Artists of Lake George: Joshua Rowley Watson
Before Lake George became a destination for high-minded tourists, those anxious to see for themselves the places described by James Fenimore Cooper in his recently published Last of the Mohicans, and well before the painters of the Hudson River School identified Lake George as an idealized and heightened expression of nature, Joshua Rowley Watson visited, sketched and painted the lake’s scenery.
Watson (1772-1818) was a retired British naval captain who toured the northeastern United States in 1816 and 1817, filling two sketchbooks and a diary with his impressions.
Of Lake George, which Watson visited in July, 1816, he wrote, “The first peep we got at the lake was very fine (even though) we only saw as far down as Tongue Mountain.”
Watson and his companions had arrived at the head of the lake on a Sunday afternoon, when they visited the ruins of Fort George. Watson mistook the fort for a defense against the Indians, rather than recognizing it for what it was, a British military base and hospital constructed during the French and Indian War and used during the American Revolution.
The next day, the group hired a private steamboat, hoping to reach the Narrows where, they had been told, “the traveller has a fine view of the whole expanse of water (and where) the islands are very numerous and the scenery interesting.”
Unfortunately, a headwind prevented them from going any farther than Diamond Island, where they disembarked.
“My friends amused themselves picking up crystallized quartz commonly called Lake George diamonds (and) I made a sketch from the North end of the island looking towards Tongue Mountain.”
Watson departed the next day, bound for Saratoga.
Watson’s sketchbooks and diaries were published for the first time in 1997 as “Captain Watson’s Travels in America” by Kathleen A. Foster, a curator at the Philladelphia Museum of Art.
(Foster, by the way, curated “Thomas Chambers: American Marine and Landscape Painter,” which was exhibited at The Hyde in 2009 and where she delivered a lecture. Chambers was another English painter who visited Lake George, though in the 1850s; his ‘Lake George and the Village of Caldwell’ was included in The Hyde’s 2005 exhibition, ‘Painting Lake George.’)
The distinguished historian of early America, Alan Taylor, dismisses Watson’s diaries as the reflections of “a gentleman esteemed by his friends as polite, genial, tactful, and judicious,” in other words, “bland.”
Watson’s watercolors, Taylor concludes, are no more imaginative. But no matter. They are among the oldest surviving artistic renderings of the lake, and of unquestionable historical interest.