A Case of Mistaken Identity

In the early days of his collecting, Duncan  with great excitement and pleasure announced that he had purchased a Heriot. Well,  I was over the moon! Finally something in which we had a mutual interest. I love Herriott! I have read every word written by or about him and had seen every episode of “All Creatures Great and Small”. The very idea of collecting and owning valuable works by Dr. James Herriott was more than I could ever have hoped for.

George Heriot 1759 – 1839

Oh, George Heriot, landscape artist, author and former Head of the Canadian Post Office, not the veterinarian and animal lover in whom I have such affection for and respect. Well they at least shared a a heritage with Great Britain although the formerly mentioned was of minor Scottish gentry. Insert very large sigh here.

Ullswater, Lake District UK Watercolour c1838

Ullswater, Lake District UK Watercolour c1838

Then the Heriot arrived. The delightful watercolour “Ullswater, Lake District UK”,  is a lovely piece and it was upon seeing this work that I too  became a fan of the ‘other’ Heriot.

The young George Heriot displayed a propensity for art when just a wee lad and it was under the tutelage of Scottish Maecenas, Sir James Grant of Grant that he developed his artistic skill.

In 1777 Heriot travelled to London with the intention of pursuing  an artistic career, but  for whatever reason, instead found himself on a voyage to the West Indies. Whether this change of plans was a result of his Father’s failing business and the need to generate an income is unknown. During his stay in the Caribbean, Heriot  spent a great deal of his time writing and sketching so that when he returned to London in 1781 he published ‘A Descriptive Poem, written in the West Indies’.

Heriot was enrolled at the Royal Military Academy in  Woolwich where he was taught landscape drawing which at that time was considered an essential element of a military education. He left the Academy and found employment in the army as a civilian clerk which in 1792 led to a posting in Quebec in the ordnance office.

There is very little information available about Heriot’s period in Quebec other than some sketches that have survived over the years that would indicate he travelled extensively around Quebec and Montreal.

Heriot left Canada in 1796 in order to spend time traveling throughout the southern regions of England and Wales before heading back to Edinburgh  to spend time at The University of Edinburgh.

Heriot returned once again to Quebec and was appointed the position of Assistant Storekeeper General. This was considered a rather prestigious position however, when it was discovered that he was drawing two salaries for two positions he was removed from this newer post.

Heriot 1807 Book SpineFortunately Heriot had had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of William Pitt. It was due to this relationship with William Pitt and his influence that Heriot  was appointed the Deputy Postmaster General for the whole of British North America in October 1799.

Heriot’s contribution to Canadian history is of great significance.

During his time in Canada, he spent a great deal of time travelling, as well as painting and writing. He published two books based on his experience of the country; The History of Canada from its first discovery (1804), and Travels through the Canadas (1807). The latter of these is extensively illustrated with plates made from his own paintings.

Heriot 1807 Quebec withTitle page

Though talented as an administrator, it would appear Heriot had difficulty playing well with others. He seemed to lacked the necessary diplomatic skills that would have led to his promotion and to more power in Canada. He would  often find a release from the tensions of his duties through  travelling, writing, and painting. He wrote The History of Canada, from its first discovery (1804),  and Travels through the Canadas (1807), this latter work is illustrated with stunning aquatint plates of landscape, native and habitant subjects  discovered through his experiences and travels in Canada.

Heriot 1807 Minuet Dance

Heriot 1807 Indian Encampment

In 1816 he resigned from the post office (owing to increasing difficulties with the colonial administration) and returned to Britain. He died in London in July 1839, the cause of death being indicated as “decay of nature.”


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Article written by Julia McLaren, The Lord Durham Report editor (julia@LDRB.ca )

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