Sep 1, 2015

"Representation of the Beauty of Nature"

Library of Virginia

Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s Scenes from Virginia and Europe

Benjamin Henry Latrobe
Born in England in 1764, Latrobe worked for the famous engineer John Smeaton and architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell before immigrating to the United States. Latrobe lived in Virginia for several years while designing the Virginia State Penitentiary and two residential homes. Later he became one of the young nation's most significant architects. The Bank of Pennsylvania, the Baltimore Basilica, and the United States Capitol are prominent examples of his designs. His journals & accompanying illustrations are excellent sources for the Virginia landscape and culture at the turn of the eighteenth century.
An Essay on Landscape
Architect, naturalist, and traveler, Benjamin Henry Latrobe compiled a two-volume sketchbook, entitled "An Essay on Landscape," in 1798-1799.  Latrobe prepared the two books for the great-granddaughter of Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood, Susan Catherine Spotswood (1774-1853), who was studying drawing and watercolor painting with Latrobe.
Volumes at Library of Virginia
The Library of Virginia received the volumes from the estate of John Stewart Bryan (1871-1944) about 1952. Bryan was publisher of the Richmond News-Leader and president of the College of William and Mary.
European Landscape
Latrobe's volumes include studies in water, rock formation, vegetation and architecture in a variety of European settings. This plate depicts Dover, near the extreme south-east corner of Britain. It faces France across the strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel.

This scene was a favorite of Latrobe's. "This view," he wrote, "has a particular beauty. The brilliant white Surge of the Atlantic, and it extends its ample bosom."

Kirkstall Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery, is situated about three miles from Leeds on the River Aire.

Recalling Shakespeare's idea of, "this fortress built by nature for herself," Latrobe remarks that this view of coast of England at Hastings was almost inaccessible, due to the high surf and large cliffs. These natural impediments, he wrote, made the area safe from an enemy army's invasion.

This view of the coast of Hastings was taken from the same point as the previous image, but looking in the opposite direction.

Tolštejn Castle
Located in what is now the Czech Republic, Bohemia was a kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire and then a province in the Austrian Empire. At its peak of political power and prosperity, Bohemia stretched to the Adriatic Sea. Tolštejn Castle was built as a part of the military defense structure of the Zittau region after the death of the Czech king Premysl Otakar II in 1278. The castle was conquered and burnt out during the 30 Years War, but the ruins remain a tourist attraction even today.
Virginia's Natural Beauty
Much of Latrobe's Essay details the waterways and natural beauty of Virginia. Here, Latrobe captures the coast of Little York. "Yorktown is going very fast to decay," Latrobe wrote in 1798.  "It has an excellent harbor, safe from every wind, but the East.  But of what use is a harbor without a trade.  The town is now famous only for the best fish & oysters, & the best tavern in Virginia, & for the hospitality & friendliness of its inhabitants."
Portrait of a Compound Tree at Heathville
The barren branches of an old mulberry tree intertwine with the young foliage of a cherry tree in this composition, which, according to Latrobe, was more difficult to copy than he had thought it would be.  Latrobe undertook the task while on a trip to Northumberland County to lay off the new town of Heathsville.

This view is 10 miles below "Hors du Monde," the home of Colonel Henry Skipwith (1751-1815). A sketch of the home, done by Latrobe in 1796, is held by the Maryland Historical Society and can be viewed on their website.

James River
This image, and the following batteaux scene, were drawn by Latrobe on a trip he took to examine the "coal country" roughly 10 to 25 miles from Richmond.

This vignette represents a batteaux navigating the James River. Latrobe complained that his depiction was not accurate - that the actual vessels were 60 to 75 feet long and from 5 to 6 feet wide. A typical batteaux, he wrote, could carry 12 hogshead of tobacco or 200 to 300 bushels of coal.

This view is below "Eppington." Built around 1770, it was the home of Francis Eppes VI (1747-1808), who married the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife. Jefferson admired the plantation on the Appomattox River and visited often.

Latrobe raved about the banks of the James River and what they offered to painters. "They furnish a Cabinet of select Landscapes for study, among which it is impossible to chuse amiss."

Landscape Inhabitants
In addition to the landscape images contained in these volumes, Latrobe also documented the creatures he found on his journey, often in great detail with lush commentary. The butterfly, wrote Latrobe, can "read the best lecture on the subject" of "the sucession of being" and the "perpetual renovation of youth."

Latrobe gives an account of his own observation of the mason wasp. "Deserving of particular notice," he writes. "I think the Mason deserves to have his picture drawn."

Goose barnacles are filter-feeding crustaceans, that depend on water motion for feeding, and thus are found exclusively on exposed or moderately exposed coasts. In Portugal and Spain, they are a widely consumed and expensive delicacy known as percebes.

In this vignette Latrobe has depicted a sea anemone on a rock above the surf, exhibiting "the most beautiful colors in an innumerable tassel of fibres, which radiate from the center."

According to Latrobe, "These curious beings are of the simplest construction consisting only, like the Worms of a mouth, surrounded with feelers with which they catch their food, - and a stomach to digest it."

This colorful depiction of the flycatcher or "Venus Fly Trap" shows unsuspecting flies approaching the plant, and other insects doomed to a crushing death inside the strong traps with spiked edges.

Time-lapse of Water Lilies Blooming

There are also night-blooming water lilies, but they do not tolerate cool water well, and will not grow or bloom in water that is below 72 degrees.

Latrobe departed Virginia in 1798 for Philadelphia, where he established an architectural practice working in Greek and Gothic Revival styles. He became known as one of the most accomplished architects of the era, and eventually served as Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. "An Essay on Landscape" gives us a unique glimpse into how Latrobe viewed Virginia and the natural elements which fascinated him.
Library of Virginia
Credits: Story

All images from "An Essay on Landscape," Latrobe, Benjamin Henry, 1798-1799. Manuscripts & Special Collections, Library of Virginia.

Research, text, and arrangement by Jim Greve & Mary Kate du Laney, with assistance from Audrey McElhinney & Sonya Coleman.

Imaging by the LVA Photo & Digital Imaging Services Department

For the Library of Virginia

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.