EAGAR, WILLIAM, businessman, artist, and teacher; b. c. 1796 in Ireland, son of William Eagar; m. 23 Jan. 1819 Maria Saunders in St John’s, and they had six sons and three daughters; d. 24 Nov. 1839 in Halifax at age 43.
William Eagar had settled in Newfoundland some time before he married Maria Saunders, daughter of a prominent island family. He may well have crossed the Atlantic to take an administrative position in the fishery rather than to work as an artist. The quick settling of a personal bankruptcy in 1821 and his ownership before the end of the decade of a 20-acre farm on the outskirts of St John’s indicate that he had access to considerable financial resources.
By late 1829 Eagar was advertising his services as an artist and art teacher. Undoubtedly, he had learned to draw and sketch in Ireland as part of his school curriculum (there is no evidence to substantiate a claim made in 1914 that he had studied in Italy), and this training may have been augmented by work with a professional artist. His urban views demonstrate a firm understanding of the principles of topographic rendering. That he also had some knowledge of surveying is suggested by his applying to become surveyor general of Newfoundland. The post went instead to Joseph Noad* in 1832.
Eagar travelled to London in 1831, presumably to supervise the engraving of his large drawing Town and harbour of St. John’s, taken from Signal Hill, June 1st, 1831. While there he studied the works of leading water-colour painters and, on returning late that year, rented a schoolroom and offered to teach the technique. He soon discovered that teaching was not financially practical in St John’s and began advertising his willingness to do portraits in oil and water-colour. The number of portraits he painted in Newfoundland is unknown.
Eagar moved to Halifax in September 1834 and resumed teaching and painting. His students came from fashionable families who believed art was a necessary component of an upper-class education. Within a short time he had established his reputation as a teacher and his position as the foremost landscape artist in Halifax. A lengthy account of Eagar and his work appeared in Joseph Howe*’s Novascotian, or Colonial Herald in 1836. He subsequently expanded his classes, lectured to the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute on at least one occasion, and constructed an impressive transparency of Queen Victoria as the grand finale of the fireworks display to celebrate her coronation. He also leased and operated a commission warehouse.
In 1836 Eagar announced his most ambitious project, a series of views of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Upper Canada. Sir Colin Campbell, the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, endorsed the plan and Eagar was applauded in the press. The initial portfolio of three Nova Scotia views was engraved in Edinburgh and arrived in the province in December 1837. Eagar advertised the set as “Landscape illustrations of British North America.” Encouraged by favourable reviews, he announced his second volume, scenes of New Brunswick, the same month. He had stated in 1836 that, “in order to render the work more perfect,” he intended to offer subscribers a description of each scene upon completion of the volume. It is doubtful whether the letterpress was ever issued.
Eagar’s engravings, however, did not sell, and the artist, with the assistance of Hugh Bell*, petitioned the Nova Scotia House of Assembly in February 1838 for financial support to subsidize them. While awaiting an answer he planned a major art exhibition in Halifax, perhaps in part to raise money. In March he displayed 125 items, including work by his students, some of his own pieces, five paintings by William Valentine, and European works borrowed from local collections. The following month, when it became apparent that government funding was not going to be forthcoming, Eagar withdrew his petition and decided to lithograph his remaining views. At the end of April he travelled to Boston for supplies and to engage a lithographer and a distributor. The wisdom of his decision was reinforced in October when the first two numbers of Robert Petley’s Sketches in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, drawn from nature and on stone arrived in town. Petley, an army officer stationed in Halifax from 1832 to 1836, had published his lithographs in London after returning home. They went on sale for half the price of Eagar’s engravings.
In July 1839 his first lithographs, three views of Halifax with a title-page vignette, went on sale there. Published as Nova Scotia illustrated in a series of views taken on the spot and on stone, it sold at a price comparable to Petley’s Sketches. The second part of this series, which went on sale in August, contained three illustrations of Halifax and vicinity. Parts three and four were published posthumously in May and August 1840. Eagar had prepared the stones for part three, two scenes of the Windsor area and a panorama of Grand Pré; his drawings for part four, three views of Pictou, were transferred to stone after his death from pneumonia.
Eagar’s publications were seen at the time as an expression of patriotism. Although it was hoped that they would help promote the province in Europe, it was considered just as important to inform Nova Scotians of their colony’s capabilities. Joseph Howe, Thomas Chandler Haliburton*, John Young, and others believed a great future lay in store were the population to recognize the opportunities at hand. Nova Scotia illustrated gave many of Eagar’s contemporaries a glimpse of parts of the province they might not otherwise have seen. It survives as a visual document of an era when Nova Scotians believed they would soon become self-reliant.
[That William Eagar may have had a middle name was suggested in 200 years of art in Halifax; an exhibition prepared in honour of the bicentenary of the founding of the city of Halifax, N.S., 1749–1949 (Halifax, 1949), where he is called William H. Eagar; although the initial has occasionally been repeated, it has not yet been substantiated in primary sources. a.e.c.]
The principal collections of William Eagar’s works are at Dalhousie Univ. (Halifax), Dartmouth Heritage Museum (Dartmouth, N.S.), McCord Museum, MTRL, N.B. Museum, N.S. Museum (Halifax), PAC, PANS, and Royal Ont. Museum (Toronto). The following publications reproduce one or more of his engravings, lithographs, or paintings: A. E. Carter, “William H. Eagar: drawing master of Argyle Street, Halifax,” Journal of Canadian Art Hist. (Montreal), 7 (1983–84): 138–55; C. P. de Volpi, Nova Scotia, a pictorial record; historical prints and illustrations of the province of Nova Scotia, Canada, 1605–1878 ([Toronto], 1974), plates 76–93 (each reproduction is accompanied by quotations from contemporary travel accounts); Harper, Painting in Canada (1966); Nova Scotia scenery: an exhibition of works by William H. Eagar (1796–1839) ([Halifax, 1983]); A pageant of Canada; the European contribution to the iconography of Canadian history; an exhibition arranged in celebration of the centenary of confederation (Ottawa, 1967); Harry Piers, “Artists in Nova Scotia,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 18 (1914): 141–45, 161–62; and Mary Sparling, Great expectations; the European vision in Nova Scotia, 1749–1848 (Halifax, 1980).
Cathedral of St John the Baptist (Anglican) (St John’s), Reg. of marriages, 23 Jan. 1819. PANL, GN 2/1, 3 April 1832. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Halifax), Reg. of burials, 1839 (mfm. at PANS). Catalogue of Mr. Eagar’s exhibition of paintings (Halifax, 1838). N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1838: 25. Colonial Pearl (Halifax), 16 Dec. 1837, 29 Nov. 1839. New-Brunswick Courier, 9 Dec. 1837. Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, 3 Sept. 1834; 11 May, 28 Sept. 1836; 3 July, 7 Aug., 27 Nov. 1839. Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 27 Nov. 1839. Public Ledger, 3 Jan., 29 June, 10 Aug. 1832. Times (Halifax), 21 March, 19 Dec. 1837; 10 April, 3 July, 23 Oct. 1838; 26 Nov. 1839. Harper, Early painters and engravers. Landmarks of Canada; what art has done for Canadian history . . . (2v., Toronto, 1917–21; repr. in 1v., 1967), nos.45, 2139, 2152, 2154, 2169–75, 2177–78, 2181–84, 3622, 3627, 3629. A. E. Carter, “William H. Eagar: ‘sensibilities of no common order”’ (ma thesis, Concordia Univ., Montreal, 1979). J. W. Reps, Views and viewmakers of urban America . . . (Columbia, Mo., 1984).