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An Artist’s View of Charleston

A few years ago Heritage Charts worked with Charleston Library Society to catalogue their historic, 4 volume Atlantic Neptune. This prompted me to look again at the view of Charleston which appears on the top of one of J.F.W. Des Barres' stylish charts: The Harbour of Charles Town in South Carolina with a view of the town.

Image 1. Charleston Library Society, Atlantic Neptune Vol.4, page 108.

The view included on this 1777 edition of the chart depicts a couple of farmers of cattle-herds overseeing their cattle, some vegetation and a ship under sail moving slowly up the Ashley River in the foreground. On the horizon, In the distance across the river is the battery and town of Charles Town with the Cooper river on its eastern edge. The spire of St. Michael's church in the centre of the town dominates the skyline. Overall, It is a picture of rural calm and tranquility in the environs (foreground) with the suggestion of strength and civilisation in the background.

Image 2. The View

Image 3. The town of Charleston with the spire of the St. Michael's Church

Now, it is well documented that Des Barres updated the copper plates from which he printed the individual sheets of paper which contribute to the Neptune. Likewise, he updated some of the views which were included in the collection. What follows is a great example of the reality behind some of these views, and the one of Charleston in particular.

When we look at this later edition of the chart which was likely published in or after 1780 for the 2nd, 3rd or 4th editions of the Atlantic Neptune (despite still carrying the original publication date of 1st November 1777), we can see that the view at the top has changed.

Image 4. Heritage Charts A413

The views depicted on both of the editions of the chart, although different in foreground content, are both made from the same place on James Island. 

This second edition of the view retains the tranquil rural view in the foreground and, although the cattle have gone, fishermen have populated. The view of the town however has changes considerably. This view seems to bring the town much closer and a degree of perspective has been added such that there is now a line of sight up the Cooper River, past the Customs House, toward Mount Pleasant on the east of the town leading to a ship in the distance. Likewise, up the west side of the town with the Ashley river.

The single sailing ship on the first edition has now been replaced with a square-rigged ship and a couple of other working ships, offering the suggestion of increased activity or trade. The Battery around the town is better defined and more imposing, adding to the suggestion of strength, stability and security.

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.

The question I asked myself was from where exactly on the James Island shore was such a view achieved…

In order to establish this the obvious starting point is of course the angles and views of the Major landmarks of the time which still exist. These are, in Charleston, the Spire of St. Michael's church and the Exchange building on the Cooper river.

Image 6. A sketch of the operations before Charlestown, South Carolina. 1780.

Look again at the images above and compare them with the reality of distance we can see from the modern-day photograph below.

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. It has, for the most part disappeared and land-fill has extended the old part of the town at the point considerably.

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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