Tuesday 28 December 2021

David Johnston Kennedy: Guelph in winter, 1845

On March 8, 1888, the Guelph Mercury reported that "quite a crowd" gathered before the office window of Mr. Charles Davidson, at Wyndham and Carden streets. In the window was a painting of Allan's mill as it appeared on January 19, 1845. The perspective was from the brow of Strange's hill (where Palmer and Queen streets meet), looking over the Speed river.

The picture would have looked like this:

("Allan's Mill, on the river Speed, Guelph, Canada West, 1845.")

As the Mercury article notes, the scene was fascinating for the locals as the Guelph it portrayed was, even then, so different from the familiar one:

This part of Guelph in those days was sparsely inhabited indeed, for there are only shown about half a dozen buildings, and were it not for the way the ground is laid out the whole would have the appearance of a farm pretty well cleared. In front where the G.T.R. station now stands, and along the banks of the river are seen numerous stumps, among which is the one of the first tree cut in Guelph.
The Priory, the first house in Guelph, can be seen on the right-hand side. Nearby, a horse and sleigh is proceeding up McDonnel street towards that first stump, where John Galt had founded the settlement in 1827. In the middle is Allan's mill and distillery, while on the left-hand side lies Delamere's Tavern, one of Guelph's first inns.

The painting was one of many executed by David Johnston Kennedy, brother-in-law to Charles Davidson. Kennedy was born in Scotland in 1816 and, as a young man, worked as a stone mason alongside his father, William. He also acted as an assistant in his father's archictural drawing classes. Indeed, he decided that he wanted to be an artist but his father "hooted at the idea." Even so, he was permitted to take painting lessons in his spare time. He continued to make numerous sketches and watercolour paintings throughout his life.

In 1833, the family immigrated to Canada, settling on a farm in Nichol Township north of Guelph the next year. David did not like farming, nor did it like him: During his first winter, a pack of wolves nearly caught him as he walked home after a barn dance.

Kennedy's sister Betsy had married a Philadephian and invited him to join her there. This he did, remaining there for the rest of his life. Although he worked as a railroad agent, he created a unique artistic record of the architecture of City of Brotherly Love. However, he visited Guelph on many occasions and made many fine drawings and paintings of the Royal City also, of which Allan's Mill 1845 is one.

Several of his Guelph works were donated to the University of Guelph by the Alma Mater Fund in 1973, which was duly celebrated with an exhibition and the issue of postcards, including the one above. Another painting similarly reproduced shows the same part of town but nearer the east end of Allan's bridge:

("Sketch of part of the town of Guelph, Canada West, 1853.")

In 1839, David's mother and father joined the him in Philadelphia but wisely decided to return to Guelph eight years later. There, William purchased a lot on the east side of Speed River and built a house thereafter referred to as "Yankee Cottage" on Arthur street, just north of Allan's bridge.

David Kennedy painted a picture of it in 1852:

("Yankee Cottage, On the Speed, Guelph, Canada West, 1852." HSP Library 4314.)

Happily, Yankee Cottage remains today at 9 Arthur Street north.

In fact, the sketch of 1853 shown above was probably made from the front window of Yankee Cottage.

At one point, David Kennedy apparently had plans to return to Guelph himself. In 1850, he designed a house for himself, purchased a lot adjacent to Yankee Cottage, had a basement dug and building supplies moved to the site. However, for whatever reason, his brother-in-law Charles Davidson bought out the property and put up a house of simpler design on the lot.

This house became known as Sunnyside and stands today at 16 Arthur Street north:

David Kennedy's original design for Sunnyside can be seen in the painting he executed:
("Residence Proposed to be Erected Opposite the Priory on the River Speed in Guelph, Ontario watercolor, 1852." HSP Library 4643.)

Obviously, Sunnyside was considerably simplified from David Kennedy's own plans. His parents moved into Sunnyside and sold Yankee Cottage to the Grand Trunk Railway.

Many of his works are in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. With a little patience, images may be viewed at the Society's Digital Library. There are at least 18 images of Guelph, some of which are shown above. Here are a few more:

("Guelph, Canada watercolor, 1845". HSP Library 4312.)

Yes, it's the same image as in the postcard above! Kennedy sometimes made copies of his own works, which may explain why the colours are different here.

("Residence of A.M. Jackson in Guelph, Canada watercolor, 1864." HSP Library 3035.)

This was at 18 Douglas street—since demolished.

("Priory, Guelph, Ontario, Canada." HSP Library 4015.)

This photo shows the Priory with the stone wall along the riverbank and before it became a railway station, ca. 1870.

David Kennedy seldom exhibited any of his artworks, which were usually displayed informally, as in Charles Davidson's office window. After retirement in 1875, he began to prepare some of his work for publication but, sadly, this project was never completed. He died in Philadelphia in 1898.

Works consulted for this post include:
  • Nasby, Judith M. (1976). "A painter of Guelph: David Johnston Kennedy." Historic Guelph 17:36–49.