The William Berczy Paintings

HBC owns two very large original oil paintings by noted Canadian artist William Berczy. These paintings once hung in Fort William, inland headquarters of the North West Company. They were subsequently transferred to York Factory, spent time at the London office, and were finally sent on to Winnipeg. Today, they can be found in Toronto at HBC's Head Office. The paintings were created as a pendant, an arrangement where one painting is meant to be viewed as a complement to the other: one depicts a stately Lord Nelson looking out into the distance and the other displays the Battle of Trafalgar. These paintings have a lot of significance for the Company, having been passed down from the old North West Company, HBC's once bitter rival. The paintings have a kind of heroism both in the stories they reveal on the canvas and the scars they bear from their long journey through time.


Admiral Nelson by William Berczy, 1805

Admiral Nelson by William Berczy, 1805

The Berczy paintings were a subject of curiosity and intrigue for nearly a century. For years it was not known who the artist was or where the paintings came from. The search to discover the mysterious artist of the paintings began in the early 1900s at York Factory. In 1923 Christy Harding, who was Chief Officer of York Factory, decided to find out who painted the two paintings. He wrote an article for The Beaver, which appeared in the June issue that year. Mr. Harding asked "Is there any old Hudson's Bay officer living who can throw any light on the matter? It would be interesting to know who the artist was...." He suggested that perhaps the artist was R.M. Ballantyne, the famous writer of boys' stories, who was in the service of Hudson's Bay Company from 1841 to 1847 and who spent part of his early apprenticeship at York Factory. Ballantyne had done some watercolour paintings, which lent some plausibility to the idea.


Harding received no replies to his inquiry, but the interest of the Winnipeg Head Office was triggered and the paintings were recalled from York Factory for inspection. When they arrived in Winnipeg in 1928 they were found to be in poor condition. This is hardly surprising given that they had been hanging in the mess at York Factory and subject to neglect, as well as the occasional brawl among officers. One such brawl actually resulted in a rogue elbow connecting with the portrait of Lord Nelson, leaving a permanent dent in the canvas. HBC Governor Charles V. Sale instructed that the paintings be shipped to London for renovation and, if possible, for identification.

The pictures were conserved in London and returned to Winnipeg. But more importantly London solved the mystery of their origin. The answer was found in a quotation by Ross Cox as reported in A.S. Morton's then recently published book, The Journal of Duncan McGillivray. Cox, writing of his visit to the inland headquarters of the North West Company at Fort William in 1816, said: "A full-length likeness of Nelson, together with a splendid painting of the battle of the Nile, also decorate the walls, and were presented by the Hon. William McGillivray to the Company."  Cox was actually mistaken in calling the second painting the battle of the Nile, since the Spanish flag on one of the ships and the full Union Jack on others show that this actually portrays the Battle of Trafalgar. Nevertheless, the reference proved that these two pictures had once adorned the walls of Fort William's great dining hall.


The Battle of Trafalgar by William Berczy, 1806

The Battle of Trafalgar by William Berczy, 1806

Fort William, located at the western end of Lake Superior, was completed in 1804 and named after Company partner William McGillivray who had had these two pictures painted for the dining hall. After 1821, when the North West Company merged with Hudson's Bay Company, the importance of Fort William diminished to that of an ordinary trading post so the paintings were moved to York Factory, HBC's main depot in North America. John McTavish, commanding Fort William at the time, was sent to York Factory to take charge of the fort and he took the two paintings with him. They remained in their packing case until 1834. It was James Hargrave, then Chief Factor at York Factory, who decided to do something with the paintings. He wrote a letter to Governor Simpson saying, "By the way we have a couple of large oil paintings here brought by Mr. McTavish from Fort William and left by him on his departure. I think I have heard it said that they belonged to the Wintering partners of the old North West Company. Could these be hung up in our Summer Mess Room?" The paintings were eventually hung as Hargrave had suggested, but the knowledge of who the artist of the two paintings was had already been lost.


Even in 1948, when The Beaver magazine published an article entitled, "The Riddle of the Paintings", only the origin of the paintings was known, not the artist. The author of the article, Margaret Arnett MacLeod wrote: "The pictures are unsigned. Their period can safely be estimated as being between 1807, the year Fort William was named after McGillivray, and 1816 when Cox saw them... McGillivray evidently chose the portrait of Lord Nelson, painted by L.F. Abbott and engraved by W. Barnard in 1798 for the artist to copy."

MacLeod suggested that the artist of the paintings might be Dulongpré. However, in 1967, John André, an art historian and author of a book titled William Berczy, remarked that MacLeod attributed them incorrectly to Dulongpré because she believed Dulongpré was the artist of the McGillivray family portrait, which was evidently by the same hand as the two other paintings. She also believed that the distinctive leaves and flowers in the corner of the paintings could be attributed to Dulongpré's hand. MacLeod was on the right track. Since her article was published in 1948 those "little leaves" have come to be recognized as a trademark of Berczy's work and it has come to be known that it was actually William Berczy who painted the McGillivray family portrait.

In 1991, Mary Macaulay Allodi, Peter N. Moogk and Beate Stock published a catalogue on Berczy, in which they clarify how it is we know Berczy painted the pictures. They note that in Berczy's correspondence there is a letter dated 1807 from Thomas Christian. He writes to Berczy: "...the large and monumental Picture of Lord Nelson was to be completed in three weeks. I congratulate you on this." And so it was that the "riddle of the paintings" that lasted over 100 years came to be solved.

About the artist
Johann Albrecht Ulrich Moll (1744-1813), also known as William Berczy, was born in Wallerstein, County of Oettingen-Wallerstein (now part of Bavaria). He worked in Europe as a painter, architect, and writer, was part of the German artistic colony in Italy, and exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. He came to Canada as overseer of a group of German settlers who were destined for upstate New York. However, they decided under Berczy's leadership, to take advantage of Governor Simcoe's land-grant offer. One hundred and eighty-six people in all, they formed the German Land Company, and in 1794 established a small hamlet known as German Mills on the Don River. Berczy and his German settlers were pivotal in forming what is now Toronto. They cleared part of the townsite of York (Toronto), erected houses and a magazine, built 15 miles (24 kilometres) of Yonge Street in addition to 30 miles (38 kilometres) of roads in Markham township, as well as clearing 24 miles of the Rouge River waterway for navigation.

In 1804 Berczy decided to move to Montreal where he could work full-time as a professional painter. Montreal offered a more appreciative and larger clientele than Toronto at the time. In comparison to York, then a village of about 420 inhabitants, Montreal had a population of over 6,000. Berczy mingled with local leaders of society and visited their country houses, receiving numerous portrait commissions, executing church decorations and doing some architectural work. His pastel portrait heads of Montreal fur-traders, lawyers, civic leaders and garrison officers, which are drawn with incredible precision and clarity, are well-known today. He also began to paint portraits on a larger scale in oil on canvas, often undertaking more complex compositions with landscape backgrounds for some works. His notable works include Portrait of Joseph Brant (The Thomson Collection), a full-figure portrait of Brant on the shores of Lake Erie (National Gallery of Canada), and The Woolsey Family (National Gallery of Canada).

About the Paintings
In 1805 Berczy undertook to paint the large canvas depicting Nelson for William McGillivray. At the time, Admiral Nelson was highly popular and as much a hero in Québec as he was elsewhere. Quebec City was then the administrative capital of British North America. Tales of Nelson's naval victories against the French were widely propagated, lending moral support and patriotic pride to Englishmen overseas. McGillivray commissioned the portrait of Nelson to help bolster the spirits of his North West Company fur traders. When Nelson died, during the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, there was a tremendous outpouring of emotion in the city. The hero and his victory over Napoleon were commemorated at the "Trafalgar Celebrations" held in Quebec City, Montreal, and Trois-Rivières in January 1806. A monument to Nelson was erected and displays of prints depicting Nelson and his naval battles were circulated. It was only natural that the Admiral's final battle itself should be conceived as a companion piece to the portrait. These were subjects to paint on a grand scale; hence Berczy's seven by four foot canvases commemorate this figure of honour and respect alongside his greatest naval victory.

Berczy's painting of Admiral Nelson is based on a painting by Lemuel Francis Abbott (1760-1803). It shows Nelson clad in full naval uniform, looking out into the distance with an air of pride and dignity. He stands on the shoreline in the foreground, while the sea rushes in waves against the shore. Distant ships along the horizon signal a reminder of his stature on the seas. Berczy's painting of the Battle of Trafalgar is based on an aquatint by Robert Dodd, published by Dodd in London in 1806. The print's title describes the scene: "Victory of Trafalgar, in the Rear. This view of the total defeat of the combined fleets of France and Spain, with the tenders of the British Fleet saving their conquered enemies from the flames of their own vessel..." In copying the horizontal composition, Berczy compressed the action into the vertical format needed to make it a companion piece to his portrait of Admiral Nelson. This was accomplished with the loss of only a few ships at the left and right.