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View of Boston in 1848. From East Boston, 1848

Charles W. Burton. View of View of Boston in 1848. From East Boston, 1848.

Charles W. Burton. England ca. 1807- fl. 1849-1850 Boston and New York. View of Boston in 1848. From East Boston, 1848. After a drawing by Edwin Whitefield. Ludworth, Dorset, England 1816 – 1892 Dedham, Massachusetts. Tinted lithograph, 27 1/8 x 47 7/8 in. Published as Whitefield’s Original Views of American Cities No. 9 by Whitefield and Smith, 1848. Inscribed lower right: Boston Athenæum From Josiah Quincy [J]r. Sept. 19, 1848. Gift of Josiah Quincy, Jr., 1848.


A contemporary newspaper account of the View of Boston in 1848 praised it as “beautiful,” “elegant,” and “ornamental.”[1] Beyond its aesthetic qualities, however, the view was shamelessly promotional, portraying Boston as one of the great metropolitan cities of North America. It is particularly fitting that the print, replete with nineteenth-century urban optimism, should have been donated to the Boston Athenæum by Boston’s mayor, Josiah Quincy, Jr.

The second Josiah Quincy to serve as mayor of Boston, Josiah Quincy, Jr. (1802-1882),[2] was wealthy, well-connected, and determined to make Boston a world-class city. He served as treasurer of the Boston Athenæum while mayor and in 1846 took on additional responsibilities as a member of the Athenæum’s Building Committee, which was overseeing construction of a new structure at 10½ Beacon Street.  Quincy’s active role in the Athenæum reflected his concern for cultural matters, and when he spearheaded the establishment of a new public library in Boston, it was not so much an act of disloyalty to the Athenæum as it was an acknowledgement that Boston needed a number of thriving cultural institutions.

When Quincy encountered the young English-born artist Edwin Whitefield in the spring or summer of 1848, he met a different type of promoter, a fledgling artist eager to make his way in America. Whitefield’s desire to further his art dovetailed nicely with Quincy’s desire to promote his city. On the surface, the contrast between the two men could not have been more striking.  Quincy was every bit the refined gentleman. Born into a powerful Massachusetts family and educated at Harvard, his path in life had few of the hurdles encountered by new immigrants such as Edwin Whitefield. Barely twenty at the time of his arrival, Whitefield appears to have arrived in this country with little material sustenance and even fewer connections.  In spite of his English origins, however, he was in many ways a quintessential American type. He was brash and hugely ambitious,[3] and – although he had none of the educational advantages that Quincy enjoyed – he spent hours studying art manuals and sketching. He found his subjects in the natural world, perhaps because he had no intrinsic interest in portraiture, or perhaps (being a shrewd businessman) because he realized that with the recent invention of photography he faced a formidable competitor in that field. But for whatever reasons, Whitefield dedicated his artistic life to documenting the urban and rural realities of his adopted continent.

Edwin Whitefield, after William Burgis, "A South East View of ye Great Town of Boston in New England in America, 1848. Tinted lithograph. Boston: published for Edwin Whitefield by A. Thompson. Gift of Josiah Quincy. Jr., 1848.As America’s population and economic might burgeoned in the mid-nineteenth century, cityscapes and views of the increasingly industrialized countryside gained in popularity, and Whitfield, having instructed himself in the fine art of lithography, issued a series of twenty-eight views under the title North American Scenery (1846). His next endeavor, an even more ambitious series entitled Whitefield’s Original Views of (North) American Cities (Scenery), included both rural and urban scenes. Eventually comprising thirty-eight views, of which the print under discussion is number nine, the series ranged from depictions of great cities, such as New York, Boston, and Montreal, to representations of smaller towns such as Paterson, New Jersey, Poughkeepsie, New York, and Galena, Illinois.[4] In all, the series took over ten years to complete: the first view was published in 1845, the last in 1857.

Although there is little documentation of Whitefield’s 1848 sojourn in Boston, it is clear that he soon made the acquaintance of Mayor Josiah Quincy, Jr.  Apparently, Quincy was suitably impressed, for he quickly commissioned the young artist to create a lithographic facsimile of a well-known print in his possession, A South East View of ye Great Town of Boston in New England in America, known as the Price-Burgis view, a rare engraving of Boston first published in 1743. It is interesting that, when presented with Whitefield’s proposal to create a large contemporary view of Boston, Quincy also engaged him to reproduce a print depicting the city one hundred years earlier, and together the two images underscored the continuity and endurance of the great city of Boston. Quincy donated both prints to the Athenæum on the same date, September 19, 1848.

A contemporary account of the View of Boston in 1848 from the Boston Daily Advertiser states that it was taken from the “Sugar House” in East Boston.[5] The sugar refinery was a growing enterprise located on Sumner Street, and its eight-story building afforded Whitefield an excellent, panoramic view of the city and its wharves. Panoramic views were at the height of their popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. Exhibition halls in Boston were crowded with visitors eager to see panoramas of Europe, the Mediterranean, and Mexico. Whitefield capitalized on this interest in the panoramic view, cramming as much information as possible into an exhibitable print. The newspaper account states that it was not only the “largest of the kind ever made,” but also that it was “the largest and perhaps the most perfect of his pictures.”[6]

Quincy’s gift of these prints was surely motivated in part by the pride he took in his hometown and in his role as its mayor. But, as an owner of the original 1743 engraving of A South East View of ye Great Town of Boston in New England in America, he understood that a visual representation of a prominent city at a given moment had considerable historical significance. It would have taken little imagination to realize that the 1848 view would in time acquire its own historical significance, providing future generations with a glimpse into Boston’s past.

Catharina Slautterback. from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 309-311. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]Boston Advertiser, September 20, 1848.
[2]For Quincy, see James R. Cameron, The Public Service of Josiah Quincy, Jr. (Quincy, Massachusetts: Quincy Cooperative Bank, 1964).
[3]Bettina A. Norton, Edwin Whitefield: Nineteenth-Century North American Scenery (Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishing, 1977). Most of the biographical information on Whitefield in this essay comes from this definitive account of the artist’s professional career.
[4]For a bibliographic list of the views included in both of Whitefield’s series, see Norton, 128-134, which also provides a thorough review of the development and execution of the series.
[5]Boston Advertiser, September 20, 1848.