An Artist’s View of Charleston

A recent stay in Charleston, working with the Charleston Library Society to catalogue their beautiful Atlantic Nelpune volumes prompted me to see for myself what the reality of the view which appears at the top of the Chart ‘A Chart of the Western Passage into the Long Island Sound from New York up the East River’.

[Heritage Charts A303, HNS p.154, NMM image HNS154a & CLS p.101 & picture 108a]

November 1st 1777

The Heritage Charts edition of the same chart dates from sometime after the 1st November 1777 as the view has been updated.

c1777-1780

The views depicted on both of the editions although they differ in foreground content are both of the city from the same place on James Island.  Most interesting is the view of the city which gives a line of sight up the Cooper River, past the Customs House, toward Mount Pleasant.  The question I asked myself was fromwhere exactly on the James Island shore was such a view achieved…

The most obvious starting point is of course the angles and views of the Major landmarks of the time which are of course the church spires.

(click on the image for an expanded view)

A view of Charleston from the South shore of the Ashley River in 1777

The slightly later edition of the same chart looks like this…

(click on image for expanded view)

A view of Charleston from the South shore of the Ashley river. 1777-78

Notice that the couple lounging in the foreground have been replaced by two people wotking the fields.  The cattle have gone and the port itself appears more industrious with extra ships in the river.

When one considers the angle of the view the artist must have taken a position South East of the city and all things considered including the accssibility of the river shore at that time (and today come to that) the most likely vantage point would seem to be along the coast-line marked yellow on the map, or indeed from by Fort Johnson itself.

Taken from Heritage Charts A308. A sketch of the operations before Charlestown, South Carolina. 1780.

(click on the image for an expanded view)

Now, for all of the detail which went into the creation of these magnificent charts, plans and maps the most important thing to remember is that the men who produced them were as much artists as they were draftsmen.  They had an eye for what would look good to their Lords and Masters, what would sell their work to those who could afford it and no less importantly, what would give the best view (excuse the pun!) of British control and posperity.

Look again at the pictures above and compare them with the reality of distance.

(click on the picture for an expanded view)

Remembering that in 1780 the Battery at the Southern end of the city, closest to the near shore-line stopped some several hundred metres short of where the battery wall is today, even a talented artist such as JFW Des Barres cannot have seen the city with such clarity and detail as his artwork would have us believe!

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