Boston, 1857 (with manuscript proof approval verso)

c. 1857 hand colored steel plate engraving after 1853 watercolor by John W. Hill
John W. Hill, Artist
Charles Mottram, Engraver
New York and available in Boston
New York and available in Boston
steel plate color engraving
Unrestored original condition
as found, removed from gilt wood frame, original complex bright colors, period paper, ample margins, paper lightly toned, two areas of vertical toning in the image, manuscript pencil on print verso, "N.S. Dearborn, 24 School Street, Boston" and "Good", engraving plate impression present in print sheet. Frame is in good condition, with some chipping to gilding. Glass is in good condition. Frame with glass are included in the purchase price and can accompany the print if desired. Shipping Charges for gilt wood picture frame and glass are at Buyer's expense. Frame with glass may also be picked up by Buyer at Original Antique Maps.
28.5 × 42 × 3 inches
Sale Status: 
For Sale

This distinctively inscribed example of the 1857 print Boston, is a period, colored  steel plate engraving by Charles Mottram (1807-1876), one of London's most esteemed plate engravers who has translated in the medium of engraving the large 1853 water color painting Boston by British born American artist John William Hill (1812-1879) who apprenticed as a youth with his father John Hill, an English aquatint engraver. 1/ J.W. Hill's expansive 1853 view of busy Boston Harbor is from a slightly elevated waterfront vantage point likely in East Boston and includes Boston and vicinity.  It is midday and bright, the season warm enough for shirtsleeves, in the print's foreground one fellow is at work bringing up a net at water's edge, another in a brimmed hat holds a pointed pole and a third lounges nearby next to an empty barrel and basket. Just off shore young men at work in two separate very small boats pass each other.  The artist places a floating wooden barrel in the foreground scene to capture and then guide the viewer's gaze straight out to the horizon where the distant golden dome of the Massachusetts State House atop Beacon Hill anchors a composition bounded by the Great Blue Hills to the south and the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown to the north. In the middle ground ships of all sizes and types traverse the harbor, under sail, steam and manpower. This visually dynamic urban portrait defines Boston in 1853 by its fully built out harbor and densely developed wharves of brick and granite warehouses that present the city's mercantile face to the world. Factory chimneys and church spires throughout the city attest to higher aspirations.  This view by a naturalized American artist 2/ may ironically have turned the tables on typical 18th c. British (and even Paul Revere's 1770 print) view of Boston as if from the deck of a British ship arriving from England to trade with its colony.   Hill's artistic portrait of Boston is of a thriving American port city.

Creating the 1857 Boston print from J.W.Hill's painting required what author Anthony Dyson in Pictures to Print describes in detail as a complex "collaborative" process organized by the master plate printer who pulled the successful print only  after a lengthy process that depended on his professional network of craftsmen and tradesmen.3/ Our  edition of the Boston print has the imprint in the lower right margin "Printed by McQueen" one of London's preeminent fine art engraved plate printers who was also internationally recognized. The Boston print is further identified as "Engraved by C. Mottram" immediately below the neat line in the bottom right corner.  Mottram's task was no less complex than McQueen's: Mottram captured the aesthetics of  J.W. Hill's brush strokes and the color tones of watercolor with multiple steel engraving techniques to create line, texture, form, shading and light . The atmosphere of the sky, the shimmer of light and reflections of objects on the water, the ripple of the tide are rendered by the engraver's use of intaglio and the plate printer's understanding of how to ink, wipe and apply color to the plate to synthesize all elements of the new art form. In 1855, the French Jurors of the 1855 Paris Exhibition Universelle  who awarded McQueen the First Class Medal remarked that the plate printer's pulling of a print realizes the artist's fine art as the performance of a composer's score realizes the music.4/

There are two manuscript features on the verso of this  Boston, 1857 print  discovered when the print was examined out of its frame. These manuscript notations suggest this print is a scarce signed client proof. On the verso  in period 19th c.  pencil script is "N.S. Dearborn, 124 School Street, Boston" who is Nathaniel S. Dearborn a Boston engraver and plate printer at this Boston business address. 5/ The second pencil script "Good" is of a similar period hand. This format of signature and terms of approval or correction are typical of a client's approval of a proof print pulled by the plate printer.  Who might be the client? The publisher line on the Boston print includes a New York, London and Paris publisher and the phrase "at Sowle and Wards" (sic). The Boston, Massachusetts copyright holder B.F. Smith (one of the Smith brothers) and Smith Brothers & Co. partnered with the Boston firm Sowle & Ward to handle sales of this print. 6/ B.F. Smith and the Sowle & Ward gallery are the likely client.

An American print seller of an imported English print could only proof its edition by traveling to London, or with greater practicality by relying on the expertise of a well regarded local plate printer to advise on its quality. To proof the McQueen client sample of the Boston color print, the publisher's choice of Dearborn would have been a reputable Boston plate printer and engraver to perform this task.  Thus one explanation for the period 19th c. manuscript inscriptions by N.J. Dearborn on the verso of our print is that he was reviewing the proof for his New York and Boston clients, Smith Brothers and Sowle & Ward and giving his approval to proceed with the business of selling the McQueen edition in Boston, to be priced at a premium for being a colored engraving with the vanity imprint "Proof" in the lower front margin.  Sowle & Ward was an established picture framer before it became a picture gallery and art dealer,  additional reasons to do business with the Smith Brothers who were major American 19th c. print publishers.

The manuscript terms observed on the back of our print are not to be equated, and vice versa,  with the imprint "Proof" on the front of the 19th c. McQueen edition. The printed term "Proof" on the McQueen print's lower left margin is a 19th c. publisher's conceit used to bring a higher retail price for the edition, just as a colored engraving was priced higher than a black and white engraving. Both black and white and color editions of Boston, 1857 carry the imprint "Proof" and this is a publisher's conceit that does not, without client manuscript approval on the sheet itself, elevate the print from being part of a normal commercial print run.

The business relationships that led to the publishing of J.W. Hill's picture as a print are another element of its history. The Smith Brothers of New York, including Benjamin Franklin Smith who was for some time based in Boston as well, were major 19th century publishers of American city views. Many of their publishing projects involved American artists who created "pictures to print" primarily as lithograph city views but for J.W. Hill's Boston and New York views, as engravings.7/

The Smith Bros. archives at the American Antiquarian Society includes twenty-eight  small subscription books dated from 1840-1855.  These small notebooks were carried by Smith Bros. agents who went door to door, street by street, seeking print subscriptions from individuals, often at their place of business. In New York, for example, Wall Street addresses fill pages.  Most of the subscription books are for American city views identified as lithographs while the New York City view is identified as an engraving. One untitled book  lists subscribers for what might be the engraved Boston city view.8/  The AAS archive also includes a letter from Charles Mottram, the English engraver dated February 12, 1855 in which he asks Messrs. Smith Bros. to please pay for his work on the very large engraving plate for the New York view and that the English plate maker's New York based brother will present it. Otherwise, Mottram requests, "In the future if you would arrange to send me drafts as you did for the Boston etching payable in London  it would be a great convenience to me...." Mottram explains he will repair the New York plate that he just got back from McQueen's and improve the impression of the lights on the water and make the print brighter. This 1855 letter documents that the Boston engraving plate was completed before the New York plate and therefore it is logical that the order of printing the Boston and New York engraved views followed the same sequence.9/  We learn in this letter that the New York engraving was printed in multiple editions, as the plate was repaired and improved to make the prints appear better illuminated and the light on the water brighter.10/

This example of the 19th c. engraving of J.W. Hill's water color painting Boston, - with the C. Mottram engraver imprint, the McQueen printer imprint, Bostonian B.F. Smith's copyright  and the unique manuscript notations by Boston plate printer N.S. Dearborn approving the print  - illustrates the burgeoning mid-1850's transatlantic business collaboration in the fine art print trade. This remarkable example of the  Boston print is also a collaboration of that decade's finest artists.


1."Reflections: John Hill, Engraver in Aquatint", Richard J. Koke, Imprint, Vol.4, No.1, April 1979.(American Historical Print Collectors Society); see Also, Princeton Univ. Special Collections.

2. John W. Hill began exhibiting his water color paintings at age 17. He was an apprentice to his Father John Hill, an aquatint engraver. In 1834-5 J.W. Hill was commissioned to paint  American urban portraits by the New York Geological Survey that included topography and city features. In America, Hill  painted four city views before 1840, two in 1845 and 4 others by 1852.  See Reps below. Hill painted Boston in 1853. Thus, Hill's watercolor of Boston and his other city views involved detailed field work and are intended to be accurate contemporary portrayals geographically, architecturally  and as to the character of the city. The details in the Boston print are not accidental. Perhaps the youthful "sailors" in the foreground are a metaphor for a youthful, industrializing America at work and at leisure.

3. Anthony Dyson's book is based on his study of original source material the Thomas Ross and Sons. These records include generations of London's premier engraving and printing houses. The book was invaluable in coming to some understanding of the artistry of picture engraving and printing, an art apart from the drawings, paintings and watercolors represented in their new medium.

            Dyson writes that the McQueen firm was likely founded in the late 18th c. and by the 1850's was owned by the three McQueen brothers William Benjamin McQueen, John Henry McQueen, Frederick Charles McQueen. The family firm name evolved several times in the 19th and  20th century. Dyson, citing others  p.43 estimated the firm by the late 1850's to be operating 25 to 30 presses. McQueen is the printer's name perhaps most frequently seen on nineteenth-century plates.

            Mr. Lindsay E.C. Nutbrown, principal of Thomas Ross Limited, kindly corresponded with me 11/23/21 about the Boston plate now owned by his firm, including as a courtesy his photographs of the steel plate as waxed and stored. He explained that contemporary prints pulled from the plate do not include the term "Proof" or "Printed by McQueen" in the margin, as the terms have been chalked out.

4. William Henry McQueen, 1855 received note and the First Class Medal at the 1855 Paris Exposition Universelle.   The French jurors recognized how the plate printer is often underappreciated, given that the plate printer's work is what generates credit for the engraver "car le tirage est a la gravure ce que l'execution musicale est a la composition." Dyson, p.9 citing the Juror's report of the 1855 Paris Exposition Universelle.

5. See Boston Business Directory for that time period.

6. The Boston print publisher Sowle and Ward at 14 Summer Street, Boston was a picture dealer. See The Historical Picture Gallery, Or, Scenes and Incidents in American History, vol.5 by John R. Chapin, 1856, p.338 for a full page advertisement of Sowle and Ward "displaying paintings by American & Foreign artist" and "The earliest impressions of all Modern Engravings in advance of European publication." The 1856 advertisement is from the 14 Summer Street address. The firm ownership changed and the firm name became the Doll and Richards Gallery. Beth A. Treadway provides the history of the firm in her article, "The Doll and Richards Gallery", Archives of American Art Journal, vol 15, no. 1[Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, University of Chicago.]

7. Please see John Reps for a definitive discussion of this 19th American art form.

8. Most of these notebooks begin with a page describing the city name, print title, print dimensions and prices for different formats: proof edition, color, type of paper. The book labeled vol.  21with street names found in Boston does not have this first page and begins with #401 ticket. Therefore, it might be one of several subscription books for the Boston print.

9. The Boston print is routinely identified as having two editions, and also dated 1857 for the first edition. The Mottram letter indicates the Boston plate (he calls it an "etching") was first delivered prior to 1855. It therefore is possible that the first impressions were struck as early as 1855.

10.       "The New York plate I have received from McQueen's and have commenced repairing it - I find it warrants rather more doing to than I expected but no time shall be lost, and in a few weeks you shall have it -

            When I have done what it requires I have no doubt you will be able to take any number of impressions from it you want - I do not think I can charge you less than 30 Pounds for repairing, The size of the plate makes it so inconvenient to work upon that it takes much longer than it would do if it was half the size." Feb.12,1855 Mottram to Messr. Smith Bros., AAS Archive.


Anthony Dyson, Pictures to Print The nineteenth-century engraving trade

Farrand Press, London, 1984

John W. Reps, Views and Viewmakers of Urban America, Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada, Notes on the Artists and Publishers, and A Union Catalog of their Work, 1825-1925, University of Missouri Press, Columbia 1984

Imprint, "Reflections: John Hill Engraver in Aquatint", Richard J. Koke, Vol.4, no.1 (Apr.1979) [American Historical Print Collectors Society]


Item Type Taxonomy: 
Geographic Scope: 
The Back Room
Published Location Freeform: 
New York and available in Boston