Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Copley, John Singleton (1737-1815)
COPLEY, JOHN SINGLETON, the elder (1737–1815), portrait-painter, born at Boston, Massachusetts, 3 July 1737, was the son of Richard Copley, a native of the county of Limerick, and Mary Singleton, daughter of John Singleton of Quinville Abbey, county Clare. Both families were of English origin, the Copleys a Yorkshire, the Singletons an old Lancashire family, who had settled in Ireland in 1661. Richard and Mary Copley emigrated in 1736, immediately after their marriage, to Boston, where the former died in the following year, leaving only one child, the future artist. Ten years afterwards, 22 May 1747, his widow married Mr. Peter Pelham of Boston, who died in 1751, leaving one son, Henry Pelham, who also became an artist, and attained some eminence in England as a miniature painter, but ultimately settled down in Ireland as the manager of Lord Lansdowne's estates there. The elder Pelham was a man of superior education, and esteemed as a portrait-painter and engraver. He was, according to Whitmore, an American authority, ‘the founder of these arts in New England.’ It was probably due to his influence that Copley showed in later life that he had been carefully educated, and had early become familiar with the best English literature. His bias for art, developed in early boyhood, was fostered and directed by his stepfather, who taught him to engrave as well as to paint. In both arts he had early made considerable progress, for portraits of undoubted merit, executed by him when he was fifteen or sixteen, still exist. The engraving of one of these, a likeness of the Rev. William Welsteed of Boston, bears the date 1753, with the inscription, ‘J. S. Copley pinxit et fecit.’ By 1755 his talent was so far recognised that General (then Colonel) George Washington sat to him for his portrait, and he seems to have found in the succeeding years a good deal to do in painting the portraits of local and other celebrities. From 1758 onwards he made rapid strides in his art, both as a draughtsman and colourist. Of two of his portraits, Colonel and Mrs. Lee, painted in 1769, he often spoke in his later years as of an excellence which he never surpassed. Mrs. Pelham and her son moved in the best society of Boston, and that society was composed of remarkable elements, in which learning and general culture, statesmanship and business capacity, borrowed refinement from the presence of many women conspicuous for beauty and accomplishments. Copley was not the only artist there. The younger Smibert, Greenwood, and Blackburn all practised as portrait-painters. From these he could not have learned much, though his pictures of this period, it is said, show that he had imitated and surpassed Blackburn in the treatment of his draperies, in which Blackburn excelled. There were a few good pictures by European masters in Boston, to which Copley, of course, had access, among them two portraits by Vandyck and one by Sir Godfrey Kneller. But, like most men of genius, Copley had to trust to his own persistent study and practice and his close habit of observation for those qualities in his pictures which gave them value. The multitude of his portraits executed in America is sufficient proof of his industry and conscientiousness. His prices were of a very modest character, but by 1771 they had placed him in fairly comfortable circumstances. He is described by a Colonel Trumbull, who then visited him, as ‘living in a beautiful house fronting on a fine open common; attired in a crimson velvet suit, laced with gold, and having everything about him in very handsome style.’ His income, it appears from one of his letters, was ‘three hundred guineas a year, equal to nine hundred a year in London,’ and in 1773 he was the owner of about eleven acres of land, ‘the fine open common’ above spoken of, on which the finest and most populous portion of the city of Boston is now built. On 16 Nov. 1769 Copley married Miss Susannah Farnum Clarke, daughter of Richard Clarke, a leading Boston merchant, soon afterwards famous as the consignee of the cargoes of tea which were thrown into the sea at Boston (16 Dec. 1773) by the citizens of Boston, disguised as Mohawk Indians, by way of protest against the tea duties recently imposed by England. It was characteristic of Copley's conscientious nature that he did not marry until he was able to offer to the beautiful, accomplished, and amiable woman whom he made his wife the assurance of a settled home, and the companionship of a man whose work was even then recognised in England as giving promise of a great future. In 1766, not 1760, as stated by Allan Cunningham and other biographers, he had sent to his countryman, Benjamin West, then for three years established in London, a picture representing a boy, his half-brother, Henry Pelham, seated at a table with a squirrel. The picture showed the hand of a master. No letter accompanied it, but that it was from America West concluded from the canvas being stretched on American pine, and the squirrel being a flying squirrel peculiar to its western forests. Conjecture as to the artist was subsequently removed by a letter from Copley requesting West's good offices to get it into the exhibition of the Society of Incorporated Artists. This was a privilege denied by the rules of the society to all but members. Such, however, were the merits of the picture, that the rule was waived, and Copley's reputation was at once established among his English brethren. Next year he sent over for exhibition by the society, of which he was now admitted a member, a full-length portrait of a young lady with a bird and a dog. This picture, as well as that of the previous year, had an interest beyond that of mere portraiture. Both were sent over to be sold, ‘should any one be inclined to purchase them,’ Copley writes to an English friend, ‘at such a price as you may think proper.’ Sold they probably were at a higher price than they would have fetched in America. But ‘The Boy with the Squirrel,’ if it ever was sold, came again into the hands of the painter. It remained one of the most cherished possessions of his son, Lord Lyndhurst [see Copley, John Singleton, the younger, Lord Lyndhurst], and after his death was bought (5 March 1864) for 230 guineas at the sale of his pictures by Mrs. Amory of Boston, a granddaughter of the artist. Desire to see the masterpieces of antique art, and more particularly of the great painters of Italy, and the natural ambition to try his fate in competition with the living artists of the age, had by this time taken a strong hold of Copley's mind. But the hazards of the venture were serious. ‘I might in the experiment,’ he writes to a friend in England, ‘waste a thousand pounds and two years of my time, and have to return baffled to America.’ In 1768 he leaves it to his friend West's more experienced judgment to say whether or not the time was ripe for his coming to Europe, begging him at the same time not to let ‘benevolent wishes for his welfare induce a more favourable opinion of his works than they deserved.’ His marriage in the following year, and the birth in rapid succession of three children, the eldest and youngest daughters, and the second the future Lord Lyndhurst, postponed for a time the thought of the visit to Europe. This could not be thought of until money had been earned by his pencil for the expenses of his tour and the maintenance of his family during his absence. The prospect of a troubled future for America, resulting from its uneasy relations with the mother country, was no doubt present to Copley's mind when he left Boston to cross the Atlantic in June 1774, leaving his family behind him. A cordial welcome greeted him in England. Strange (afterwards Sir Robert), the great engraver, and Sir Joshua Reynolds called on him. West took him to see all that was best in art in London, and, along with Sir Joshua, was at pains to find sitters for him during the brief interval between his arrival in London and his departure for the continent. He began portraits of the king and queen for Governor Wentworth. ‘I might,’ he writes to his wife from Rome (26 Oct. 1774), ‘have begun many pictures in London if I had pleased, and several persons are waiting my return to employ me.’ But it was all-important for him to make his visit to the galleries of the continent without loss of time. The relations between England and America were becoming more strained every day, and he could not say how soon he might have to decide between returning to Boston and bringing over his family to England. Leaving England on 21 Aug. he reached Rome in October by way of Lyons, Marseilles, Genoa, Pisa, and Florence. A Mr. Carter, an artist, who could speak French and Italian, which Copley could not, accompanied him. Carter, says Allan Cunningham, was ‘a captious, cross-grained, and self-conceited person,’ and in a journal of his tour which he kept he tried to present Copley in a most disadvantageous light, as selfish and stiff-necked in his opinions. Copley, on the other hand, had a mean opinion of Carter's abilities and breeding, and in later life spoke of him as ‘a sort of snail which crawled over a man in his sleep, and left its slime and no more.’ In person Carter described Copley—and, allowing for a tinge of ill-nature, his description may be trusted—as ‘very thin, pale, a little pock-marked, prominent eyebrows, small eyes, which after fatigue seemed a day's march in his head.’ Copley's letters from Italy to his wife have been preserved, and they may be more safely relied on for a picture of his mind and character than Carter's splenetic caricature. ‘Could I address you,’ he writes from Geneva (8 Oct. 1774), ‘by any name more dear than that of wife, I should delight in using it when I write; but how tender soever the name may be, it is insufficient to convey the attachment I have for you.’ His dominant thought is to get through the studies he has set before him, that their separation may be as short as possible, ‘for till we are together I have as little happiness as yourself. As soon as possible you shall know what my prospects are in England, and then you will be able to determine whether it is best for you to go there or for me to return to America.’ Meanwhile revolution in America had become imminent, and it appears by a letter from Rome (26 Oct. 1774) that Copley had heard from his wife that things were in such a state that she would not regret leaving Boston. This, he says, will determine him to stay in England, where he has no doubt he will find as much to do as in Boston and on better terms. One pang he has, the loss of his property in Boston. ‘I cannot count it anything now; I believe I shall sink it all. … I wish I had sold my whole place; I should then have been worth something. I do not know now that I have a shilling in the world.’ His deep anxiety about his home only quickened his study of the triumphs of art around him. ‘I shall always,’ he writes (Rome, 5 Nov. 1774), ‘enjoy a satisfaction from this tour which I could not have had if I had not made it. I know the extent of the arts, to what length they have been carried, and I feel more confidence in what I do myself than before I came.’ The next letter from his wife satisfied him that England must be his future home. The next few months were devoted to the study of the best works of art in Rome, Naples, Bologna, Parma, Modena, and Venice. With little to learn as a colourist, having already established a distinct and admirable style of his own, his attention was chiefly directed to the masterpieces of ancient sculpture, with a view to correcting his deficiencies as a draughtsman. As he had not time to make all the studies he wished, he purchased casts of a few of the finest statues in Rome, ‘for even in Rome,’ he says truly, ‘the number of the very excellent is not great.’ The casts arrived in England a mass of fragments, having been badly packed, a disappointment which Lord Lyndhurst used to say his father never ceased to mourn throughout his life. War had now broken out in America. Copley had all along maintained that this would be the result of the attempt to tax the colony, and he was equally confident that once begun it would not close until independence had been secured. He was at Parma engaged upon a copy of the St. Jerome of Correggio when he learned to his surprise and inexpressible relief that his wife had reached England (28 June 1775) safely with three of her children: Elizabeth, born in 1770; John Singleton, born 21 May 1772; and Mary, born in 1773. A son, born after Copley left Boston, and who died there soon afterwards, remained behind with Copley's mother, who was too feeble to bear the voyage, and with her son Henry Pelham. Knowing that his wife and children were well cared for on reaching England by her brother-in-law, Mr. Bromfield, Copley visited the galleries of Austria, Germany, and Holland before returning to London, which he reached in December 1776. He at once settled down to work, first in a house in Leicester Fields, from which he subsequently removed to 25 George Street, Hanover Square, where the rest of his life was spent, and which was occupied by his son until his death in 1863. Copley, who was made A.R.A. in 1776 and R.A. in 1779, now felt that he need not confine himself to portrait-painting, but might safely indulge a long-cherished ambition, and follow the example of West in painting pictures of historical or imaginative interest. The first of these, ‘A Youth rescued from a Shark,’ illustrative of an accident which occurred to Mr. (afterwards Sir) Brook Watson in the harbour of Havannah, was exhibited in 1779. It was presented by Copley to Christ's Hospital School, and in a fine mezzotint by Valentine Green became and is still familiar on many a wall in England. His reputation as a portrait-painter was enhanced by a fine picture which contained portraits of himself, his father-in-law, Mr. Clarke, who had been driven from America, his wife, and four children, a work which was greatly admired when last publicly seen in England, at the Great Exhibition of 1862, for its composition, drawing, force of expression, and fine colour. It hung on the walls of the house in George Street until the death of Lord Lyndhurst, when it was bought for a thousand guineas by Mr. Charles S. Amory of Boston, U.S., husband of a granddaughter of Copley's. It is said to have been materially injured in the hands of a cleaner to whom it was entrusted after the sale. Commissions for portraits at good prices were not wanting. While busy with these Copley had the happy thought of perpetuating on canvas the remarkable incident of Lord Chatham's last appearance in the House of Lords (7 April 1778). The picture is of high value because of the number of portraits, carefully studied from the life, which it contains. In it Copley has preserved the remarkable incident, not generally known, that while the whole house rose, every member of it showing interest and concern, the Earl of Mansfield, who bore Lord Chatham a determined animosity, sat still, as Lord Camden, who was present, writes in a letter to the Duke of Grafton (see Stanhope, England, vi. 45, ed. 1853), ‘almost as much unmoved as the senseless body itself.’ The picture, now, together with the sketch for it (in which the Earl of Mansfield is standing), in the National Gallery, created great interest. Two thousand five hundred copies of it, engraved by Bartolozzi in his best style, were rapidly sold. Copies were sent to Boston and were hailed with pride by Copley's fellow-citizens. His mother, writing thence (6 Feb. 1788), tells him: ‘Your fame, my dear son, is sounded by all who are lovers of the art you bid fair to excel in.’ Fine as this work is, considering the difficulty of the subject, it yields in charm and artistic value to another picture of Copley's painted in 1783 for Alderman Boydell's gallery, which is now also in the National Gallery, of ‘The Death of Major Pierson’ in repelling the attack of the French at St. Helier, Jersey (6 Jan. 1781). The woman flying from the crowd in terror with a child in her arms was painted from a young American woman, the nurse of Copley's family; the figure between her and the wall is Mrs. Copley, who, as this and other pictures show, was as remarkable for her beauty as by all accounts she was for her worth; the boy in a green dress running by the nurse's side is young Copley, afterwards Lord Lyndhurst. This picture, for which the nation gave sixteen hundred guineas in 1864, had every justice done to it by Sharp, whose engraving from it is much prized by collectors. These works established Copley's reputation as an historical painter, and secured him a commission from the corporation of London for a very large picture painted in 1789–90, now in the Guildhall, of ‘The Repulse and Defeat of the Spanish Floating Batteries at Gibraltar’ (13 Sept. 1782). Having to introduce into it the portraits of four Hanoverian generals, Copley, accompanied by his wife and eldest daughter, went to Hanover to paint their likenesses, furnished with an autograph letter of introduction from George III, which secured for them a most hospitable reception. In society they met the Charlotte of Goethe's ‘Werther,’ but were sorely disappointed to find in her none of the charm with which the novelist had invested her in what was to them a favourite romance. This picture, no common work, but not wholly pleasing, was also finely engraved by Sharp. Another of his historical pictures, ‘The Surrender of Admiral de Windt to Admiral Duncan’ (afterwards Lord Camperdown), near Camperdown (11 Oct. 1797), helped to maintain his popularity. He also painted a fine portrait of Admiral Duncan, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798, and engraved, but remained in the family of the artist till Lord Lyndhurst's death. The larger picture was bought by Lord Camperdown in 1802 for a thousand guineas, and is now at Camperdown, the family seat in Scotland. Another of Copley's best historical pictures, now in the public library of Boston, U.S., for which it was bought by subscription, represents Charles I demanding in the House of Commons (4 Jan. 1642) the surrender of Hampden, Pym, Hollis, and Hazelrigg. This work, begun in 1785, occupied some years in execution. It contained no fewer than fifty-eight likenesses, all taken from contemporary portraits, which in most cases had to be studied by Copley in the country houses where they were preserved, it being his invariable rule to spare no pains in giving to his historical pieces the interest of actual portraiture. This picture, unhappily lost to England, is warmly prized in its home across the Atlantic, where every work that came from Copley's hand while in America has been carefully chronicled, and his name, as one of Boston's sons, is cherished with genuine pride. It has been given to Copley Square, one of the finest features of the town—a square, built upon part of the property above mentioned as belonging to Copley. This property, which if preserved to the family would have been in itself a fine fortune, was unfortunately sacrificed either by the malversation or ignorance of Copley's agent. Young Copley went over to America in 1795 in the hope of recovering it, but found there was no alternative but to accept of a compromise of all his father's claims for a few thousand pounds. This loss fell heavily upon Copley. He had a strong personal attachment to the property, and to lose it became every day more serious, with the expenses of a rising family growing upon him, and the demand for his pictures falling off during the protracted European war, when the purses of the British public were too much exhausted to have much to spare for works of art. ‘At this moment,’ Copley writes to his son-in-law Mr. Green (4 March 1812), ‘all pursuits which are not among those which are the essentials of life are at an end.’ Still Copley worked on with untiring industry. He was especially happy in a home presided over by a wife conspicuous no less for good sense than for her sweet and cultivated manners, and in children who loved him, and gave him no pain, who appreciated his genius, and vied with each other in making him forget the anxieties of contracted means. To the last he was a true enthusiast in his art. With his brush in his hand every care and anxiety, Lord Lyndhurst used to say, was forgotten. He loved books also. His daughters read to him while he worked, and when his easel work for the day was done, he turned to his favourite poets for refreshment and relaxation. In 1800 his eldest daughter was most happily married to Mr. Gardiner Greene, a merchant of Boston, U.S. From this gentleman, and from his own son, who was making his way successfully at the bar, Copley received very considerable assistance in his later years. In August 1815 he was struck down by paralysis, and died on 9 Sept. following. His debts were found largely to exceed the value of his estate, but they were undertaken by his son and fully discharged. He was survived by Mrs. Copley, who died in 1836 at the age of ninety-one, and by his daughter Mary, who attained the great age of ninety-five, dying in 1868. The industry of Copley never flagged. Before he left America it has been ascertained that he had executed at least 290 oil paintings, forty crayon portraits, and nineteen miniatures. These have all along been highly prized by his countrymen, many of whom seized the opportunity of a visit to Europe to have their portraits painted by him. It is probably by his portraits that Copley's reputation will be longest maintained. There are many of them scattered throughout England. As a rule they bear the stamp of individuality, are well modelled, and rich in colour. In Buckingham Palace a fine specimen of what he could do in this way exists in the portraits of three daughters of George III playing in a garden, where the accessories are imagined, and treated with a fancy and care that are characteristic of the thoroughness which Copley put into his work. It has been engraved, as most of Copley's important pictures were, but the engraving does no justice to the picture. Copley, like Reynolds, made experiments in colours, but not, like Reynolds, so far as we can ascertain, to the prejudice of his pictures. Allan Cunningham, who had seen the fine specimens of his work which Lord Lyndhurst collected wherever he could, and which at his death were again scattered, speaks highly of Copley's powers as a colourist. His ‘Samuel reproving Saul for sparing the Amalekites’ is mentioned by him as ‘a fine bit of colouring, with good feeling and good drawing too.’ ‘Copley,’ he adds, ‘shares with West the reproach of want of natural warmth, uniting much stateliness with little passion.’ This is, no doubt, to some extent, true of some of his imaginative works, such as his ‘Abraham's Sacrifice,’ ‘Samuel and Eli,’ ‘Hagar and Ishmael,’ and ‘The Red Cross Knight;’ but his age was not favourable to the freedom and realistic force which marked the treatment of similar subjects by the old masters, and which are justly demanded from the modern school. In colouring Copley avoided the opaque and monotonous smoothness of West. He always kept nature before him, and had no fear, as many of his contemporaries had, that she ‘would put him out.’ Many of his best pictures have gone to America; but his merits being now better appreciated in England, those that remain with us are not likely to leave the country. His portrait, a fine work by Gilbert Stewart, engraved in Cunningham's ‘Lives of the Painters,’ where it is erroneously ascribed to Gainsborough, is that of a man of marked character, of a contemplative and dreamy disposition, and at the same time of great tenacity of purpose. It is now in the possession of Lady Lyndhurst.
[Domestic and Artistic Life of John Singleton Copley, Boston, U.S., 1884, by Mrs. Martha Badcock Amory, daughter of Copley's eldest daughter, Mrs. Greene; Cunningham's Lives of the Painters, &c., ed. 1833, vol. v.; Sketch of the Life and List of some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, by Augustus Thorndike Perkins, Boston, U.S., 1873; Life of Lord Lyndhurst, by Sir Theodore Martin; family papers.]