The story of Copley's painting

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John Singleton Copley's famous painting of the Death of Major Peirson during the Battle of Jersey

News of the British victory in Jersey was enthusiastically greeted in England. John Boydell, a successful engraver and printseller, immediately commissioned a painting from John Singleton Copley.

Why Copley?

One of the reasons the victory in Jersey was so welcome was that things were going bad for Britain in the American War of Independence on the other side of the Atlantic. So why choose Copley, who was an American, as the artist?

Copley was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1737 and was brought up over his mother’s tobacco shop after his father died in the West Indies when he was a baby. His mother married artist Peter Pelham, who ran a school where his stepson learnt the rudiments of art, before Pelham also died when John was only 13.

Battle-sketch-1.jpg
Battle-sketch-2.jpg
Original sketches for Copley's painting

The young Copley turned his hand to portrait painting and engraving and a portrait of his step-brother so impressed Joshua Reynolds when it was taken to London that the young artist was urged to follow it across the Atlantic. But Copley was establishing a growing reputation in Boston and remained there, marrying Susannah Clarke in 1769.

Through his father-in-law Copley became embroiled in the notorious Boston Tea Party in 1773 and set off afterwards on an artistic tour of Europe, followed two years later by his wife and four children.

Copley was known in London as a loyalist and an accomplished artist and he joined the Royal Academy. His reputation grew and it was little surprise that he was chosen by Boydell to paint the story of the Battle of Jersey.

Tate description

Tate Collection description of the painting:

”The theme of the modern noble hero expiring at the scene of battle was established by Benjamin West, who, like Copley, was American by birth. Copley increased the drama of the event by making the moment of Peirson's death coincide with the British victory over the French, rather than earlier in the battle. The picture is full of movement and colour, but is also carefully orchestrated.
”Peirson's body in the centre of the picture offers a splash of white against the red of the soldiers' jackets, and appears to topple forward out of the painting. The group of men who support him, like figures in a Deposition, are crowned by the Union Jack, a symbol of Britain's victory.
”To their left, the black servant, Pompey, has just shot the French sniper in the background. To the right of the picture, a terrified family (modelled on Copley's own wife, family nurse and children), attempt to flee from the scene. Many of the officers in the painting are said to be accurate portraits and Pompey was modelled by the black servant of the auctioneer James Christie.
”The setting for the picture is also carefully depicted, looking towards Royal Square along what is now Peirson Place, with the statue of George II in the background.

When the picture was first exhibited publicly in May 1784, crowds of people came to see it and, according to one critic, 'the chorus of praise reached all the way to Buckingham Palace'

Picture sold and resold

Many Jersey families bought prints of the painting, but the engraver, John Boydell, ran into financial difficulties in 1804 and when his property was put up for disposal by lottery, a popular process at the time, the Copley painting was the first prize. It was won by a Mr Tassie, who then sold it at auction.

It appears to have been bought back by Boydell, because in 1805 he again put it up for auction at Christie’s. It was not sold, and then Coply bought it back from Boydell, although he was also in financial difficulties, and may have been helped by his lawyer son, John.

He died in 1863 and the painting was among his assets which were put up for sale at Christie’s. The States of Jersey determined to buy it for £1,000 or less, but were outbid by the National Gallery, which paid £1,600.

The President of the Royal Academy suggested to Bailiff Hammond that a copy was commissioned and recommended a young artist, William Holyoake. He was given permission to work on the painting on public days and it was duly completed and now hangs in the Royal Court.

There is a second painting of the Battle of Jersey , by English artist Edward Francis Burney, which now belongs to La Société Jersiaise.

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