The only known impression of the first state of William Burgis's view of Harvard College certainly ranks high among the Historical Society's treasures but was only accidentally discovered in the 1880s. Dr. Fitch Edward Oliver (1819-1892), the Society's cabinet keeper, reported to the February 1881 monthly meeting that the 1743 view of Harvard, published by William Price and given to the Society in 1795, was mounted on a wooden panel which had become warped and cracked and required attention. "On lifting it from the panel another engraving embracing the same view revealed itself ... similar in character, but published at an earlier date." It was Oliver himself who connected this earlier print with Burgis's announcement for "A Prospect of the Colledges in Cambridge in New England, curiously engraved in Copper," which appeared in the Boston News Letter of July 26, 1726.1
William Burgis had a short but active working career as an artist. Little is known about his early life. He probably arrived in New York from London sometime in 1717. His first known work was a large panorama of New York, A South Prospect of the Flourishing City of New York (1717; published 1719-1720). In the inscription, Burgis's name appears as the designer and publisher, and the engraver has been identified as John Harris, who is also believed to have engraved the view of Harvard. Harris worked in London, where he specialized in architectural and topographical views after a number of artists.2 During this early period of American printmaking, it was common practice to send drawings to Europe to be engraved and printed.
Burgis is believed to have been living in Boston in 1722. A small print of a view of Boston from that year might be his first work executed here. This view of Boston, which is now at the Essex Institute, was taken from Noddles Island and depicts an artist drawing in the right hand corner. If this is indeed the work of Burgis, then the figure may be a self-portrait. Burgis is definitely the artist for the later panoramic view, A South East View of the Great Town of Boston in New England in America (1725), which was also engraved by John Harris.3
This 1726 view of Harvard gives an accurate picture of the college as it appeared in the early eighteenth century. The three buildings are, from left to right: Harvard Hall (built 1672-1682), Stoughton Hall (built 1698-1700) and Massachusetts Hall (1718-1720).4 All three buildings were constructed of brick, evident in the use of red wash for the hand coloring. Harvard Hall, the oldest of the three, replaced an original wood structure. The flag flying above the cupola on Harvard proclaims, "HC 1639," which is the date for the original building. The courtyard before the three buildings contains a lone elm tree and several men in academic gowns scurrying along.
The street, which is separated from the college by a plain fence, contains a great deal of genre details which enliven the view. On the left, for example, two horsemen trot past an elegant four-horse coach, while in the center, above the dedication to Lieutenant Governor Dummer by Burgis, a gentleman points out the buildings to a woman, while a dog looks on.
Since moving to Boston, Burgis resided at the Crown Coffee House which was located at the head of Long Wharf. His landlord, Thomas Selby, was involved in the production and sale of some of Burgis's prints. When Selby died in 1727, he left his widow, Mehitable, a large fortune. The next year, she and Burgis were married. However, because the estate was disputed by other Selby heirs, Burgis and his wife spent much of their life together involved in litigation.5
In the court records, Burgis listed his profession variously as a draftsman, painter, gentleman, and inn-keeper, but never as an engraver. The only work which he inscribed as both designer and engraver is a mezzotint, To the Merchants of Boston this View of the Lighthouse (1729). In that same year, Burgis drew a map, Plan of Boston in New England, which was engraved by Thomas Johnston. According to Dunlap, Burgis left his wife in 1731 and returned to New York. However, two prints made of New York scenes, Fort George and New Dutch Church, date from 1729-1731 and 1731 respectively, indicating that Burgis may have been in New York before that date.6 In July 1736, his wife unsuccessfully filed for divorce claiming that "her Husband William Burgess having got what he could of her estate into his hands about five years since left her, and has never returned to the Province again."7 Nothing further is known of Burgis's life or his career as an artist after 1731.
1. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. 18, (Boston, 1880-1881): pp. 318-320.
2. Gloria Gilda Deák. Picturing America, 1497-1899. 2 vols. Princeton, 1988, 1: pp. 44-45; Hamilton Vaughn Bail. Views of Harvard: A Pictorial Record to 1860. Cambridge, Mass., 1949, p. 21; The Dictionary of National Biography. Leslie Stephens and Sidney Lee, eds. 22 vols. 1885-1901, London, 1959-1960.
3. Richard B. Holman. "William Burgis." Boston Prints and Printmakers, 1670-1775. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. 46, 1973, pp. 58, 64, 65, 78.
4. Gloria Gilda Deák. Picturing America, 1497-1899. 2 vols. Princeton, 1988, 1: p. 49.
5. William Dunlap. A History of the Rise and Progress of The Arts of Design in the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1918, 3: 286; John A. Edmonds. "The Burgis Views of New York and Boston." Proceedings of the Bostonian Society. 1915, pp. 46-47.
6. Richard B. Holman. "William Burgis." Boston Prints and Printmakers, 1670-1775. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. 46, 1973, pp. 58, 72-73, 79-80; William Dunlap. A History of the Rise and Progress of The Arts of Design in the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1918, 3: 286.
7. John A. Edmonds. "The Burgis Views of New York and Boston." Proceedings of the Bostonian Society. 1915, p. 46.