Object of the Month

Harvard in 1726: The First Prospect of an American College

A Prospect of the Colledges in Cambridge in New England Engraving

A Prospect of the Colledges in Cambridge in New England

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Conrad Wright
Worthington C. Ford Editor and Director of Research

William Burgis's view of Harvard College in 1726 was the first engraving to focus on an American college. Of the three buildings portrayed in the engraving, only one, Massachusetts Hall, survives today.

A serendipitous discovery

A Prospect of the Colledges in Cambridge in New England has shaped the modern mental image of higher education in colonial America, yet the Massachusetts Historical Society's copy, the only one extant, was discovered by accident. In 1795, the Society received an uncolored 1743 version of the engraving (please see the online presentation) that was mounted on a wooden panel. By 1880, the board had begun to warp. In order to protect the engraving against damage, a member of the Society removed it and underneath discovered the handsome, hand-colored, and previously unknown first state of the image, painted by William Burgis in the mid 1720s and then engraved, probably in England, by John Harris. An advertisement for the engraving--now known familiarly as the Burgis View--in the Boston News Letter of 26 July 1726 dates the work.

Higher education in the American colonies

In 1726, American higher education had a ninety-year history, but over that period the colonists had organized only three colleges. Following the founding of Harvard College in 1636, fifty-seven years passed before the establishment of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1693. The only other American college in 1726 was Yale College, founded in 1701 and located in several different Connecticut towns before settling in New Haven by 1718.

Although artists had previously included both Harvard and William and Mary within larger scenes, the Burgis View was the first work to focus on an American college. The institution the artist depicted was the American colonies' largest, wealthiest, and most prominent institution of higher education. In 1726, Harvard had a faculty of six as well as a librarian and a steward (or business manager) to teach and mind a student body of approximately 150. Of the school's three buildings, Harvard Hall (left), built between 1674 and 1678, was the heart of the institution. In addition to dormitory chambers for two junior faculty members (called tutors) and thirty-nine students, Harvard Hall housed the library, kitchen, and great hall, used for dining and chapel services. In 1764, when the building burned to the ground, it also housed the Philosophy Chamber, where the professor of mathematics and natural philosophy offered basic instruction in the sciences. Stoughton College (center), a dormitory constructed in 1698, had rooms for at least one member of the faculty and about thirty students. Massachusetts Hall, also a dormitory, was only six years old in 1726; it accommodated two tutors and about sixty students. Undergraduates for whom the college lacked space found places in town with college-approved Cambridge families. Of the buildings Burgis painted, only Massachusetts Hall is still standing.

William Burgis's view of Harvard College quickly came to epitomize higher education in the American colonies. Reproduced frequently in photographs and engravings, it has also appeared on a wide variety of ephemeral items ranging from matchbook covers to coffee mugs to towels. If you see a reproduction of the view, check the credit line: although the MHS owns the only surviving copy of this engraving, publishers have sometimes requested (and received) permision from such repositories as Harvard's Houghton Library and the Library of Congress to use the image.

About the artist

William Burgis, probably English-born, first came to public attention in New York, where his A South Prospect of the Flourishing City of New York in the Province of New York in America, was published as an engraving in four sections between 1719 and 1721. By 1722, he was in Boston, publishing a panoramic engraving entitled A South East View of the Great Town of Boston in New England in America in 1725. In each of these projects, Burgis played an entrepreneurial role: he painted his subject, secured an engraver, then promoted and sold the resulting prints. At a time when American artists concentrated on portraits to the near exclusion of other subjects, Burgis was remarkable for his attention to landscapes. Thirteen of his works survive, the earliest from 1719, the last from about 1731.

A later view

Harvard as William Burgis depicted it remained largely unchanged until 1744, when it added a fourth building, Holden Chapel. By 1767, when Paul Revere engraved the college the school had added another dormitory-Hollis (1763, second from left)-and a new Harvard Hall (center, 1766) as a replacement for the building lost in 1764. (Please see the online presentation of a 1916 re-engraving of the Revere view). The Revere view is recognizably modern, although the figures and coach give it an unmistakably eighteenth-century flavor. In contrast to the Burgis View, which includes only one structure still standing, of the five in the Revere engraving only Stoughton College (second from right) no longer exists.

Lecture and booksigning: Harvard College in the Revolutionary Era

On Tuesday, 27 September 2005 at 5:30 p.m., Conrad Edick Wright, the Society's Ford Editor of Publications and the author of a recent study of the boys and men who attended the school before the War for Independence, will discuss and sign his book, Revolutionary Generation: Harvard Men and the Consequences of Independence. Please RSVP to our reservation line at 617-646-0560.

Suggestions for further reading:

Bunting, Bainbridge. Harvard: An Architectural History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Holman, Richard B. "William Burgis," in Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 46 (1973): 57-81.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Vail, Hamilton Vaughan. Views of Harvard: A Pictorial Record to 1860. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949.

Wright, Conrad Edick. Revolutionary Generation: Harvard Men and the Consequences of Independence. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.


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