Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 12: November 2009


The War of 1812 and the Tourist Encounter in Upper Canada:

Eight Watercolour Views by Philip John Bainbrigge, RE.

By: Kamille T.H. Parkinson, PhD

When Philip John Bainbrigge arrived in Quebec City in late June or early July 1836, the War of 1812 had been over for more than 20 years, but its battles and skirmishes were still fresh in the minds of the garrison communities of Upper and Lower Canada.  Indeed, many members of these communities, British officers and frequently their family members, travelled to sites of battles and monuments in order to take in the experience of this recent history in much the same manner as modern tourists.  This essay explores the tourist encounter at sites from the War of 1812 through the artistic representations of the British military artist Lieutenant Philip John Bainbrigge (1817-1881), a Royal Engineer posted to Canada from 1836 to 1842.

As a Royal Engineer, Bainbrigge undertook his training as a cadet at the Royal Military Academy (RMA), Woolwich, from which he obtained his commission as 2nd Lieutenant in December 1833.  While there, in addition to his military studies, Bainbrigge was taught both topographical drawing and current artistic modes of landscape representation.  In late 1835 Bainbrigge requested a posting abroad and in May of 1836 he left for Canada, bound for Quebec.  At this time British troops and officers were being sent to Canada in order to support British interests in the face of rebellious grumbling in Lower Canada (present day Quebec) and parts of Upper Canada (present day Ontario).  The grumbling erupted into the Rebellions of 1837 and 1838, and Bainbrigge took part in operations against the rebels along the Sorel River, at St. Denis, and at St. Eustache.[1]

Following the collapse of the Rebellions, Bainbrigge was frequently employed on special survey duty to make reports on the nature of the country, and on the capacities for defence of various places in Canada on the American frontier (which in this context refers to the American territories at the border with Canada).  In this regard Bainbrigge reported on the state of the roads in Upper and Lower Canada, as well as the level of settlement, and created sketches and maps in notebooks and journals.  With the aid of these it is possible to partially reconstruct his travels through Canada and the United States.  Bainbrigge was also a talented, prolific and skilful landscape painter, and his numerous watercolour paintings also assist in determining where he travelled (and when) in the course of his posting to Canada.

The tourist encounter in Canada since the late eighteenth century has largely been based on the pleasures of picturesque scenery coupled with the experience of a sublime and savage wilderness.  However, in colonial Canada the landscape frequently did not readily lend itself to picturesque composition and, without the depth of visible, European, settlement-based history evident in Europe, Canada also tended to be somewhat thin of the ruins and monuments sought for and favoured by the picturesque traveller.  The tourist, however, was more than compensated by the sublime immensity of the natural world, and was still able to satisfy the desire for monuments to great figures and battles, though on a somewhat limited scale.

Like most British officials in Canada during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Bainbrigge operated in a dual capacity as a representative of British interests in the colonies and as a tourist in a foreign land.  Concurrent with his professional duties, Bainbrigge’s paintings reveal him as a tourist recording the scenes, landmarks and activities around him.  The picturesque attitude prevalent among travellers during this time fostered an appreciation for natural wonders, but also included an interest in scenes with romantic associations such as sites of battles and monuments.  While crisscrossing Upper and Lower Canada and the eastern United States, it is apparent that Bainbrigge took the opportunity to tour locales and sites associated with both historical events and popular literature.  For example, Bainbrigge painted views related to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759), and also produced watercolours of scenes linked to James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826.  In keeping with this aspect of picturesque tourism, Bainbrigge also recorded a number of scenes relative to the War of 1812 and some of its more famous figures and conflicts.

During the first two years of his posting to Canada Bainbrigge spent most of his time in Lower Canada, with occasional journeys into the state of New York.  In 1838 Bainbrigge travelled more extensively in Lower Canada and New York, as well as traversing most of the southern portions of Upper Canada.  During this time Bainbrigge recorded at least two sites of conflict from the War of 1812, probably in the late summer and early autumn of that year.  The first of these is his Ruins of Fort Erie and City of Buffalo, inscribed on the verso with the title and “outlet of Lake Erie 1838” This of course refers to the highly contested stronghold on the Niagara River, just at the head of Lake Erie, which changed hands between British and American forces several times in the course of the war, before finally being destroyed and abandoned by the Americans in the autumn of 1814.  In the distance across the river can be seen the reconstructed city of Buffalo, burned by the British on December 30, 1813 in retaliation for the burning of Newark less than a month before.[2]

Click on the Image to See a Larger Picture

Figure 1: Philip John Bainbrigge, Ruins of Fort Erie and City of Buffalo, 1838.  Library and Archives Canada , 1983-47-83.  Watercolour over pencil on wove paper, 16.5 x 24.6 cm.
Figure 2: Philip John Bainbrigge, Moravian Indian Village near where General Proctor was Defeated in 1812, September 1838.  Library and Archives Canada, 1883-47-38.  Watercolour over pencil on wove paper, 14.2 x 15.9 cm.
Figure 3: Philip John Bainbrigge, Barracks with Redoubts and Plattsburgh and Saranac River from Commodore Downie’s Tomb, March 30, 1840.  Library and Archives Canada , 1983-47-31.  Watercolour over pencil on wove paper, 16.7 x 26.5 cm.
Figure 4: Philip John Bainbrigge, Châteauguay Blockhouse, c.1840. Private collection.  Watercolour on paper, 14.9 x 21 cm.

The second watercolour Bainbrigge painted related to the War of 1812 is his Moravian Indian Village near where General Proctor was Defeated in 1812, dated September 1838.  Here Bainbrigge treats the viewer to a long view over the valley of the Thames near present-day Thamesville in southern Ontario, a composition that at first appears to correspond to the picturesque aesthetic, both in format and subject matter.  The picturesque composition generally favoured a view from a height with the gaze being directed to a distant, light-filled horizon by means of a serpentine path, and here we are certainly given the elevated point of view.  But in all it is an enclosed view, with the horizon blocked by a line of trees and a rising hill beyond the village.  As well, and quite curiously, though the scene refers to the site of a former battleground, the painting commemorates a British defeat at the hands of the Americans, caused by the ineptitude of General Proctor.  Rather than glorifying the scene or allowing the pathos of the battle and the death of Tecumseh, to speak for itself in the manner of a truly picturesque work, Bainbrigge’s original inscription reads: “Indian Village on the Thames near / the spot where Gen Proctor ran away”, highlighting Proctor’s disorderly retreat from Fort Malden at Amherstburg and the Detroit River frontier in October of 1813.[3]  The inscription, in Bainbrigge’s hand, perhaps elicits a touch of scorn for the later court-marshalled Proctor, and certainly seems at odds with the motivations of picturesque touring, though the site would still be of interest to a military officer.

Throughout 1839 Bainbrigge travelled extensively, spending some time in Upper and Lower Canada and New York, but also sent on special reconnaissance duties into New Brunswick and Maine to assess the state of the border there.  In the spring of 1840 Bainbrigge was back in Upper and Lower Canada, and New York, and in March of that year he recorded, from recollection, Commodore Downie’s tomb at Plattsburgh in New York <<Figure 3>>.  In command of the British fleet at Chazy on Lake Champlain for no more than a week, Downie was pressured to engage the American fleet at Plattsburgh, a naval battle in which he was to have been supported by land forces led by Sir George Prevost.  Early in the morning on September 11, 1814 Downie launched his attack, but due in part to the late arrival of Prevost on land, the battle was lost to the Americans, and Downie himself lost his life.[4]  While serving as a sort of romantic and sentimental record of Downie’s tomb, Bainbrigge’s own inscription on the verso of the work, “Barracks & Redoubts at Plattsburgh & Saranac River / from Commodore Downie tomb / from recollection March 30, 1840”, gives precedence to the military fortifications at the site.  A work such as this highlights the dual nature of Bainbrigge’s records of the landscape as documents for military purposes, as well as for the purpose of personal mementoes recording the tourist encounter in Canada.

While Bainbrigge was in the region of upstate New York in the spring of 1840, he appears to have also been mapping and reconnoitring areas of Lower Canada on the border with the United States.  Here again Bainbrigge records a site of a battle from the War of 1812 – the Battle of Châteauguay, which took place in late October 1813 near the confluence of the Châteauguay and English Rivers.[5]  Bainbrigge’s watercolour and maps of the area show a blockhouse (no longer extant) <<Figure 4>> that was likely built as part of the system of fortifications constructed along the American frontier in the aftermath of the war.  Part of Bainbrigge’s responsibilities as an engineer surveying these territories was to assess the capabilities for defence of various places in Canada along this border.  In addition to recommending places where defences might be introduced or augmented, Bainbrigge recorded and reported on the condition and needs of existing fortifications.  The inscription on the front of this watercolour, “Châteauguay Blockhouse – near which the American army was defeated in 1813”, signals again his professional motivations for recording the site, as well as those of a more sentimental and tourist-oriented interest in the site of an important, albeit small, British victory.

Picturesque touring as it evolved in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was relayed to British territories, had layered within it appreciation for scenes both romantic and sublime.  As a product of his time, and influenced by picturesque practices, Bainbrigge recorded several scenes with romantic associations, though the parallel necessity of recording the landscape for military purposes and the influence of his own artistic practice made Bainbrigge a somewhat uneasy tourist in this regard.  One site of interest that he did paint is Brock’s Monument, commemorating the death of General Brock and the ultimate British victory at the Battle of Queenston Heights on the Niagara Peninsula on October 13, 1812.  Bainbrigge painted this subject at least three times, apparently during the same time period in or around September 1840.  One of these sketches is an unfinished view of the monument from a distance, Brock’s Monument, Niagara River, Queens Town Heights <<Figure 5>>; the second, inscribed on the verso, “Brocks Monument – Queenston Heights -/ cracked by gunpowder fired by some ruffian / 1840 / from the old redoubt,” is from closer to the structure <<Figure 6>>;[6] and the third, Niagara River from Queenston Heights <<Figure 7>>, is taken from the monument, with its base forming the leading right edge of the painting.  Figures 5 and 7 give a clear view of the river, shipping, elevations and American territory, with the monument as a secondary consideration (or landmark), suggesting that Bainbrigge was recording not the monument itself but capacities for defence of the region, as well as means of transportation (including his horse), in accordance with his official responsibilities.  Of these three works only the second (fig. 6) appears to be a record made by a tourist to commemorate the memory of the much-admired military hero Brock, a scenario perhaps of even greater likelihood for a military officer, though “the adulation of General Brock was one emotion that a majority of... travellers could share.”[7]  But even this possibility is tempered by the notation “from the old redoubt” (an outwork or fieldwork without flanking defences), which suggests that Bainbrigge was still heavily influenced by his position as a military officer recording Upper Canada’s existing defensive structures after the recent Rebellion of 1837/38, rather than as a tourist bent on recording monuments to inspire nationalistic sentiments.  His comment regarding the damage to the pillar does, however, suggest that the vandalism to the war hero’s monument might also have struck too close to home for romantic, sentimental comfort.

Click on the Image to See a Larger Picture

Figure 5: Philip John Bainbrigge, Brock’s Monument, Queenston Heights, c.1840.  Library and Archives Canada , 1983-47-40R.  Watercolour on wove paper, 21.5 x 16.0 cm.
Figure 6: Philip John Bainbrigge, Brock’s Monument, Queenston Heights, 1840.  Library and Archives Canada , 1983-47-7.  Watercolour over pencil on wove paper, 16.5 x 24.3 cm.
Figure 7: Philip John Bainbrigge, Niagara River from Queenston Heights, September 1840.  Library and Archives Canada , 1983-47-32.  Watercolour over pencil on wove paper, 16.5 x 24.3 cm..
Figure 8: Philip John Bainbrigge, Fort Niagara from Fort Mississauga, Upper Canada, 1840.  Library and Archives Canada , 1983-47-118.  Watercolour over pencil on wove paper, 17.9 x 24.9 cm.

There is little doubt that Bainbrigge’s professional duties tied in nicely with a probably personal predilection for picturesque touring during his posting.  At the same time, it is difficult to dispute that “the British military traveller’s dedication to professional concerns sets him apart from his fellow countrymen abroad, and gives us an indication … of the place of British North America in the imperial scheme.”[8]  Bainbrigge’s representations of tourist sites and scenes, in which his military eye and personal aesthetic war with picturesque conventions, give some idea of this.  As well, his numerous paintings of military fortifications (both English and American), plans for bolstering defences in sensitive areas, and analyses of American military strength and American customs are proof enough of his military background and service to the crown.

A prime example of how Bainbrigge’s duties and his art practice intersected in the cause of imperialism is his curiously composed Fort Niagara from Fort Mississauga, Upper Canada of 1840 <<Figure 8>>.  Likely painted in the same time frame as the sketches of Brock’s Monument, and as part of his duties to assess the fortifications of the province, the work is indicative Bainbrigge’s unique approach to landscape composition.  While we are presented with a distant prospect of the American fort, our gaze is not led there by way of a meandering, winding route in the strictly picturesque manner.  Rather, it is forced to the opposite shore by the converging diagonals of the external and internal walls of the British fortress, and what would otherwise be a picturesque, panoramic view is cut off by the mass of the building on the right side of the composition.  The immediacy of the scene and its abbreviated quality suggest the sort of “snapshot” view of a new pictorial order coming into prominence in the nineteenth century. 

Construction on Fort Mississauga began during the War of 1812, to replace Fort George after it was destroyed by American troops, but it was not finished until after the war had ended.  Built from the rubble of the town of Newark, the fort was garrisoned until 1826, when it was allowed to fall into disrepair.[9]  Indeed, the fort and garrison at Niagara was described by Anna Brownell Jameson with some asperity in January 1837 as consisting of “three privates and a corporal, with adequate arms and ammunition, i.e. rusty firelocks and damaged guns.  The fortress itself [she] mistook for a dilapidated brewery.”[10]  By the time Bainbrigge painted his view in 1840 the fort had undergone some renovation and reinforcement due to the inducement of the Rebellions, and it continued to be maintained until 1854 in response to border disputes with the United States.  The state of armed neutrality that existed between the United States and the British colony of Canada suffered some strain during and after the Rebellions, as suspicions of complicity were levelled at the Americans and fears of a second American invasion along the lines of the War of 1812-14 were raised.  The implied threat did not materialize, even through the tense years of the American Civil War and the Fenian scare of 1866, and the fort was thought to be redundant after 1870.  Nonetheless, Bainbrigge’s sketch is a clear reminder of the very real conflicts and trespasses of the War of 1812, and while another amateur artist might have presented a more standard, picturesque view to express this lesson, Bainbrigge’s composition conveys the same message with equal or greater force.

The remainder of Bainbrigge’s posting in Canada followed the patterns established in the first few years of his residence here.  In 1841 he travelled and surveyed areas of Upper and Lower Canada, and New York, and also took part in a special expedition to Lake Nipissing in the company of Colonel Oldfield, Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay company, and the Earls of Caledon and Mulgrave, in order to survey the country with respect to the means of navigation.  In 1842 Bainbrigge returned to the areas in New Brunswick and Maine that he had surveyed, and may also have been posted back to Quebec City, from which port he departed for England in September of that year.  In these remaining two years of service in Canada, Bainbrigge continued to sketch and paint sites of picturesque and scenic interest on his travels, in contemporary touristic fashion.  While visiting locales associated with other historic events or literature, he does not appear to have visited or recorded further sites from the War of 1812.


Berton, Pierre.  Flames Across the Border, 1813-1814.  Markham: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1988.

___________The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813.  Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1988.

Burant, Jim.  Friendly Spies on the Northern Tour, 1815-1837: The sketches of Henry Byam Martin.  Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1981.

Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.  Historic plaque at Fort Mississauga. Ottawa: Government of Canada.

Jameson, Anna Brownell.  Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, New Canadian Library Edition.  Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1990.  First published, London: Saunders and Otley, 1838.

Jasen, Patricia.  Wild Things: Nature, Culture, and Tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Montreal Gazette, 25 April 1840.

The Royal Engineers Journal.  Obituary: Major-General Philip John Bainbrigge. 1 January 1882.


[1] “Obituary: Major-General Philip John Bainbrigge,” The Royal Engineers Journal (January 1, 1882).

[2] Pierre Berton, Flames Across the Border, 1813-1814 (Markham: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1988).

[3] Pierre Berton, The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813 (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1988).

[4] Berton, Flames Across the Border, pp 494-508.

[5] Ibid, pp 271-281.

[6] The vandalism to the monument took place overnight one night in late April of 1840.  The Montreal Gazette of 25 April 1840 described the damage but reported that the vandals had not been apprehended.

[7] Patricia Jasen, Wild Things: Nature, Culture, and Tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), p. 38.

[8] Jim Burant, Friendly Spies on the Northern Tour, 1815-1837: The sketches of Henry Byam Martin (Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1981), p 20.

[9] Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Historic plaque at Fort Mississauga (Government of Canada).

[10] Anna Brownell Jameson, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, New Canadian Library edition (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1990; first published, London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), pp. 56-57.


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