A new way of seeing old Signal Hill

Painting depicts military buildings that stood on site in 1800s

Published on June 18, 2011

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.