The Story of the Earliest Inner Grand Canyon Painting, Discovered in a Small English Country Auction
In 2021, Graham Ratcliffe, discovered a painting that had come up for sale at a small country auction, in England’s Lake District, that took him totally by surprise. It was of the stunning painting of the inner Grand Canyon, where it cuts through the Kaibab Plateau. A point at which the canyon is at its deepest, over six thousand feet. Ratcliffe, having been down the canyon twice with AzRA, realized this painting might be special. He decided to uncover the mystery behind the dramatic painting.
Below are his words describing the twists and turns he took, as he sought to solve the origin of the artwork and timing of the painting. He reached the conclusion that this is the earliest known painting of the Inner Grand Canyon.
From Graham Ratcliffe
“The canvas was initialed G.S.B. and dated 1882, which is early in the exploration of the Grand Canyon, as only a handful of Smithsonian/US Geological Survey backed explorers had been through the canyon by this time. To most people it would have been just a 19th Century painting of the Grand Canyon, without them understanding the significance. The Grand Canyon was the last great land exploration in Continental USA, which was far later than most people realized.
I went through all the documented paintings, including those held by the Smithsonian. Try as I might I was unable to find an earlier full palette oil painting of the Inner Grand Canyon….anywhere. This one, as far as he could ascertain, was the earliest that exists. There are a couple of earlier grisailles (black and white oils on canvas) resulting from Powell’s Expeditions, which I presume had used pencil drawings as their reference.
John Wesley PowelI’s Expedition rafted through the Grand Canyon, for the first time, in 1869 and just made it out. Three abandoned the trip partway through and climbed out of the canyon because the river was terrifyingly dangerous; they were killed by Indians on their journey across the plateau. Powell repeated the journey in 1871/72 with better equipment, stronger boats, and 10 months’ worth of supplies; to survey the main canyon and numerous side canyons, which he did with limited success. Powell rose to instant fame in the US, being described nationally as the man of the decade, having undertaken the last great land exploration in Continental USA. He was made Director of the US Geographical Survey, with the appropriate title of Professor John Wesley Powell.
I went through the historical literature looking for someone with the initials G. S. B., who had been through the canyon with either Powell’s expeditions, or with Clarence Dutton, who had been instructed by Powell to repeat the work with greater accuracy. No one with the initials G.S.B. had been through the canyon. I found the enigma of the signature perplexing. The canvas had clearly been painted by someone who had experienced the Inner Canyon firsthand. By coincidence, I’ve rafted the full length of the canyon on two occasions. The painting brought back so many memories.
It was when I looked again at the painting that I realized that what I thought was a ‘G’ was in fact an ‘S’, which the painter had crossed out with a single line of white paint and had inserted, squeezed in, an ‘S’ in a style that he was happier with, just how a correction would be made at that time by someone with professional training, such as a Topographer. I revisited historical literature. There was only one person who had been through the Grand Canyon with the initials S.B., a Topographer by the name of Sumner Bodfish, who had been instructed by Clarence Dutton to survey the deepest section of the Grand Canyon, to which this painting pertains.
I contacted the archives of the US Geological Survey in Denver, to enquire what historical records they had on file. Amongst these were two digitized copies of Bodfish’s handwritten field maps from 1880/1881, which they were able to supply me with, as PDFs. I wanted to see if these were either signed or initialed, and to go through examples of his formal and informal handwriting, looking specifically at how he formed those particular letters of the alphabet. I found similar examples of both S and B within the handwritten documents. I have the PDFs on file.
It was Powell who had brought Sumner Bodfish into the US Geological Survey in 1878. Powell’s mapping of the Grand Canyon, although groundbreaking, had been romanticized to a degree and was not a fully accurate representation. He charged Clarence Dutton to complete the work in greater detail, in 1879/80, a task that was then given to Sumner Bodfish.
The painting is a view from the same location as the engraving that was prepared by Thomas Moran for Powell’s 1874 Report to Congress, but it is most definitely not a copy of Moran’s work. The places to pull in/overnight in this section of the canyon are limited to say the least, and Sumner Bodfish will have used exactly the same places as his predecessors. His painting shows the reality of what this section of the canyon actually looks like, not the version that Thomas Moran prepared for Powell’s 1874 report. I believe Moran prepared his drawing/engraving for the 1874 report from photographs, or drawings, taken/made by those who had entered the Grand Canyon during the 1871-1872 expedition with John Wesley Powell. Moran himself had spent little, if any, time on the river, but was instructed by Powell to travel overland on horseback from Salt Lake City, aided by Dellenbaugh, to the Virgin River, then up onto the North Rim. The drawing by Moran was made to look more dramatic than reality, probably on the instruction of Powell, who wanted the images to be even more spectacular for his report to Congress, with an eye on future funding.
There was praise from Clarence Dutton in his Tertiary History of the Grand Canon District (the ‘n’ in canon having an inflection over rather than the use of a ‘y’).
‘In the summer of 1879 Messers Bodfish and Renshawe were employed in making detailed maps of more than ordinary accuracy, the former in the Kaibab, the latter in the Unikaret. Mr Renshawe completed his fieldwork that season and finished his map in the office the following winter. But Mr. Bodfish’s work was much more extensive and difficult, requiring another field season. Both are entitled to high praise for their skill and ability, which they have proven in their results.’
My presumption is that Sumner Bodfish painted the work a year or so after he completed the survey, from colored sketches he had made at the time of the survey. There is no record of this painting anywhere, mostly likely because Sumner Bodfish will have painted it for himself. It had slipped under the radar and has remained that way ever since. Bodfish passed away in 1894. The painting will have either been sold or inherited by a member of the family.
There are earlier Grand Canyon paintings, but these look into the expanse of the Grand Canyon from the Rim; in these the scale is so huge that the Inner Canyon appears in the depths as split at the bottom of the canyon floor, which in turn conceals the Colorado River. Of these earlier paintings, the most notable were by Thomas Moran (1837-1926), who as it happens was born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, not that far from Penrith, where I bought this painting at auction.
The Auction House kindly agreed to forward a letter to the vendor of the painting, to which I received a reply. The vendor had bought the painting some 25 years earlier, along with some other American artifacts, from a family who had relocated to Lancashire from Pennsylvania. How the painting made its way from Arizona to Pennsylvania, before it was taken to the United Kingdom, must have been a most interesting journey.” ~ Graham Ratcliffe
We thank Graham for all for all the time took researching this beautiful old painting of the inner canyon and for sharing his story with us!