Accurately Illustrating the Midnight Ride

Our picture of history changes as our research improves—here’s how that impacted One April in Boston and The Midnight Ride Artwork Project

by Cortney Skinner  | 02.19.21

When Ben Edwards commissioned me to create 20 pen and ink illustrations for his children’s book One April in Boston in 1999, the challenge was to make these illustrations as historically accurate as possible. Back then, the internet was in its infancy. My research was done the old-fashioned way, using my own reference library as well as the local town library. At the time, I lived in Arlington, Massachusetts, mere yards from the route that the British retreat took as they fought their way back to Boston after the fight at Lexington and Concord. Having been born in Cambridge in the midst of so many historic sites of the Revolution, and having been involved in living history for decades, I looked forward to this assignment and a chance to employ my illustration work for such a fascinating story.

Ben Edwards and the staff at the Paul Revere Memorial Association helped greatly with the research they had available, but much was left up to my own interpretation in some of the scenes to be illustrated. One such scene was Paul Revere’s escape from the British patrol in Charlestown on the evening of April 18, 1775. At the time, about the only primary reference available for this scene was Paul Revere’s own 1775 deposition about this event. In his own words he wrote:

“I had got almost over Charlestown Common towards Cambridge when I saw two officers on horse back standing under the shade of a Tree, In a narrow part of the Road. I got near enough to see their holsters & Cockades.”

Aside from not knowing the landscape in which this event occurred, I had also mistakenly interpreted Revere’s word, “shade” as meaning that there were leaves on the trees. I should have known better, living a block away from where Revere passed 224 years earlier, and being familiar with the local foliage in April. But to me back then, “shade” meant leaves. You can see the illustration I produced for the first edition of the book (published in 2000) here. Revere is on his horse wearing his familiar surtout with two British officers in the background, one brandishing a flintlock pistol under a tree lush with… foliage. Oops.

Flash forward almost 20 years to 2018 when Ben Edwards commissioned me to create ten full color paintings illustrating Paul Revere’s ride as accurately as possible for his “Midnight Ride Artwork Project.” This heavily researched series, that took over two years to complete, included a painting of Paul Revere eluding capture by two British officers in Charlestown. At this point, the internet had matured and not only offered a doorway into historic archives around the country, but also connections to experts and historians on the subject of 18th-century Revolutionary history.

In preparing to do this painting, I discovered a goldmine in the form of a 1775 map by Henry Pelham showing Charlestown at the time of Revere’s escape from the British patrol. This map supplied me with a basic idea of the buildings and landscape around the area where Revere had eluded the patrol… but where exactly was the spot where it occurred? There was a stone marker in Somerville (then part of Charlestown) locating the alleged spot, but that couldn’t inform me of how it looked in 1775. Though this Pelham map had been well-known for a long time, I discovered a tiny detail that may have been overlooked for over two centuries since Pelham had the map engraved. This was the key to my quest, for it precisely identified the spot where Revere had spotted the patrol and reversed his course.

On this map, on the road to Cambridge at the western corner of the Charlestown Common is a tiny upside down “L” no larger than an eighth of an inch. Without any context, it’s easily overlooked. It’s just a tiny dark mark on an otherwise richly detailed and descriptive map. However, it was Paul Revere himself who seemed to reach out over the centuries to give me the context I needed to pinpoint where he was almost captured. From his 1798 deposition on his midnight ride:

“After I had passed Charlestown Neck, & got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British officer. One tryed to git a head of Me, & the other to take me. I turned my Horse very quick, & Galloped towards Charlestown neck, and then pushed for the Medford Road. The one who chased me, endeavoring to Cut me off, got into a Clay pond, near where the new Tavern is now built. I got clear of him…”

That spot “where Mark was hung in chains” was the gallows or gibbet indicated on the map by Henry Pelham as that tiny upside-down “L.” With that landmark to locate where Revere abruptly ended his ride to Cambridge and instead turned his horse towards the road to Medford, I was able to identify the landscape where this scene took place. As you can see in the preliminary sketch for my painting, shown below, a gibbet or gallows sits in the background near the road and in between Revere and the British officer. Using the Pelham map, I located the woods where Revere saw the “two officers on horse back standing under the shade of a Tree” as well as the clay pond where one officer was mired in the mud and was left behind by Revere. There are also two structures on the Pelham map (to the right of the gibbet) which I included in the painting. Being more mindful of the seasonal changes of trees, I was careful to make them appropriately bare of leaves. Thank you Henry and Paul for collaborating with me to make this painting as accurate as possible. The finished artwork can be seen at the 1:24 mark in the video at the end of this post.
And so, as Ben Edwards prepared the 2020, updated edition of One April In Boston, I leafed (no pun intended) through the previous edition. That’s when I noticed that, in the pen and ink drawing that I did in 1999… there were those leaves on the trees! After conferring on this illustration, Ben and I agreed that a new one was needed, since one objective of the 20th anniversary edition of the book was to make sure any historical errors that had slipped through years ago were corrected.

For the new drawing, a vertical composition was required rather than the horizontal one of the painting. However, this time, with the research previously done for the painting, I could illustrate the clay pond, the mud, the gibbet, one of the buildings on Pelham’s map and the woods where the British officers stood in wait to intercept any patriot couriers.

The first attempt at this new pen and ink illustration required a do-over. Paul’s face was hidden under his hat, and I was dissatisfied with the composition and how the night sky was delineated. The one that appears in the 20th anniversary edition of One April in Boston illustrates a better connection between the nearer British Officer and Revere, as Revere glanced back, spurring his horse forward as he splashed though the mud in the road. The starry night sky is seen through the branches of the bare tree (look, no leaves!) which bring the viewer’s eye down to Revere.

Revere’s adventure was quite an adventure for me as well, encountering new research and connecting two historical sources to create a new, improved and more accurate portrayal of Revere’s momentous evening.

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The Spyglass Blog was created to mark the 20th anniversary of the children’s book One April in Boston. Here the author and illustrator share the stories behind the illustrations, give insight into the artistic process, and introduce related artwork Ben Edwards shares on his Walking Boston private tour. SpyglassBlog.com

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