A new way of seeing old Signal Hill

Tara
Tara Bradbury
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Painting depicts military buildings that stood on site in 1800s

When Larry Mahoney looks at Signal Hill, he sees what many others don’t. He has images of a bustling military community; where there are cannon rails, he visualizes smoking cannons. Where there are stone foundations, overgrown with grass, he pictures stores housing food and heating fuel. Where there is pavement, he sees groups of British soldiers, dressed in red and white, making their way back to their barracks.

In 1997, history buff Mahoney was sitting on the southeast face of what’s called Ladies’ Lookout on Signal Hill, making sketches for a painting he had in mind.

A former drafting technician, Mahoney had taken up visual art once he was retired and his kids had grown, and he had plans to do a painting of a soldier, looking out to sea at a boat.

The sketches remained pinned to Mahoney’s wall until about two years ago, when, as a member of Realist Artists of Newfoundland and Labra­dor (RANL), he took part in a group project. Entitled “Newfoundland and Labrador: Through the Centuries,” RANL members put together a collection of paintings of local life, recreating the hardship of early settlement, war, fishing and other themes.

Mahoney brought his earlier sketches to Parks Canada officials, and asked them what they thought.

“If I can get as close to historically accurate as possible, that’s where I want to be, and I asked for help from their research people,” Mahoney told The Telegram.

Mahoney’s concept for the painting changed, and he chose to make it less about the soldiers and more about their surroundings.

He wanted to recreate on canvas a soldiers’ canteen that had existed on Signal Hill between about 1835-1855, the foundation of which is still visible at the spot where he had set up to do his sketching.

As well as being the point where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless message in 1901, Signal Hill was the site of military defences in St. John’s from the 18th century until the end of the Second World War.

The canteen, according to Parks Canada, was where soldiers would go to relax and have a drink.

Mahoney’s only trouble was that no photographs exist of the old canteen. If he was going to paint it, he’d have to recreate it from written documents only.

With the help of Parks Canada and on his own, Mahoney found plenty of resources, including storyboards, maps, blueprints, archeological reports and drawings of other buildings in the area.

Deciphering it all wasn’t easy, he said, since the buildings on Signal Hill changed over the years, and he needed his work to be accurate of the time period the canteen was there.

“Signal Hill had over 100 buildings at one point, believe it or not, and I wondered what I should put in, since things changed,” Mahoney explained. “An archeological dig that was done in about 2009 gave me some information about where the corners of the building were, how they were constructed and what they were constructed of.

“I also discovered the place where I had been sitting, doing the sketches, was a latrine — if I had known, maybe I would have found another place to sit,” he continued with a chuckle.

Mahoney discovered there were actually two other buildings in the area: a commissariat store on one side of the canteen — on the edge of a 300-foot drop — where supplies were stored, and a barracks on the other, where soldiers and their families slept and lived.

While the store and canteen were built of stone, the barracks had stone, clapboard and shingles, with windows, Mahoney was surprised to discover, that faced towards land, not the ocean.

To get the scale of the buildings accurate in his painting, Mahoney brought poles of the height historical documents reported the canteen, barracks and store to be to the site, erected them and took photos.

When it came to other aspects of the buildings’ structure, he studied pictures and information about the architecture of buildings in England established during the same time period.

Mahoney also researched the uniforms of the time period, as well as details of how Fort Amherst looked and the type of boats that would likely have been in the background of his painting.

It took about four or five months before Mahoney’s artwork was completed.

His painting shows the southeast side of Ladies’ Lookout around 1840-1841. The canteen is at the centre of the piece, while the store and barracks are shown flanking it. Two soldiers are carrying a barrel of beer along a path towards the buildings, while a woman Mahoney said is a lady by the name of Mrs. Garland stands in the canteen doorway.

“I found a tender from 1835 for the supply and maintenance of the building, and it was given to a Mrs. Garland,” Mahoney explained.

Mahoney also found documents describing a vegetable garden and three cows that were kept in a field below the lookout called Ross’ Valley, and these are in his painting, too.

“All these things added to the information, a little bit here, a little bit there,” Mahoney said. “By the time I was done, I had thousands of pictures and bits of information.”

Once Parks Canada officials saw the finished painting and Mahoney’s attention to historical accuracy, they bought it.

“There are all kinds of ideas for things that people come to us with, for what might or might not have been on the site. One of the most important things we look at is the accuracy of anything depicted,” ex­plain­ed Glenn Keough, Parks Canada’s national historic sites and visitor experience manager for eastern Newfoundland. “Once our historian looked at it and said it’s as accurate as he thinks it could be, we saw it as a possible resource to help us interpret the site, the really interesting history of the hill itself, and to give people a sense that what you see up there now is really just a small percentage of the activity that went on there on a regular basis, right to the 20th century.”

Keough said Parks Canada will use the painting in a number of ways.

“We’ll probably develop an interpretation panel that gives a little bit of the history and shows visitors what would have been in there, because the viewpoint would give a really nice sense of what it would have looked like,” he said.

In addition, there are plans to hang the painting in a new, contemporary canteen within the Signal Hill visitors’ centre, Keough said. Selling snacks such as sandwiches and drinks, the canteen is expected to be open by the middle of July. In the future, it may expand to include food service outside at picnic tables around the centre, as well, he said.

The level of detail and historical accuracy in Mahoney’s painting makes it clear research was something he enjoys, Keough said.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work. I think it must have been a labour of love.”

Mahoney said he’s got three more historical paintings in the works: one of the old St. Mary’s Church on Southside Road; one of Allandale House; and one of an old forge that was located at the centre of St. John’s.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

www.twitter.com/tara_bradbury

Organizations: Parks Canada, Allandale House

Geographic location: Signal Hill, Newfoundland and Labrador, England Mary Southside Road

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  • Gloria Sheppard
    June 20, 2011 - 08:35

    A History buff, A research addict, attention to detail and love of painting make for a very impressive Larry Mahoney painting.

  • DON
    June 19, 2011 - 14:08

    This is all very interesting but I am not convinced that the artists depiction of the buildings are accurate. I applaud the artists efforts to reconstruct what he thinks may have existed on the site and his efforts to obtain as much factual evidence as he could. Even with archaeological data and old plans to review there is great difficulty in reconstructing ancient building locations. Much more investigation and research is required before any conclusions can be drawn as to the factual content of the claim. I recently visited the archaeological site in Cupids where they have uncovered old building foundations of what they claim are John Guy's original buildings. I did some research and discovered photographs of the site from around 1910 which clearly showed the houses and root cellars of the Spracklin family homestead. Some claim that the Spracklins built their houses over top of John Guys original buildings. No evidence exists to prove that claim. The mere finding of some small amounts of artifacts dated to 1610 proves absolutely nothing as these artifacts could have been deposited there by anyone. It is probable that the artifacts were in possession of the Spracklin family and deposited on the site by the Spracklin family itself. Archaeological theory and speculation is usually accepted as fact. That is a very unwise policy to adopt. I reviewed the letter from John Guy in 1610 in which he wrote that Cuper's Cove was a branch of Salmon Cove. The folks in Cupids claim that Cupids is where John Guy landed because there is a place called Salmon Cove near Cupids. However, I also discovered maps of Conception Bay drawn in the 1600's which clearly showed that there was no place called Salmon Cove located near Cupids in the 1600's. The maps clearly showed Salmon Cove was located where Avondale is situated now. Clearly, since there was no Salmon Cove near Cupids in 1610, John Guy could not have landed at a place called Salmon Cove near Cupids because Salmon Cove did not exist near Cupids in 1610. Accordingly, artifacts found at the site in Cupids cannot be those of John Guy. As is the case in Cupids, archaeological data which is not supported by historical fact and correct interpretation is worthless! Publicizing claims of historical fact based on archaeological theory without scientific, historical documentary and physical evidence results in misinterpretation of the facts and misleads the public into believing myth and fiction as fact. Just because some claim is published in the newspaper does not make it correct or an historical fact. Claims of historical fact without any conclusive proof or independent verification can be improperly advanced by poorly researched news coverage.

  • Mike
    June 18, 2011 - 15:22

    A great example of how with the extra effort, dreams/visions can happen. Congrats on the latest success, for bringing our history to life and Happy Father's Day tomorrow! Now everyone knows what a great Father I/we have... and is a pretty good artist too! Yeah Larry!

  • surprised
    June 18, 2011 - 10:44

    It would be NICE if The Rooms displayed some of Larry's work, along with some of the work of artist like Larry and Ed Roche et al. So that we could see what Newfoundland looked like many years ago. It seems to me that this is what The Rooms should be used for!!

  • Dave
    June 18, 2011 - 08:24

    Ohh Larry, how will you ever find a hat to fit now with all this press. Happy Fathers Day!