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Watercolor: View of Charleston, South Carolina

Origin: South Carolina, Charleston
H: 18 1/2"; W: 46 1/4"
Watercolor on laid paper
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1956-103
Watercolor painting, View of Charleston, South Carolina.
Label:Early town views often provide the only evidence that remains to document certain sites and buildings. Their rare survival offers insight into what several colonial communities looked like in the past. This watercolor and the engraving copied from it illustrate the city of Charleston, then called Charles Town, as it appeared in the late 1730s. It depicts many of the public and private buildings that were destroyed by fire in 1740 and serves as a source for several engravings such as the one by W. H. Toms shown to your immediate left.

To create the view, Roberts used a technique developed by Dutch maritime artists working in the 17th century. This genre featured an expanse of water sprinkled with ships that separate the viewer from the shoreline. The quantity of ships in the harbor suggests the thriving maritime nature of the town. The panoramic effect created by the strong horizontal format forces the eye to search back and forth along the shoreline to observe recognizable landmarks, and all of the buildings clustered together reinforced the notion of Charleston’s prosperity and development.

Bishop Roberts worked in South Carolina as a painter and engraver between 1735 and 1739. Although he advertised in the South Carolina Gazette that he had the skill to execute many types of paintings, ranging from portrait painting and engraving to heraldry and house painting and drawing instruction for youth, his watercolor rendering of the view of Charleston, seen to your immediate right, is Roberts’s only known picture. In 1737, he advertised:

“GENTLEMEN may be supplied with Land shapes [sic] for Chimney-Pieces of all Sizes: Like-wise Draughts of their Houses in Colours or Indian [sic] Ink, by B. Roberts.” (July 16, 1737)

It is probably around this time that Roberts executed the painting of Charleston taken from the Cooper River. Roberts died in 1739, but his work achieved notoriety through the copies of this painting that were engraved by William Henry Toms, also to your right, which were available to Charlestonians by 1740.

Roberts’s widow, Mary, distributed the newly engraved prints to over thirty subscribers, including local resident John Drayton. She also offered printing and portrait painting services to the community. Mary achieved some fame in her own right through her painting; a recently attributed portrait of Charles Pinckney, makes her one of the earliest known female miniaturists.

The earliest known view of "Charles Town," this is the only recorded surviving work by Bishop Roberts, who worked in Charleston from 1735 until 1740. It served as the basis for an engraved view first published in England in 1739.