I found myself a bit short on time again this week, so there’ll be no attempted reinvention of the wheel; instead, here’s another light offering. I don’t imagine you’re complaining.
If I asked you to name a famous Island artist, or one with strong ties to this province, Robert Harris might spring to mind. And well he should, for the Welsh-born Charlottetown-raised painter certainly went on to make a name for himself, as did his brother William Critchlow Harris, the renowned architect behind a number of stunning structures here. But what if I were to offer up the name of George Thresher? A little less familiar? Perhaps the first time you’ve heard it? Admittedly, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you a great deal about him aside from the very basics before this week. But I wound up learning a few things, and maybe you will as well.
If not, then at least enjoy the stunning photographs (that’s a joke).
George Godsell Thresher (yes, Godsell – not a joke) was not a native Islander; however, in the odyssey that was his life as a professional artist, he would eventually choose the Island as a permanent home (plus he was buried here, making him one of us in our books). He was born in April 1780 in Salisbury, England, and at some point developed an interest in painting, along with a talented skill set. Some people believe he also served a stint in the Royal Navy, which may explain his inclination to paint marine and naval scenes. Other than that, his early years are a bit obscure.
We do know that he chose to cross the Atlantic, and by the early 1800s had found his way to New York. It was there that he met Eliza Brooks, an art pupil of his whom he would later marry. He remained in that city for the better part of a decade before relocating to Montreal, where he found some success as an art teacher, and sign painter. The trick as an artist was to follow the money, or to at least head in the direction of where you thought it might be. In Thresher’s case, his penchant for marine subjects kept him largely to coastal locales. Following a sojourn in Nova Scotia, where he again attempted to operate an art academy, his journey eventually landed him in Prince Edward Island.
Despite the fact that he had yet to meet with any grand success (aside from meeting his wife), Thresher clearly arrived here full of optimism. It wasn’t long before he was taking out ad space in local newspapers notifying the public of his work, such as this notice in an 1830 edition of the Royal Gazette about the exhibit of his large-scale painting depicting the Battle of Algiers.
But, as had happened elsewhere, Thresher soon came to realize that he likely wasn’t going to earn enough by simply exhibiting his work. As before, he made plans for opening another art school, a venture that appears to have come to naught for lack of students (however, his wife and one of his daughters would eventually open an educational institution, expressly for young women, which proved a moderate success; in fact, Eliza was herself an accomplished painter – I guess she had a good teacher). In the vein of his sign-painting days in Montreal, Thresher advertised a wide array of services his artistic abilities could provide in order to supplement his income. How much money he made in that regard is difficult to say.
What we do know is that if a talented artist could struggle to make a living in the great cultural meccas of Europe, then it was a fate easily met here, and such was proving to be the case for Thresher. And so, like many a person in Prince Edward Island, he eventually found himself working in government. Beginning in 1838, he served as Deputy Registrar of Deeds, moving on to slightly better things in 1851 as Deputy Colonial Secretary. I doubt he considered the work inspiring, but hey – a person’s gotta do what a person’s gotta do.
1851 was a memorable year, and not because of Thresher’s promotion. That October, the Island was dealt a severe drubbing courtesy of the two-day tempest known as the ‘Yankee Gale’, considered to be the most deadly natural disaster in the province’s recorded history. On Friday the 3rd, the American mackerel fleet was hard at it off the North Shore when it – and everyone – was surprised by the unexpected arrival of a vicious nor’easter. It blew, and it blew, and it blew, and didn’t let up for nearly 48 hours. By the time it died down, possibly as many as 100 ships had been wrecked, and over 200 lives lost (people who lived along the coast reported finding bodies washed up on shore for days after the fact).
You’ll recall how Thresher was a marine artist. Inspired by the tragedy of the event and the sheer power of the storm, he put brush to canvas and produced an oil painting, the earliest known depiction of the infamous Yankee Gale. Housed in the Confederation Centre Art Gallery’s collection, it depicts ships at the mercy of a storm-tossed sea. Rumour has it that he had the piece on display at the 1853 World’s Fair in New York City, held in present-day Bryant Park from July 1853 to November 1854, and that it was awarded a prize. I poked around a bit, but failed to turn up anything substantiating said claims (if you know anything one way or the other, feel free to leave me a comment!). That same year, 1853, Thresher’s government days came to an end when failing health forced him into retirement; it was not, however, the terminus of his artistic career, and what is perhaps his greatest legacy lay in store.
In April 1855, Charlottetown made it official and became an incorporated city. Although it had become something of an inevitability, there was still quite a bit to get in order. When it came time to settle the matter of creating the city’s official seal, Thresher was tapped to submit designs. He obliged. The end product? A triple-masted vessel flying a flag, and a plow and sheaf of grain on a small mound in the foreground, the whole of which is encircled by “City of Charlottetown Prince Edward Island” and “Incorporated A.D. 1855”. Thresher was paid the princely sum of 1 shilling for his work, and, 160 years on, we’re still using it.
Thresher passed away two years later in December 1857, aged 77. He was interred, along with one of his daughters, in the Old Protestant Burying Ground in Charlottetown, just north of Euston Street on present-day University Avenue. Sadly, any stone erected in his memory has since disappeared, and so the precise location of his final resting place has become a mystery. But he’s in there, somewhere.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for this week. See you next Friday!
PEI History Guy
P.S. – Except it isn’t. If you’d like to check out Thresher’s The Yankee Gale, you can find it here.
P.P.S. – That’s it.