DES BARRES, J.F.W. (1721-1824)
A View from the Camp at the East End of the Naked Sand Hills, on the South East Shore of the Isle of Sable [Nova Scotia]
[London: Published by J.F.W. Des Barres in 'The Atlantic Neptune', 1 June 1781]. Etching with aquatint. Printed on laid paper with `J. Bates' watermark and `JB' countermark. Skillful marginal restoration in several places. Sheet size: 23 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches.
One of the most desirable, large-scale views from the 'The Atlantic Neptune', the first British sea atlas of her North American colonies
In this fine scene Des Barres depicts his own men camping beneath the hills that form the spine of Sable Island, the 20 mile-long shifting sandbar that lies 111 miles off the coast of Halifax. From 1766 to 1768, Des Barres and his party spent two seasons surveying the waters around Sable Island. The island is known for both for its wild horses, depicted here, and, more ominously. as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic." The island is the last offshore remnant from the time when the sea levels were much lower. It is theorized that the vast mound of sand that forms the island was deposited there by glaciers at the end of the last ice age. The shifting nature of the shoals off the island, allied with treacherous sea currents have meant that, until the invention of modern navigational techniques, it was extremely hazardous to ships. Over 350 wrecks have been recorded since 1583, the most recent in July 1999. The horses on the island, now numbering about 200, are probably descended from stock belonging to the Acadians of Nova Scotia. In 1760, the Boston merchant Thomas Hancock shipped 60 Acadian horses to Sable island, where they have bred and flourished ever since. The isolated nature of the herd means that they provide insights into the type of animal that was favoured by the eighteenth-century settlers. This view is the fourth and final state produced, and is identical to the Henry Stevens Collection , variant 77D, in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Des Barres studied under the great mathematician Daniel Bernoulli at the University of Basel, before continuing on to the Royal Military College at Woolwich. On the outbreak of the Seven Years war in 1756, he joined the British Royal American Regiment as a military engineer. He came the attention of General James Wolfe, who appointed him to be his aide-de-camp. From 1762, Des Barres was enlisted to survey the coastlines of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Gulf of St.Lawrence, while his colleague, Samuel Holland charted the New England coast. In 1774, Des Barres returned to England where he began work on the Neptune. His dedication to the project was so strong, that often at his own expense, he continually updated and added new charts and views up until 1784. That year he returned to Canada, where he remained for a further forty years, becoming a senior political figure and a wealthy land owner, and living to the advanced age of 103.
The Atlantic Neptune was the first British sea atlas of her North American colonies, and one of the most important achievements of eighteenth century cartography. With an official commission from the Royal Navy, Des Barres published the first volume in London in 1775, which was soon followed by further volumes. Des Barres' monumental endeavor eventually featured over two-hundred charts and aquatint views, many being found in several states. All of the charts were immensely detailed, featuring both hydrographical and topographical information. Des Barres' plates were used to print further editions up into the first decade of the nineteenth-century. The Neptune met with the highest acclaim from the beginning, and is today widely regarded as superior to all other atlases produced during its time.
Spendlove, The Face of Early Canada, Chapter 4: "J.F.W. Des Barres and The Atlantic Neptune"; pp. 18-22; Debard, "The Family Origins of Joseph Fredericks Wallet DesBarres: A Riddle Finally Solved", Nova Scotia Historical Review, Vol 14, No. 2 (1994), p.15; National Maritime Museum: Henry Stevens Collection: K0252 HNS 77D & Catalogue, no.62-66, p.383; Phillips, p.634.