BENJAMIN FRANKLIN SMITH (1830-1927), engraved by WILLIAM WELLSTOOD (1819-1900): New York. Engraving with original hand color, 35” x 48” sheet, 48” x 62” framed. New York: Smith, Fern & Co., 1855.
WELLSTOOD, William (1819-1900), after SMITH, Benjamin Franklin (1830-1927).
Engraving with original hand color,
35” x 48” sheet, 48” x 62” framed.
New York: Smith, Fern & Co., 1855.
The Smith and Wellstood print is in excellent condition with its complicated interplay of light and shadow retaining all of its original charm. It was formerly owned by the Down Town Association in New York.
When Henry Papprill and John Hill created their spectacular view of New York Harbor from the steeple of Saint Paul’s Chapel, they fashioned the bourgeois taste for large-scale views of the city seen from an ever higher vantage point. This taste was partly imported from Paris and the endeavor of French photographers in the circle of Nadar to take photographs of the burgeoning city from a hot air balloon.
On the other hand, John Bachmann was publishing his bird’s eye views of Manhattan since the late 1840s and it is within this tradition of urban utopia that the present engraving of New York by Smith and Wellstood fits. Upon its release in 1855 it caused a sensation, as the plate showed the view from the “Heaven-Kissing-Peak” of the Latting Observatory - with its height of 290 feet the then tallest structure in New York City; it was also the immediate predecessor to the Eiffel Tower constructed only a couple of decades later.
Stokes (1918) describes the copy of the Down Town Association which - given its provenance - is probably identical to the Arader print: “The view is of unusual interest, as showing the undeveloped state of the city in the vicinity of the reservoir.” Indeed, 42nd Street is shown in the foreground with the Croton Reservoir and the New York Crystal Palace where the 1853 Exhibition was held.
The Reservoir was built in 1839-42 and, according to Stokes, “covered the eastern half of the plot bounded by Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and 40th and 42nd Streets, the site now occupied by the NY Public Library.” The view extends to the harbor and Brooklyn, alternating light and shadow in a coloring technique inherited from watercolor effects.
With its impressive dimensions the Smith and Wellstood engraving of New York, Lower Manhattan, and the bay area is an artistic tour de force in every sense - from its bold composition to its meticulous sense of detail and color dynamics.
Lit. Caroline Rennolds Milbank: “Ahead of the World: New York Fashion”, in Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861, New York / New Haven 2000. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes: “The Iconography of Manhattan Island”, New York 1915-1928.