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William Berczy (1774-1813)
William Berczy was born Johann Albrecht Ulrich Moll and baptized in 1744 in Wallerstein, Bavaria (now Germany). He was the son of a prominent diplomat. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and the University of Jena. In the 1770s, he earned his living as a merchant and painter, moving between cities in Northern Germany, Poland, Hungary and Croatia, where it is believed he first began using the name William Berczy. In around 1777, he severed all ties with his family and moved to Florence, Italy where he earned his living as a painter of miniatures. It was in Florence that he met the Swiss Jeanne-Charlotte Allamand whom he married in 1785. They remained in Florence until 1790, when they moved to London, England. In 1792, in partnership with British land speculators, Berczy, his wife, and approximately 200 skilled central European settlers left the Continent to develop a tract of land in Western New York. When this first effort at colonization failed, Berczy led the settlers to Upper Canada, where Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe offered them land in return for the clearance of Yonge Street up to the Holland River.
William Berczy thus became a pioneer co-founder of Toronto and the founder of Markham. The settlers Berczy brought to Upper Canada opened a significant section of Yonge Street, the main military and commercial artery north from the provincial capital. When Berczy arrived in York, the new capital of Upper Canada in 1794, the British colony was only three years old, having been severed from Lower Canada by the Constitutional Act of 1791. Yonge Street existed as a narrow surveyor’s line through the bush, starting at what is now Eglinton Avenue. Berczy and the settlers set immediately to clearing what would become the capital’s main thoroughfare and transforming the natural landscape into the beginnings of Toronto and Markham. In the short term, the immigrants struggled, but over time, Berczy obtained permission to settle his immigrants in what is now Markham, where their descendants live today.
Throughout the busy colonizing years, Berczy somehow found the time to paint, although it was only at the end of his life that he began to do so professionally. He was remarkably successful. As an artist, he is known for the portraits he produced during the golden age of painting in early Canada, in the late 18th and early 19th century. The paintings he produced in Toronto and Montreal hold up a mirror to the social elite in Upper and Lower Canada in that period. In addition, his work as a miniaturist has been recognized as among the best in the genre. Two of his paintings, Joseph Brant (c. 1807) and The Woolsey Family (1809) are considered exceptional works.
Although his considerable work as an architect and engineer is not fully understood, Berczy had significant commissions in Upper and Lower Canada that reveal his high reputation. His best-known design and inaugural commission was for Christ Church, Montréal’s first purpose-built Anglican church, later made the city’s Anglican cathedral. His design for Christ Church contributed to the development of architecture in the former French colony, reflecting the tastes of the British regime.
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