J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Street View and the 1700s

Back in February the Guardian newspaper featured artist Halley Docherty’s images of historic paintings of London laid over (and, thanks to Photoshop, somewhat under) Google Street View photographs of the modern city.

Above, for example, is Canaletto’s 1750s view of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, one of my favorite parts of London. The skyline hasn’t changed that much, but there appears to be much less traffic on the river.

In March the newspaper published Docherty’s similar work on other cities around the world, including the view of Paris below. Shortly after Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet painted the Pont Notre-Dame in 1756, that built-up bridge was taken down for safety.
Since then Docherty has done photo features on album covers, the World Wars, and the Berlin Wall.

I just tried doing the same thing with Henry Pelham’s print of the Boston Massacre and modern State Street. (Pelham had a better handle on perspective than Paul Revere, who copied his engraving.)

My main conclusion is that Pelham must have sat in a second-story window to get his view of the Old State House with its lion and unicorn and tower behind. He was clearly higher than those Street View cameras that Google employees walk around with.


Charles Bahne said...


Having examined the then-and-now of the Massacre site in some detail (see my post on your blog for March 5, 2013), I came the conclusion that Pelham and Revere were standing at some distance up King Street [State Street] when they drew the buildings. I think the artist was somewhere near the intersection of Kilby Street, or maybe even east of that. The key factor is the gap between the southeast corner of the Old State House and the building at 1 State Street. (The 1770s building on the King St./Cornhill corner had the same footprint as the modern building.)

Remember that the Google Street View cameras are mounted on a post above the body of the car, so they're almost at second-floor level anyway.

Here's a link to a modern-day equivalent view: . The buildings in the foreground, on either side, were simply cropped out of the famous Massacre print. The artist also may have been standing closer to the sidewalk on the left side of State Street, instead of in the center.


Charlie Bahne

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Charlie! I recall seeing Google employees walking the Freedom Trail wearing backpacks of sort that held a camera on a pole over their heads, as well as the cars or vans.

My approach to trying to line up the view was matching the Old State House, and specifically its tower. I couldn't get high enough in Google Street View to show almost all the tower, as Pelham did.

Charles Bahne said...

Oops, somehow my link got omitted from my earlier comment. Here it is again:

Anonymous said...

Doesn't this all suppose the artists were actually trying for (or capable of) "photographic realism?" common is it to find period prints lining up exactly with extant landmarks?

Speaking of accuracy - I myself am struck by the portrayal of the soldiers. While the faces of the civilians seem a bit cartoony, those the the soldiers appear more like distinct individuals; could these be "portraits" of the participants rather than just "drawings?"

I'm guessing the only person of the group who might have later had an actual portrait done would have been the Capt. Preston. Is there one?

R. Doctorow

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I think one would have to choose the historical artist carefully to ensure he or she was striving for accurate perspective. In pre-Revolutionary Boston Henry Pelham seemed the most likely possibility. The Christian Remick/Paul Revere images of the waterfront are more symbolic than realistic.

I don't think portraits of any of the Massacre trial defendants survive. During the trial one soldier was noted as tall and another as bald, and we have ages for three of them, but beyond that they're as unknown as most other working-class men in the British Empire. Even Preston's life offers a lot of holes, and no portrait.

I don't know if Pelham would have or could have tried to depict individuals in his print. The wounds of Gray and Attucks (best seen on a print hand-painted to show blood) distinguish them, but the faces don't seem to. The woman in the crowd is sometimes taken to represent Samuel Maverick's mother. It's good to remember that this well-studied image isn't that large, so the artist(s) couldn't include that much detail if they tried.

Anonymous said...

If you look carefully at both Pelham's and Revere's prints, the vanishing point appears to be at or about the center of the image - the center of the 1st floor of the State House (obscured by smoke in the images). I wonder if it's possible the image was done simply to document the event without any intent to show it from where the artist may have been standing at the time. To take it a step further, the distance between the massacre and the State House appears to be farther than the actual marker in the pavement - possibly closer to the dump truck in Mr. Bahne's Google Street view link. I'm probably splitting hairs here, but those are my observations.