Editor's note: The following text was published on April 30, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Greenville County Museum of Art. It was written concerning an exhibition titled Joshua Shaw: A Paradise of Riches continuing through September 28, 2008. If you have questions or comments regarding the text please contact the Greenville County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


A Paradise of Riches: Joshua Shaw and the Southern Frontier

by staff of the Greenville County Museum of Art


Although English by birth and primarily self-taught, Joshua Shaw (1776-1860) was a key figure in the development of American landscape painting. Born in Bellingborough, in rural northeast England, Shaw was orphaned as a child and apprenticed as a youth to a house and sign painter. Following his three-year apprenticeship, he lived in Manchester for a brief time, painting a variety of subjects. At age twenty-six he moved to London, where he exhibited at the Royal Academy. However, it was a disappointing debut. As described in an 1869 article based on an autobiographical manuscript and published in Scientific American, Shaw "met with much discouragement from cold-hearted critics, and after staying three years, retired to Bath, where he practiced his art for some seven years with increasing reputation. He now met with some encouragement from the surrounding gentry and nobility, and as he was a good sportsman and possessed fine social skills, he became a frequent guest at their tables." [1]

By 1812 Shaw had returned to London, where he exhibited paintings rendered in the fashionable picturesque style, which was characterized by a theatrical approach to compositional arrangement and an idyllic conception of man's dominion over the land.

A growing sense of the awe-inspiring primal powers of nature, however, began to inform Shaw's work, as reflected in his 1813 masterpiece The Deluge, Toward Its Close, which was honored with a prize at the British Institution. Soon Shaw was favorably compared by critics and jurors to the leading English landscape painter of the day, Joseph Mallord William Turner.

American expatriate Benjamin West, who was president of the Royal Academy as well as an acclaimed history painter, took note of Shaw and the two became friends. It was this friendship that eventually brought Shaw to America: in 1817, West asked Shaw to accompany his commissioned painting Christ Healing the Sick and to oversee its installation in Philadelphia. [2]

Shaw remained in Philadelphia to pursue his prospects. The Scientific American article shed some light on the decision:

In 1814 he invented the copper percussion cap [for firearms]. He, however, kept the discovery secret until his arrival in America, when he sought to obtain a patent for it, but was refused on the ground of his being an alien, the law at that time denying a patent to aliens unless they had resided two years in the country. His claim to the origination of the invention was, however, recognized, although a patent was refused. [3]

Shaw was an entrepreneur of independent spirit, and rather than cultivate patronage for his art among a few wealthy Americans, he instead developed a project better tailored to his new reality. He envisioned painting a series of essential American landscapes to serve as prototypes for prints that could be profitably disseminated to a burgeoning middle class. Modeled on similar English publications in which engravings were accompanied by descriptive commentaries, portfolios of such prints were popular with armchair travelers, especially the British, who had an appetite for images and accounts of the wild and untamed New World. Picturesque Views of American Scenery began publication in 1820 in collaboration with John Hill, a master of aquatint who also was based in Philadelphia. Shaw wrote in the preface:

In no quarter of the globe are the majesty and loveliness of nature more strikingly conspicuous than in America. The vast regions which are comprised in or subjected to the republic present to the eye every variety of the beautiful and sublime. Our lofty mountains and almost boundless prairies, our broad and magnificent rivers, the unexampled magnitude of our cataracts, the wild grandeur of our western forests, and the rich and variegated tints of our autumnal landscapes, are unsurpassed by any of the boasted scenery of other countries. [4]

Based in Philadelphia, Shaw naturally chose first to compose scenes on the nearby Schuylkill and Passaic rivers. He painted in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia, and he completed two New York views, including one of the Hudson River, predating noted landscapist Thomas Cole by several years. Some of his subjects followed the tenets of the picturesque; others depicted historical sites or events. For instance, Shaw included the tomb of George Washington at Mount Vernon, and in the accompanying text he scolded Americans, saying "This rude and decaying tomb of the most pure and faultless of patriots has been the subject of reproach to his countrymen." [5]

Shaw planned to publish thirty-six views in six folios of six prints each, but ultimately only three sets of six were issued, as well as a title page and a small vignette, for a total of twenty engravings. Each set sold for ten dollars. Writing about the unprecedented collaboration between Shaw and Hill, art historian Richard Koke said "Nothing like this had been attempted in aquatint before in the United States, and so such an ambitious project was a risky venture. The publication of prints in a series often started with high hopes on the part of publishers only to be abandoned because of excessive expenses and public indifference." [6]

Late in 1819, Shaw was in Norfolk, Virginia, preparing to embark on a four-month journey that would take him to Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, and then north again via Augusta to the western mountains of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. He was eager to produce more sketches for his Picturesque Views, and he also planned to collect information for a travelers' guidebook that he was compiling.

Before leaving Norfolk, Shaw met painter William Dunlap, author of this country's first comprehensive history of art. In his December 17 diary entry, Dunlap wrote that Shaw "is just [in] from Baltimore, traveling to procure subscriptions to American views, engraved by [John] Hill, painted by Shaw with letter press descriptions which he says is to [be] descriptive [of] a sentimental journey." Four months later, Dunlap recorded that "Shaw came in, just returned from Savannah, Augusta, etc. and represents the South as a paradise of riches." [7]

Accompanied by his fifteen-year-old son, Shaw traveled overland toward Charleston, following established mail routes and wagon roads used by traders. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, the artist was moved by a verdant forest scene: "Pine trees intermingled with the ash, the swamp white oak and various other trees among which are cedars of giant size, are seen for fifty miles together, covered with an immense quantity of green moss, which hanging as it does, pendant from their highest tops, gives the country, otherwise flat and uninteresting, a wild and singular appearance." [8]

Savannah was the artist's southernmost destination. Here he depicted the burning of Savannah, which occurred on January 11, 1820. Despite the destruction of half the city by this conflagration and, in the same year, the catastrophic loss of ten percent of its population from yellow fever, Savannah provided more subscriptions for Shaw's Picturesque Views than any other community.

Following the Savannah River to Augusta, Shaw planned to traverse South Carolina to Table Rock, which he believed to be a promising subject. It was on this leg of his journey that Shaw stopped in Greenville. Admitting that, in Greenville "the picturesque was unlooked for," nevertheless, he found "its situation pleasant and the air cool and extremely salubrious." Shaw made several sketches in the area, focusing special attention on the Reedy River falls. [9] Rather than feature the main waterfall head on, Shaw chose instead to reverse the viewer's expectations.

He wrote:

The view here represented is above the falls, just below the Town. There are several of these falls; two of them are included in the present subject, but are not so readily discovered as if the view was in the opposite direction, and they can only be seen by indication. It will be perceived that I was looking down the stream, when making the sketch for this picture, and therefore the falls are not visible. I was much pleased with the view as it is both extensive and agreeable in its detail, and affords great contrast to the scenery of the South in general which in the lower parts of this state is flat and uninteresting. Here the situation is high and commanding alltho [sic] the river is not actually seen for any distance, yet the imagination can trace its course for several miles until lost in the distant woods and swamps, through which it passes in its passage towards the ocean.

Shaw took picturesque license in modifying this first composition of Greenville. In the middle distance he increased the height of the bluff on the right and in the far distance he added the range of the Appalachians that actually stretched behind him.

After Greenville, Shaw's next destination was Table Rock, which he sketched and later painted as View of Table Rock, SC, with a Panther Destroying a Deer. In his guidebook, United States' Directory for the Use of Travellers and Merchants Giving the Account of the Principal Establishments of Business and Pleasure Throughout the Union, Shaw promised to produce an engraving of Table Rock for the next edition, which apparently was never published. Shaw described Table Rock as "one of those magnificent spectacles that impress upon the mind the sublimity of the grand Architect, in his minor works." [10]

From Table Rock, Shaw took an uncertain route toward North Carolina. Along the way he documented a big game hunt in which he participated. Although a precise location is not given for the painting Driving Deer, Scene on Stony Creek, Catawba River, South Carolina, the accompanying text confirms Shaw's intention to reproduce the scene as an engraving:

The subject of this plate lies between the Table Mountain and Lincolnton, North Carolina, and near the boundary line which separates that state from South Carolina. Having secured a few of the most interesting points at Table Mountain, I took my departure for Lincolnton, through a country more broken and picturesque than I had generally met with, the road, however, which I had to travel was intricate and ill defined so that I missed my way several times and was compelled to retrace my steps six or eight miles. [11]

A Scene in Virginia is located "under the blue ridge" near the border of North Carolina and Virginia. Its central figures of Native Americans document a poignant encounter that Shaw described in his commentary. He engaged in broken conversation with the eldest Indian, who carried a hatchet beneath his worn blanket. Shaw recounted: "After looking at it I returned it to him in silence reflecting upon the wonderful changes which a few years had produced and the very different result that would have terminated such an accidental meeting had it taken place fifty years ago. The Indian...said the hatchet had been long buried and all the wrongs done to his nation by the white man, forgotten. How different was this from the general history of the fierce red men of the wilderness."

The final paintings from Shaw's southern trip depict two Virginia landmarks associated with Thomas Jefferson, Natural Bridge and Jefferson Rock. The former once belonged to Jefferson, who considered it a public trust under his protection. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson enumerated the bridge's impressive measurements -- 270 feet in height, 45 feet wide at the bottom, and 90 feet wide at the top -- but he also spoke of its splendor: "so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven!" [12]

In Natural Bridge, As Seen from the Creek Below, tall trees flank and frame the bridge, accenting its verticality. Shaw referenced Jefferson's writings in his description, but the artist also added his own thoughts: "It is one of those scenes which it is impossible to contemplate without interest. Seen from a distance, and at first glance, it appears so regular as to resemble a work of art....It was a delightful spot for thought and contemplation, shut out from the noise and bustle of man." [13]

In composing Jefferson Rock, Harpers Ferry, Shaw allowed nothing to interfere with the spectacular rock formation dramatically backlit by a Turneresque sky and silhouetted against the Shenandoah River and the hills beyond. He lamented the inability of an artist to capture the grandeur of such a monument in small scale.

Upon his return to Philadelphia in the spring of 1820, Shaw used the notes and sketches from his trip to complete paintings from which Hill would create black and white engravings that would later be hand colored with watercolors. But in February 1821, Hill received instructions to cease production on Picturesque Views from the publisher, Matthew Carey, who may have been concerned about his investment.[14] The paintings in the Greenville collection were never published in print form, although it is clear they were created for that purpose. Shaw, however, exhibited several of the paintings in Philadelphia during the 1830s and 1840s. During this time, the artist was often distracted from painting by his various endeavors related to inventions and patents for firearms. Compensating for lack of steady production, it was frequently his practice to submit older work to new exhibitions.

Undaunted by the premature demise of the Picturesque Views project, Shaw continued to be a central figure in the Philadelphia art world. He exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and he was instrumental in the founding of the rival Artists' Fund Society. Although Shaw lacked the Byronic charisma of Thomas Cole, and his own reputation suffered marginalization as New York ascended in importance for artists, scholars, and collectors, it is now possible, on the strength of this extraordinary group of southern paintings, to claim on behalf of Joshua Shaw some significant degree of paternity for the American landscape tradition that followed him.


1 "Joshua Shaw, Artist and Inventor, the Early History of the Copper Percussion Cap," Scientific American, 7 August 1869, 5.

2 For Shaw's biography, see Miriam Carroll Woods, "Joshua Shaw (1776-1860): A Study of the Artist and His Paintings," (master's thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1971).

3 Scientific American, 5.

4 Joshua Shaw, Picturesque Views of American Scenery (Philadelphia: Matthew Carey and Son, 1820), prospectus.

5 Picturesque Views.

6 Richard Koke, "John Hill (1770-1850): Master of Aquatint," New York Historical Society Quarterly, XLIII (1959): 77.

7 William Dunlap, Diary of William Dunlap (1766-1839): The Memoirs of a Dramatist, Theatrical Manager, Painter, Critic, Novelist and Historian (New York: New York Historical Society, 1931), entries for December 17, 1819 and April 9, 1820, 501 and 527.

8 Picturesque Views.

9 Shaw, manuscript account of his trip through the South, collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, and subsequent quotation.

10 Joshua Shaw, United States' Directory for the Use of Travellers and Merchants Giving the Account of the Principal Establishments of Business and Pleasure Throughout the Union, (Philadelphia: James Maxwell, 1822), 138.

11 Shaw manuscript, GCMA, and subsequent quotation.

12 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Modern Library, 1944), 197.

13 Shaw manuscript, GCMA.

14 Koke, "John Hill," 81.


Greenville Museum Unveils Historic View of Greenville

The fundraising organization for the Greenville County Museum of Art has endorsed a campaign to pay for an important new collection of nineteenth-century paintings, including a the first known painting of the Reedy River Falls, the historic birthplace of Greenville.

On February 5, 2008 The Museum Association, Inc., unanimously approved a three-year commitment to dedicate funds from the annual Museum Antiques Show to the acquisition of a series of Southern landscapes by Joshua Shaw (1776-1860), a British-born painter whose work is owned by only a few American museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Greenville County Museum Commission has already approved the acquisition.

Shaw achieved critical acclaim and some popular success in England, painting landscapes in the "picturesque" style, characterized by an idealized approach to composition. His first foray in the New World came as a favor to American expatriate Benjamin West, who asked Shaw to oversee the installation of one of his paintings in Philadelphia. Shaw decided to remain in America, in part to secure a patent for his invention of a percussion cap for firearms. He took up residence in Philadelphia and began producing a series of American landscapes in collaboration with John Hill, who was a master of the aquatint technique of printmaking.

Shaw traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, then headed south through the Carolinas to Charleston and Savannah. He painted iconic scenes in oil on prepared paper and canvas, returning them to Hill in Philadelphia to be reproduced as hand-colored engravings. Journeying north through Augusta and the western portions of South Carolina, Shaw was on his way to Table Rock when he discovered Greenville.

"The picturesque was unlooked for," the artist admitted in a journal that recorded his trip. He found "the situation pleasant and the air cool and extremely salubrious." He made several sketches in the area, focusing special attention on the Reedy River Falls. Shaw's painting depicts the falls from above, looking downstream: it records in exacting detail the rock formations that frame the upper falls today. The artist took some artistic license with his landscape, however, placing the distant shadow of the Appalachians downriver from the falls.

While the Reedy River Falls painting offers a special attraction for Greenville, the Museum has also acquired such scenes as Jefferson Rock and Natural Bridge in Virginia, as well as a lush and captivating landscape along the Catawba River in South Carolina. Accompanying engravings include one depicting the 1820 burning of Savannah and one of Washington's tomb.

"These works tell the story of Shaw's pioneering effort to illustrate and promote the beauty and grandeur of the southern American frontier," said Museum Executive Director Thomas W. Styron. "It is a particular point of pride that this first proper depiction of Greenville's birthplace links to sites that are icons of American topography, woven by the artist's commentary into the fabric of a young nation."

The Museum Association has committed to raise $1.2 million over three years to complete the acquisition of the Shaw paintings. Businesses and individuals support the Museum by making contributions through the Museum's Antiques Show. The 2008 show, which takes place October 17-19, will also fund acquisition of Jasper Johns' The Seasons (Fall), 1987, a key addition to the Museum's survey of the world's greatest living artist.

The exhibition Joshua Shaw: A Paradise of Riches continues through September 28, 2008.


(above: Joshua Shaw (1776-1860), View on the Reedy River, circa 1820. Oil on paper)


(above: Joshua Shaw (1776-1860), The Natural Bridge, circa 1820. Oil on paper)


(above: Joshua Shaw (1776-1860), Jefferson Rock, Harper's Ferry, circa 1820.

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Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Mary C. McCarthy of the Greenville County Museum of Art for help concerning permission for reprinting the above text

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