Oft ignored in studies of British imperialism (except by its own countrymen), Upper Canada in the mid-19th century provides a cogent lens through which to observe imperial relations with nature, intersecting especially with urban development, land law, and gender politics. This study will specifically focus on the region surrounding Toronto, an environmentally diverse, cosmopolitan, and economically burgeoning area with a rich tradition of nature writing and painting.
The question asked by this research project is: How did the visual and literary culture of the Toronto region (1825 – 1867) influence and reflect British ideologies of urbanization, nature, and rural development. Toronto residents in the mid-19th century found themselves in a cosmopolitan urban environment surrounded by seemingly endless forests. Those who interacted economically or domestically with ‘the bush’, as the deep forest was termed, created their own environmental ideologies that reflected imperial notions of nature. Frederick Armstrong comments that, in this period, Toronto evolved from, “a remote, backwoods, colonial city” to, “part of an international economic pattern” (Armstrong, 15). The environmental changes fueling this transformation and expansion were substantial, and carried consequences for regional ecosystems. The experience of environmental transformation, moreover, was widely disseminated to Canadian and British audiences. Catherine Parr Traill, wrote books for potential British émigrés to Canada, but warned that, “Matters are not carried on quite so easily here as at home” (Traill, 57). Carole Gerson comments that this, “genre of settlement literature… offers useful knowledge to assist with the process of settlement and local culture development” (Gerson, 78). Creating a Canada suitable for British life was a matter of consequence in the mid-19th century, both for Torontonians and their peers living in ‘the bush’. Toronto’s urban expansion into its forests produced a cultural landscape that both relied upon and produced opportunities for environmental narratives and images which sustained its growth.
This exhibition will proceed through examples of visual and literary culture from Toronto and its ‘bush’ region in this time period, complicating dominant theses of 19th century Canadian history. The ‘metropolitan thesis’, first elucidated the 1954 article “Frontierism, Metropolitanism, and Canadian History” by J.M.S. Careless, focuses its analysis of Canadian history on the economic centrality of certain metropoles (i.e. Toronto, Montreal) in the country’s development (Davis, 95). This study will, instead, focus on the actual outgrowth of Toronto itself, and how environmental and urban ideologies forged in this time period concretized and reflected dominant notions of British Imperial natural and built environments. Lillian Gates’s The Land Policies of Upper Canada reminds us of the haphazard process of this early development, yielding to more specific Imperial goal-setting, “Not until 1837… did the home government come to regard the Crown lands as Imperial capital to be carefully developed and expended for the benefit of the Empire” (Gates, 152). This shift resulted from democratic Reform rebellions, the incorporation of Toronto as an official city, and the opening of new agricultural areas from land clearing (Campey, 22). All of these developments attracted new interest in Upper Canada from potential settlers, but had to be conveyed to British audiences through visual and literary cultures. Internalizing these narratives, I will argue that British Canadians, from domestic frontierswomen to technical city planners to landscape painters, underwrote the urban expansion of Toronto at the expense of its untamed ‘bush’ surroundings. Moreover, I will argue that this process was complex and sometimes paradoxically Romantic in its treatment of nature; the dissemination of images of nature in an Imperial context attracted the eyes of profit-seekers, those looking for natural entertainment, and British would-be settlers looking to replicate their comfortable British environs.
Thesis: The physical growth of Toronto’s built environment in the mid-19th century relied on abstract networks of visual and literary cultures, whose creators may not have even realized their complicity in the city’s expansion.