Joshua Shaw, Artist And Inventor
Scientific American, 7 August 1869
The biography of distinguished men, is not only a pleasant but a profitable study. Especially is this the case, when the subject of personal history has risen from humble obscurity by his own talents and industry to high and honourable position, in the observance of those moral qualities which constitute an example worthy of imitation.
In this pushing age we do not perhaps think often of the brave pioneers in invention, who cleared away obstacle, and smoothed the path of progress, before we came on to the stage of action.
It may well be questioned whether any invention in the art of gunnery, since the introduction of the gunpowder, was a longer stride in advance than the invention of the copper percussion cap.
Joshua Shaw, whose name will ever be connected with this improvement and the extension of the principle to the discharge of heavy artillery, was born in the eventful year 1776, at Bellingborough, Lincoln Co., England. By the courtesy of Mr. John Dickinson, a grandson of Mr. Shaw, now residing at Fort Hamiliton, Long Island, we have been put in possession of a manuscript autobiography, written by Mr. Shaw, at the request of William Dunlap, an epitome of which is embodied in the latter's "history of the Rise and Progress of the arts of Design in the United States," published in 1834. To this interesting and characteristic manuscript, with the voluminous correspondence held by Mr. Shaw with various European governments and particularly with the Ordnance Department of the United States, we are principally indebted for the facts contained in this sketch.
Mr. Shaw was left an orphan at the age of seven years, by the death of his father, and he says: "I had from that moment to earn my dinner before I ate it; and like Bloomfield's farmer boy, I had to watch the cattle and keep the sparrows away from the cornfields; a kind of domestic Crusoe of the lonely field and common, with an old gun on my shoulder, and carrying a noisy instrument called the "bird-claps." With these I was able to frighten away the little intruders but many a time when my own supply of food ran short, I had compassion on them, and would say: How hard it is to be without bread, I will give them time to pick a few grains and then either fire the gun or start the rattlers." Three years did the young artist watch the sparrows, occupying the hours and relieving the monotony of his task by drawing pictures in the sand, of owls, pigs, and other objects, animate and inanimate, thus evincing the early budding of a genius destined in the future to be recognised and honoured by the world. Nor was his invention wholly absorbed by his passion for drawing; our young aspirant learned to read and write, making the sand his rude though ample page, in the three years of his shepherd boy life, during which time his wages was one penny per day. At the end of that time, his mother having in the mean time married, he was called home to assist in the business of his stepfather, a plumber and glazier by occupation, at the end of which time, Mr. Shaw, a lad of about fifteen years, was again obliged to shift himself. An uncle now gave him nine weeks' schooling, the only regular tuition he had during his life. He then obtained employment upon one of the rural mail-routes, and entered His Majesty's service as a mail carrier. This employment did not last long, and again he says: "I found myself threatened with the prospect of dining on roasted sloes and bilberries, and driving the sparrow and yellow hammer from the forbidden feast. I was on my way home, and being hungry, I purchased by the way some cheese and bread, which the shopkeeper, out of respect I suppose for the elevated situation I had occupied as mail carrier, wrapped in part of a newspaper, which I read at my leisure after dining. Amongst other things an advertisement met my eye, 'Wanted, an apprentice to the Sign, Coach, and House-painting business, apply by letter, post-paid, to George Sparrow, Stamford, Lincolnshire. A premium will be expected.' I turned short about and travelled twenty miles that same day, determined to see Mr. Sparrow, but as he expected a premium I had small hopes of success, except my talents for drawing should be a recommendation. My hand however, had only been tried upon crows, magpies, owls, mice, and other familiar objects, while I was drill officer of the cow-pasture, and lest I should be imperfect, I sat down, and with my finger drew upon the dust which covered the road, a pig, a goose, and such other objects as were suggested, and in this way night overtook me before I had reached the sixteenth milestone. I budged along with only nine shillings in my pocket which belonged to my stepfather, in deep reflection upon coming events and possible results. At eight in the evening I reached Stamford, and the house in which the Great Apelles of the place resided. How my heart palpitated as I touched the knocker."
Here our aspirant remained all night, and in the morning, after trial, was accepted without a premium, in consideration of his talent for drawing. In this way he reached the first and lowest rung of the ladder, which he at once began to climb so vigorously that in time he was placed in charge of the business. His first exploit of a public nature was the painting of Commandments in St. Michael's Church with the King's arms, and beneath it Moses and Aaron, agreeably to the old English custom. He now began to acquire considerable reputation as a painter of the pictorial signs of the period. His employer having become jealous of Mr. Shaw's reputation, a separation took place, the latter purchasing freedom from his last year of service for twenty pounds sterling, and removing to Manchester, where he was installed foreman of a very respectable establishment. It was here that he formed a resolution to become an artist in the highest sense of the term, and to that end he commenced a system of constant and laborious practice, taking for his studies dead game, flowers, fruit, and landscape.
At length he was so fortunate as to find purchasers for three or four subjects in rapid succession, and emerged from the obscurity he had hitherto been forced to sustain into public notice as an artist of considerable promise. He now went to London where he met with much discouragement from cold-hearted critics, and after staying there three years, retired to Bath, where he practiced his art for some seven years with increasing reputation. He now met with some encouragement from the surrounding gentry and nobility, and as he was a good sportsman and possessed of fine social gifts, he became a frequent guest at their tables.
He next returned to London, where he enjoyed considerable popularity and received many commissions; but being so unfortunate as to differ in politics from the aristocratic directors of the British Institution, he was subjected to persecution, and the prize awarded to his painting of the deluge, by that institution, was with-held. This and other subsequent events disgusted him with England, and he resolved to come to America. He had previously, however, made the acquaintance and secured the warm personal friendship of Benjamin West, then President of the Royal Academy, who urged him to canvass for a membership in that institution, but he refused to stoop to what he considered a degradation, the begging for honours to which he considered his merits entitled him.
He, therefore, after obtaining introductory letters from West to many distinguished men of the time in the United States, came to Philadelphia, where he permanently established himself. He was the bearer of West's celebrated picture of "Christ Healing the Sick," a present to the Philadelphia Hospital, where he placed it appropriately, and where it still hangs.