THRESHER, GEORGE GODSELL, painter, art teacher, and office holder; b. 6 April 1780 in Salisbury, England, son of Thomas Thresher and Rachel —; m. Eliza Wilson Brooks, and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 9 Dec. 1857 in Charlottetown.
Artists made a real contribution to the life of 19th-century North America in their own works and by teaching others to appreciate the fine arts. They also provided for succeeding generations a pictorial record of contemporary life. In spite of these services it was hard for an artist to make a reasonable living unless employed by a wealthy family. Early immigrant artists thus moved from city to city, often following the coastline.
George Godsell Thresher immigrated to New York City in 1806 and later worked in Philadelphia, Montreal, Halifax, and Charlottetown. He is said to have studied art under Ross Dodd in London, and to have served in the Royal Navy. He also stated in later advertisements that he had taught “in some of the most respectable Boarding Schools and private families in Europe.” In New York Thresher obtained a teaching position with the family of Dr J. Wallis Brooks and married his daughter.
Thresher was primarily a marine artist and was said by a descendant to have done paintings during the War of 1812 for the city of New York depicting naval victories. These were to be given to American commanders. A work known to have survived from this period shows the engagement between the uss Hornet and hms Peacock, a pictorial record done in 1813 of the American vessel’s defeat of the British ship on 24 February of that year.
As well as working in New York until about 1813, Thresher is said to have taught art in Philadelphia before moving to Montreal with members of the Brooks family when Honoria Brooks, his sister-in-law, married a John Dillon of Montreal. In May 1816 Thresher announced the opening of an academy for drawing in crayon or chalk and painting in water-colours or oils. A receipt from 1818 states that he was paid £14 15s. 0d. for painting 59 street signs for the city.
By 1821 Thresher had moved to Halifax. He made it his headquarters for some years though he may have lived temporarily in other parts of Nova Scotia pursuing work in his profession. He was on board the schooner Speculation when it was wrecked off Cape Breton on 7 Nov. 1828, and he advertised in May 1829 for any effects from that wreck, identifying himself as “Drawing Master, Pictou.”
By July 1829 he was in Charlottetown advertising that he would open a drawing and painting academy with instruction in penmanship and bookkeeping as soon as a sufficient number of pupils were obtained. His academy, “by Permission from his late Majesty, and under the Patronage of his Excellency the Lieut. Governor,” John Ready*, opened in December. Although Thresher remained in Charlottetown except for a brief period in the winter of 1829–30, teaching may not have provided a sufficiently remunerative living. He advertised that he would do ornamental drawing-room painting with landscape scenery; Scripture pieces for chapels and churches; masonic aprons and banners on velvet, silk, or muslin; coats of arms and crests on carriages; furniture painted in imitation of different kinds of woods and marbles; gilt work; and ornamental writing. His wife and daughter augmented the family income by operating a school for young ladies in the different branches of education, including drawing and painting. An oil painting by Mrs Thresher entitled Man with pipe (c. 1848) attests to her skill.
Beginning in September 1830 a large painting by Thresher was exhibited in Charlottetown. Its subject was the bombardment of Algiers (Algeria) by Lord Exmouth on 27 Aug. 1816, painted “from a correct sketch taken on the spot, by a gentleman who went for the entire purpose.” The price of admission to see the painting was a costly one shilling for adults, and suggests that both artist and painting were held in high regard.
Apparently unable to support himself by art alone, Thresher accepted an appointment in 1838 as deputy registrar of deeds, relinquishing the position in 1851 to become deputy colonial secretary. When he was forced to retire in 1853 because of infirmity, the House of Assembly overwhelmingly voted to grant him £30 “in consideration of his services.” He seems, however, to have continued to paint throughout his lifetime. His depiction of the great gale that swept the Island in 1851 was reputed to have been submitted to an industrial exhibition in New York City where it was awarded a prize. When Charlottetown was incorporated in April 1855, Thresher was asked to submit designs for a city seal. He was paid one shilling, and the by-law to establish the seal received sanction in December. He was also a member of the Charlottetown Mechanics’ Institute and lectured several times on such subjects as aerial perspective and the first principles of drawing.
Prince Edward Island was fortunate in attracting artists. The main contribution of William Valentine*, Leon Rosse, and S. W. Martin was in the field of portraiture. George Thresher, Fanny Amelia Bayfield [Wright*], and George Hubbard, on the other hand, provided documentary accounts of life in 19th-century North America. As well, George Thresher is esteemed as a competent marine artist by collectors of naval paintings in both Canada and the United States.
[The most comprehensive list of the paintings done by Thresher in the United States is in the Inventory of American paintings executed before 1914, a database compiled by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art (Washington). Illustrations of some of those paintings, along with biographical information on Thresher, is found in Douglas Norris, “The Hornet and the Peacock,” Antiquarian (New York), 11 (1929): 53, 80; “George Thresher, naval painter,” Antiques (New York), 48 (July–December 1945): 230, 232; Catalogue of a special exhibition of the Irving S. Olds collection of American naval prints and paintings . . . (Salem, Mass., 1959), 34, 44; and D. B. Webster et al., Georgian Canada: conflict and culture, 1745–1820 (Toronto, 1984), 189, 218.
Among his paintings done in British America, View of Charlottetown, date unknown, and Charlotte Town taken from J. S. McGill Esq. farm, 1836, are held by the PAPEI. The former is reproduced in Through Canadian eyes: trends and influences in Canadian art, 1815–1965, comp. Moncrieff Williamson (Calgary, 1976), plate 10, where it carries a date that appears to be too early. In addition to owning his wife’s painting Man with pipe (c. 1848), the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum (Charlottetown) holds Thresher’s Harbour entrance, Halifax, c. 1830 (illustrated in Confederation Centre Gallery and Museum (Charlottetown, 1969), under the name Indian tepee and ship, in J. R. Harper, Painting in Canada, a history ([Toronto], 1966), and in The first decade, 1964–1974: a retrospective survey of works acquired by Confederation Centre Art Gallery, selected by Ian Lumsden (Charlottetown, 1975)); Battle of Trafalgar, unsigned and undated; and The Yankee gale, signed and dated 1851 (reproduced in Prince Edward Island Magazine and Educational Outlook (Charlottetown), 6 (1904): 39, where it is called The great gale of 1851). Other paintings, including Rolfe, a self-portrait, and The cottagers, are held by descendants or private collectors. The Charlottetown city seal is illustrated in I. L. Rogers, Charlottetown: the life in its buildings (Charlottetown, 1983), v. i.l.r.]
PAPEI, Acc.3466; RG 1, Commission books, 13 Nov. 1838; 2 Dec. 1839; 28 April, 7 July 1851; RG 20, item 36, W. B. Wellner to Thresher, 6 Dec. 1855; Charles Desbrisay to Mayor, 8 Dec. 1855. Acadian Recorder, 10, 17 Feb., 8 Sept. 1821; 30 Aug. 1823. Colonial Herald, and Prince Edward Island Advertiser (Charlottetown), 11 Jan. 1840, 18 Feb. 1843. Examiner (Charlottetown), 8 Jan. 1848. Islander, 8 April 1853, 11 Dec. 1857. Prince Edward Island Register, 20 Jan., 26 May, 14, 21 July, 4 Aug., 29 Sept., 24 Nov., 8, 29 Dec. 1829; 18 May, 1 June 1830. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 28 Sept., 12 Oct. 1830; 4 Oct. 1831; 4 Feb. 1845. G. C. Groce and D. H. Wallace, The New-York Historical Society’s dictionary of artists in America, 1564–1860 (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1957; repr. 1964). Harper, Early painters and engravers. Rolfe genealogical tree, comp. W. J. Morrison (n.p., n.d.; copy at P.E.I. Museum). Examiner (Charlottetown), 2 April 1880. Guardian (Charlottetown), 21 Oct. 1944.