A surprise find in the Town Hall

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St Helier's copy of the famous painting of the Battle of Jersey by John Singleton Copley

During a restoration programme of paintings belonging to the parish of St Helier in 1995 a copy of the famous painting by John Singleton Copley of the Battle of Jersey was found to be very much more important, and therefore more valuable, than was first thought.

London Gazette

The battle was reported in the London Gazette, where it was read by John Boydell, a successful engraver, whose business was at 90 Cheapside in London. He eventually became an Alderman and Lord Mayor of London.

He admired the work of a fashionable American artist, John Singleton Copley, who had settled in London and made a considerable reputation for himself painting historic subjects on a grand scale. Boydell's imagination had been captured by the report of the Battle of Jersey and he influenced Copley to paint it.

Copley's painting entitled "The Death of Major Peirson" was unveiled in London in 1784, and was a spectacular success. In 1796 Boydell announced in his new catalogue that James Heath, a respected engraver, had made a plate which said had cost £5,000. He offered prints for four guineas.

In 1864 when Copley's son's estate was auctioned by Christie's, the painting was included in the sale. The States of Jersey bid for the picture but it was was bought by the National Gallery on behalf of the nation.

Learning of the States disappointment in their unsuccessful bid to buy the picture, the President of the Royal Academy wrote to the Bailiff suggesting a compromise. He proposed that a full size copy could be commissioned and suggested the name of William Holyoake, who was the School Curator at the National Gallery at the time. The commission was taken up, and so faithfully did Holyoake copy what was before him, that he included the accumulation of surface dirt, which resulted in a softer, darker version than the original in pristine condition.

Until 1995, the original in 1784, the engraving in 1796, and the Holyoake copy in 1864, were the only recognised versions of "The Death of Major Peirson". There are many copies by amateurs and one apparently formed part of a collection of pictures donated to the Parish of St Helier in 1890.

Picture restoration

The Constable in 1995, Mr Bob Le Brocq, embarked on a programme to restore the collection for the benfit of the parishioners and invited businesses to sponsor paintings of their choice for restoration. Midland Bank agreed to sponsor "The Death of Major Peirson".

While working on the Town Hall's picture, the restorer discovered that the whole picture had at some time been entirely painted over with new paint, and what lay underneath was a very fine late 18th Century version of the original painting. The restorer was also able to remove the original canvas from a later backing to reveal not only the inscription of the proper title of the painting but also the name of the artist and the date when it was done.

The artist was Peter Wright and it was dated 1796. That was significant because almost certainly what the Parish of St Helier owned was the painting commissioned by either James Heath, Boydell's engraver, or Boydell himself, to enable Heath to do the engraving. The original painting by Copley is an enormous work and he would have required an intermediate reference from which to work.

The painting was returned to its usual place in the Public Hall at the Town hall, where it can be appreciated with new pride for what it is - a beautiful 18th Century copy done for a purpose in perpetuating Copley's masterpiece.

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