One would have supposed that the possibilities of discovering lost or hitherto unrecorded masterpieces in attics, lofts, or coal sheds must, by now, be wearing thin. Not so.
Phillips, the fine-art auctioneers in London, has recently unearthed, almost literally, an oil painting of major importance to the early history of North America. Where? In a coal shed near Exeter.
Cleaning has revealed an unusually detailed scene of a military encampment by a lake, painted not so much as a work of art but rather as a historical record.A North American location was indicated by an Indian scout who sits in the foreground in conversation with a Rogers' Ranger, both of whom would have been in the employ of the British in the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1763. The lower branches of the trees have been cut away and others have been topped to avoid the danger of the scouts' being taken by surprise. An eagle soars overhead.
With the help of a number of museums in America and Canada, the scene was found to be the mustering of Gen. Jeffery Amherst's troops at the northern end of Lake George, in what is now New York State, in the British campaign of 1758- 60 against the French.
General Amherst had been successful in taking the strategically important and well-defended fort of Louisburg, Nova Scotia, releasing access to the St. Lawrence and turning the tide of misfortune which had so far run against the British.
The scene depicted in this picture took place during the second campaign to take Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain. The three-point plan was to take Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Niagara and the city of Quebec, then march on to Montreal in a pincer movement. The strategy was successful, and Montreal fell in 1760 without a battle.
The picture is unsigned but is attributed to a British officer, Capt. Thomas Davies, on the grounds of a similarity of style to a collection of drawings now in the National Gallery of Canada. Captain Davies had studied drawing as part of his training at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and he had served in the British campaign under General Amherst. He is known to have exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1774 a composition entitled "A representation of the encampment at Lake George in North America under the command of Sir Jeffrey Amherst in 1759." Could this be the picture?
Whether the picture was painted in America or back in England is uncertain, although the canvas is of a type and coarseness not found in British painting of the period. Who commissioned the picture is a myster, although whoever it was must have thought highly of it to go to the expense of a fine carved giltwood frame, now badly damaged.