Artwork by William Henry Edward Napier,  Sleigh Riding, Montmorency Falls

William Napier
Sleigh Riding, Montmorency Falls

oil on canvas
titled to a label on the reverse
18 x 14 ins ( 45.7 x 35.6 cms )

Auction Estimate: $5,000.00$3,000.00 - $5,000.00

Price Realized $38,400.00
Sale date: June 8th 2023

Sotheby’s, auction, Toronto, 16 June 1998, lot 68
G. Blair Laing, Toronto
A.K. Prakash & Associates, Inc., Toronto
Private Collection
William Henry Edward Napier was a watercolour artist known for his many works related to the Canadian West, who combined his chosen profession as engineer with a highly active pursuit of sketching for leisure.

He was born in Montreal in 1828, the son of Duncan Campbell Napier, personal secretary to Lord Elgin, and secretary of the Indian Department, Lower Canada, and to Catherine Charlotte Wurtele. Napier was trained as a civil engineer by brothers Walter and Frank Shanly, with whom he worked on several canal projects in the 1850s. In 1857, he also qualified as a professional land surveyor and in July of that same year was named to the Canadian Government’s Red River exploring expedition. As well as his professional qualifications, Napier’s already- known artistic skills may have been a factor in his appointment. Napier was involved in the Expedition’s activities in what is now Northwestern Ontario and Manitoba until the spring of 1858, when he left the expedition. Many of the watercolours he executed during this period were preserved in an album of views collected by Thomas Evans Blackwell, Manager of the Grand Trunk Railway, entitled “Reminiscences of North America”, now held by Library and Archives Canada.

Napier’s many surviving sketches were mostly done while travelling for work or as records of the locales where he resided. It is not known with whom Napier might have trained as an artist, but his works demonstrate a keen eye for detail and the ability to capture scenes and individuals with great vivacity. His works survive in several different collections of his contemporaries. This suggests how much they appreciated his skill, and the fact that he may have given works away as gifts or used them for professional purposes.

Napier seems to have spent considerable time in Canada East (now Quebec) from 1858 onwards. He was the Resident Engineer at Trois-Rivières for the Grand Trunk Railway from 1860 to 1863, and then worked on projects in Europe from 1864-1866. He returned to Canada to work for the Intercolonial Railway, but he resigned in 1870, left Canada for Scotland and thereafter gave up work as an engineer. He married Annie W. Robertson in December 1870, with whom he had four children. Although their primary residence was London, he died of apoplexy in Edinburgh on 2 August 1894.

There are no known paintings by Napier in any public collections, but several of his watercolours relating to Montmorency in winter are held by the Royal Ontario Museum. The ice cone at Montmorency was a well-known 19th century phenomenon caused by the build up of snow and ice from the spray thrown up by the falls. It attracted many visitors for the sensation of climbing the cone and sliding down, combined with the pleasure of the sleigh ride from Quebec City either singly or as part of sleigh club outings. The painting is notable for its inclusion of fir trees which marked the winter road over the ice between Montmorency and Quebec City. The Ice Cone was also a popular subject for other Quebec painters, including Cornelius Krieghoff and Robert C. Todd, among others.

We extend our thanks to Jim Burant, art historian and curator, for contributing the preceding essay. He spent four decades with the art and photo holdings of Library and Archives Canada. He has organized or co‒organized many exhibitions and has written and lectured widely about aspects of Canada’s visual heritage, his most recent publication being about the History of Art in Ottawa, published by the Art Canada Institute. He was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for services to Canada in 2002, and is a member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation.

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William Henry Edward Napier
(1829 - 1894)