landing their Troops! 1768, [1] 1770.  Paul Revere, Jr., Boston 1735-1818 Boston. Engraving with hand-coloring, 13 1/8 x 19 in (frame) [2] Athenæum purchase, George Francis Parkman Fund, 1955.

 

The acquisition of this rare and previously unknown impression was spearheaded by Walter Muir Whitehill, antiquarian, author of a number of widely-respected books about Boston (including the popular Boston: A Topographical History), and former director of the Boston Athenæum. In describing the acquisition in the Library’s annual report of 1955, Whitehill stated that the print would be “a welcome addition to the early views of Boston” that had been donated to the Athenæum in 1950 by the New England Historical Art Society. This donation, coupled with Whitehill’s interest in Boston iconography, sparked a renewed commitment by the Athenæum to the collecting of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New England prints, especially those pertaining to political events

Among these political prints are engravings by Paul Revere Jr.,[3] the patriot and revolutionary, who used his engraving skills to promote the American cause. Like most of Revere’s political prints, A View of Part of the Town of Boston was created primarily as political propaganda, but today the print is an important historical document of one of the seminal events leading up to the American Revolution. Revere’s print records the arrival of British troops in Boston in the fall of 1768. The troops had been rushed to the city to quell political disturbances that had erupted following the enactment of the Townshend Acts, a new set of duties imposed upon the American colonies by Parliament in the summer of 1767. A Board of Custom Commissioners was established to assist in the collecting of the duties; it was headquartered in Boston, the most rebellious of the colonial cities. An angry mob gathered in Boston when British authorities seized John Hancock’s ship, the Liberty, on purported smuggling charges. Fearing the worst, Massachusetts’s Royal Governor, Francis Bernard, asked royal officials for military help, spurring General Thomas Gage and the new Secretary of the Colonies, the Earl of Hillsborough, to order troops to the city. The first deployment arrived in Boston on September 30, 1768. Paul Revere’s engraving depicts the British troops being rowed to shore and assembling at the head of Long Wharf.

As a self-taught engraver, Revere was primarily a copyist, using and adapting other people’s designs to his own purposes. It has often been assumed that Revere’s depiction of the Boston blockade of 1768 was based on a watercolor by Christian Remick (1726-1776), A Perspective View of the Blockage of Boston Harbor. Remick was Revere’s acquaintance and sometime colorist. In late 1769 Remick executed a series of six watercolors illustrating the British presence in Boston. His Perspective View of the Blockade of Boston Harbour depicted the arrival of troops at Long Wharf, but, unlike Revere’s print, Remick’s vantage point was from Long Wharf looking out towards the harbor and islands.

Revere may have conceived of the idea of illustrating the arrival of British troops from Remick’s watercolor, but his final print is by no means a literal interpretation of it. Revere’s townscape, particularly the depiction of church steeples, owes much, however, to a view of Boston made by William Burgis (fl. 1718-1731) in 1723 and revised by William Price (fl.1725-1769) twenty years later (see cat. 16). In addition to using a similar vantage point, Revere followed Burgis’s lead in clustering the town across the pictorial plane and giving dramatic emphasis to steeples. Old North Church, Faneuil Hall, and the Town House (later Old State House), emblems of American freedom and independence, are given particular prominence in Revere’s print.[4]

Unlike Burgis’s view, Revere’s shows only a portion of the city, focusing the viewers’ attention on the arrival and actions of the British troops. The accoutrements of war are carefully detailed here: the uniformed, marching soldiers, their bayonets, their guns. In marked contrast to the animation of the troops is the absence of any activity in the city itself. No citizens are depicted, and the town is shown as quiet.

Over the next eighteen months, tensions continued to escalate between the colonists and the occupying British forces, finally exploding in March 1770, when British soldiers opened fire upon an angry crowd in front of the Town Hall. Revere quickly capitalized upon this event by issuing his engraving The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street (see cat. 89b). Judging from the success of this print, the public was hungry for anti-British propaganda and Revere obliged by publishing A View of Part of the Town of Boston. The citizens of Boston could not fail to make a connection between the two prints. The relationship between the two events was underscored by the cartouche in the lower right-hand corner of A View of the Part of the Town of Boston. Sarcastically dedicated to the Earl of Hillsborough, the cartouche depicts America, represented by a Native American with bow and arrow, with her foot on the throat of a British soldier whose military headdress is emblazoned with the Roman numerals “XXIX,” the 29th Regiment responsible for the Boston Massacre.

Many printed facsimiles were made of the engraving, indicating the continuing popularity of the image. At the present time, the Athenæum’s impression of the print is one of the institution’s most reproduced images, appearing in countless textbooks and film documentaries. Created 237 years ago, the image continues to excite the American imagination, bringing to life one of the most explosive and pivotal moments in America’s colonial history.

Catharina Slautterback, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 295. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] Printed under the image: “On Friday Sept. 30th 1768, the Ships of War, armed Schooners, Transports, & Came upthe Harbour and Anchored round the Town; their Cannon loaded [,] a Spring on Their Cables, as for a regular Siege. At noon on Saaturday October the 1st the fourteenth and twenty-ninth Regiments, a detatchment from the 59th Regt. And Train of Artillery with two pieces of Cannon, landed on the Long Wharf; there Formed and Marched with insolent Parade, Drums beating, Fifes playing and Colours flying up King Street. Each Soldier having received 16 rounds of Powder and Ball.”

 [2]The Athenæum’s impression of the Revere print is a second state, evidenced by the corrected spelling of the word “friday” on the first line of text under the image, and is less heavily hand-colored than other impressions.  It is unknown who hand-colored the impression, although other impressions credit the coloring to Christian Remick.

 [3]In addition to Revere’s The Bloody Massacre and A View of a Part of the Town of Boston in New-England, the Boston Athenæum owns the following engravings by him: View of the Obelisk Erected under the Liberty-Tree in Boston; The Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught; Mitred Minuet; The North Battery, Boston; and The South Battery, Boston.

[4]The suggestion that Revere based his design for the print on a Christian Remick watercolor was made by Clarence S. Brigham in his Paul Revere’s Engravings (New York: Atheneum, 1969), 80.  For further discussion on this attribution and a reproduction of the Remick watercolor, see Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Jonathan L. Fairbanks, et al., Paul Revere’s Boston 1735-1818 (1975), 110, 121.  Both books provide useful background information on many of Revere’s prints. For the influence of the Burgis view on Revere, see John W. Reps, “Boston by Bostonians: The Printed Plans and Views of the Colonial City by its Artists, Cartographers, Engravers, and Publishers,” in Boston Prints and Printmakers 1670-1775 (Boston: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1973), 3-56.