RICHARDS, WILLIAM, fur trader and watercolour artist; b. c. 1785 in the Fort Albany (Ont.) district of Hudson Bay, possibly at Gloucester House (on Washi Lake, Ont.), son of HBC labourer and interpreter John Richards, and grandson of HBC surgeon William Richards of Neath, Wales; d. 9 July 1811 at Moose Factory (Ont.).
The short and rather humble career of William Richards as a Hudson’s Bay Company canoeman and cooper in James Bay offers little clue as to how he gained proficiency in a European artistic technique. He apparently never travelled to Europe, and whatever education or training he received clearly resulted from the assistance of senior colleagues rather than of British relatives. On only one occasion would he have met his grandfather: in 1794–95 when the latter was serving at Moose. The elder William had been at Albany and at Henley House (near the junction of the Albany and Kenogami rivers) between 1757 and 1769, when he returned home as a result of disputes with chief factor Humphrey Marten*; suspected of smuggling furs, he was then refused re-employment until 1794.
Young William’s contacts with his mixed-blood father, John, were also marked by discontinuity after his first decade of life. Shortly before William’s birth, John Richards and his brother Thomas had been hired as labourers at Albany at £6 annually. The London committee’s terms suggest that they were not intended to advance much higher: Edward Jarvis*, chief at Albany, was told that “in thus employing them as Englishmen, We do not however intend that they should ever be brought to England: We expect that their Abilities be applied to the best Purposes for our Interest.” When their father returned to the bay, however, he managed to secure permission for John to travel back to Britain with him in 1795. John spent the next winter in Wales and rejoined the company in 1796. Within a year his “turbulent” nature, and perhaps his slim chance for advancement (despite his apparent literacy), led him to desert to the North West Company. There is no evidence that he saw his son William thereafter.
William is first mentioned in HBC records on 17 Nov. 1800, the day on which he was apprenticed by John Hodgson*, chief factor at Albany, to cooper James Inkster. In August 1802 he was serving aboard the Albany shallop. By late the next summer he and his uncle Thomas Richards, “a Boat steerer &c,” had left for Moose; Thomas had requested permission for the trip, “to see his old Mother before she dies.” Once at Moose, both men asked chief factor John Thomas* for contracts to serve there, evidently not realizing that such transfers required consent from London. Given “the present situation of affairs” at his post, which like other HBC establishments was employing native-born servants in increasing numbers to make up for a shortage of British labour, Thomas allowed them to stay, meanwhile forwarding their requests to London. The end result was that both uncle and nephew spent the rest of their careers mainly in the Moose area.
In 1804–5 William, a “Canoeman &c” at £8 per annum, served at New Brunswick House (on Brunswick Lake). In 1805–6 he was at Moose except for some inland trips to transport furs and trade goods and later to serve at Fort Kenogamissi (on Kenogamissi Lake). John Thomas characterized him in September 1806 as a good cooper and canoeman, “very zealous & active for the Trade.” Thomas’s support doubtless encouraged London to rehire Richards for another three years at the terms he asked, £20 annually, from the summer of 1807. After a few months at Fort Abitibi (near La Sarre, Que.) and a summer at Moose, Richards was sent aboard the Eastmain schooner in October 1807 as an extra hand. The onset of winter detained him at Eastmain (Que.) until January 1808, when he returned overland to Moose. During his visit unknown circumstances led Eastmain chief factor George Gladman to charge him with “mutinous refractory Conduct” and urge that he be fined as an example to others, but no fine is on record.
From January 1808 to March of the following year Richards continued as canoeman and cooper at Moose. But on 13 March 1809 John Thomas reported Richards ill and unable to work. In May he was “consumptive” and in September “in a rapid decline” although the doctors thought a trip to England might be helpful “next year if he survives.” The next summer brought no improvement, and Thomas noted that Richards’s “allowance of Wages &c must depend on what the charitable Board may please to grant him.” Richards received his wages until he died on 9 July 1811 leaving his widow, Eleanor, and two sons. On that occasion Thomas (then Richards’s father-in-law of some years’ standing) mourned the death of “a useful Servant and remarkable for his genius in drawing.”
Richards had been interested in art since at least 1805, when he is known to have ordered drawing paper and a box of paints from London. It is likely that Thomas encouraged Richards to paint so as to provide portrayals of company posts for the directors in London. Other HBC men, including Humphrey Marten, had used models or plans to describe the posts to their employers, but Richards was not merely a draughtsman: there is human interest as well in his illustration of ice-fishing, wood-cutting, and other local activities. One painting, for instance, is entitled A man & his wife returning with a load of partridges from their tent. All of the surviving paintings show fine detail, and in them Richards attains considerable realism despite some difficulties with perspective and scale. The attention paid to shading and to cloud effects above the flat James Bay landscape suggests that, aside from his own talent, Richards developed his skills with the aid of some colleague familiar with the techniques of his chosen medium.
The PAM, HBCA, holds three water-colours by William Richards, entitled A man & his wife returning with a load of partridges from their tent, A south-east view of Albany Factory, and A view of Eastmain Factory; a fourth, untitled and unsigned, has been identified as being by Richards from its similarity to his East view of Moose Factory, in the collection of the Glenbow-Alberta Institute (Calgary).
Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Moosonee Arch. (Schumacher, Ont.), Diocese of Moosonee papers, ser.iii, “Register of births, christenings, deaths and other occurrences at Moose Factory and its inland dependencies belonging to the Honble. Hudson’s Bay Company” (mfm. at AO). PAM, HBCA, A.1/40, 43–44, 47; A.6/13; A.16/6, 16–17; A.30/4, 10; B.3/a/104–5; B.59/a/1–122; B.135/a/ 91–97; B.135/b/27; B.135/f/1–8; B.155/a/12; C.1/740–41. A. M. Johnson, “James Bay artist William Richards,” Beaver, outfit 298 (summer 1967): 4–10.