Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley (1778)

When I first set eyes on today’s featured painting I thought it was something to do with Herman Melville’s characters, Moby Dick and Captain Ahab but it also reminded me somewhat of Théodore Géricault’s painting Raft of Medusa (see My Daily Art Display June 10th 2011).  Of course it is neither.  Today’s featured work of art is all about two men, John Singleton Copley and the subject of the painting, Brook Watson.  My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Watson and the Shark and was completed by John Singleton Copley, the American artist, in 1778.  In My Daily Art Display March 6th 2012 The Copley Family, I gave you a short biography of the artist’s life, so you may want to look back to that blog to find more about this talented American painter.  Today however I will concentrate on the subject of Copley’s work, Brook Watson.

Brook Watson, who would later become Sir Brook Watson, 1st Baronet, was born in Plymouth, Devon in 1735.  He was the only son of John and Sarah Watson (née Schofield), who both died when Brook was just six years of age.  After their deaths, he went to live with his aunt and uncle in Boston Massachusetts.  His uncle was a merchant and ship owner whose livelihood came from the import and export of goods to the West Indies.  Probably with living at this American port and seeing the ships plying their trade it is not surprising that young Brook Watson hankered after the seemingly glamorous life of a sailor.  His uncle realising his nephew’s desire to join the Navy organised for him to become a crew member on one of his ships.

In 1749, the fourteen year old Brook Watson was aboard his vessel in Havana harbour and foolhardily decided to take the opportunity to go for a swim on his own.  He was attacked by a shark and his shipmates, who had been waiting on board to escort their captain ashore, launched a valiant rescue effort.  As the sailors rushed to Watson’s aid, the shark repeatedly attacked the struggling boy.  During the first attack, the shark stripped the flesh from Watson’s right leg, just below the calf.   In the second frenzied attack, the shark bit off Watson’s foot at the ankle.  His shipmates managed to rescue the boy who was then taken to a hospital in Havana.  Surgeons were unable to save his leg and it had to be amputated below the knee.  Watson remained in Havana for three months to convalesce.

If that was not bad enough, when young Watson arrived back in Boston he found that his uncle had been declared bankrupt.  Despite the loss of his right leg, Brook Watson managed to secure a position on another ship which traded between Boston and a port in Nova Scotia supplying the British Army at Fort Lawrence.  Despite the loss of his right leg, Watson was taken on by the British military and served them as a commissary until 1759 at which time he left Canada and travelled back to London.  Here he pursued a career as a merchant importing and exporting goods to Canada and Northeast America.  In 1760 he married Helen Campbell, the daughter of an Edinburgh goldsmith.

Watson’s Coat of Arms

In 1784 he entered the English political arena and became a Member of Parliament for the City of London, a position he held until 1793.  In 1796 he was elected Mayor of London.  Watson was made a baronet in 1803 and he had his coat of arms designed in such a way so as to record his encounter with the shark in Havana harbour.  If you look at the crest you will see underneath Neptune, who is brandishing his trident, the shield bearing Watson’s severed right leg, underneath which is the Latin motto Scuto Divino,  which means “Under God’s Protection”. Brook Watson died in 1807, aged 72.

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today, Watson and the Shark was completed by John Singleton Copley in 1778 and exhibited that year at the Royal Academy.  Copley and Brook Watson had become friends after the American artist arrived in London in 1774.   Watson commissioned Copley to create a painting of the Havana harbour incident which had occurred twenty-five years earlier.   The painting was Copley’s first of a series of large-scale historical paintings he completed after settling in London.   He went on to produce three versions of today’s painting.      The original version of the painting went to Brook Watson.  The second one was a full-size replica which he kept for himself and can now be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  His third and smaller version, with a more vertical composition, is housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The painting when exhibited at the Royal Academy was a sensation, probably due to its horrific subject.  The painting is something of an exercise in overstatement and embellishment going beyond a realistic depiction, with the sole intention of evoking strong emotions in the viewer.  In the painting we see nine of Watson’s fellow seamen rushing to his rescue.  Copley who had never visited the Caribbean island of Havana relied on maps, prints and book illustrations of the Cuban harbour for his background.  Observe how Copley has added a dramatic touch to the scene by the way he is portrayed Watson’s rescuers.  Their facial expressions reveal not only their fear for their own safety but the concern they have for the fourteen year old boy who is being attacked by the shark.   One of the sailors has thrown a rope in the water, but it has not reached the young boy and dangles beyond his grasp. Two other crewmen lean over the side of the boat, in an attempt to reach the boy, while the elder boatswain clutches his companion’s shirt trying to ensure he too doesn’t fall into the water. The other terrified seamen in the boat row frantically, and the seaman standing in the front of the small boat has his boathook ready to thrust downwards into the body of the shark. Copley’s depiction of a shark has often been criticised and the most probable reason why the shark looks more like a mythical creature than a shark, is because Copley had probably never seen an actual shark and so was forced to paint a creature based on the description of others.

The young Watson lies on his back in the water transfixed in shock.  It is a romanticised portrayal of the incident as the gory detail of Watson’s severed right foot is hidden beneath the waves and there is only the slightest hint of blood on the surface of the water and in the mouth of the shark.  However there is no sign of the frenzied thrashing about the victim as he is being attacked by the shark.  Maybe Copley thought the inclusion of such a depiction would be a step too far.

After Watson died his will was read and as far as the painting was concerned, it stated:

“I give and bequeath my Picture painted by Mr. Copley which represents the accident by which I lost my Leg in the Harbour of the Havannah in the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Forty Nine to the Governors of Christ’s Hospital to be delivered to them immediately after the Decease of my Wife Helen Watson or before if she shall think proper so to do hoping the said worthy Governors will receive the same as a testimony of the high estimation in which I hold that most Excellent Charity and that they will allow it to be hung up in the Hall of their Hospital as holding out a most useful Lesson to Youth.”

The school’s Committee of Almoners accepted the painting in 1819.   In 1963 it was purchased from Christ’s Hospital by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The oil painting’s enormous acclaim ensured John Singleton Copley’s appointment to the prestigious Royal Academy, and he went on to earn a fortune selling engravings of its design.

The Copley Family, by John Singleton Copley

The Copley Family by John Singleton Copley (1777)

In my last blog I looked at the English portraitist James Sharples and talked about how he took his family from England to America in search of patrons and their lucrative commissions.  He was just one of many European artists who decided that the way to make a fortune from their art was by crossing the Atlantic.  He of course had not only to compete against the new immigrant artists who had also made the journey but he also had to compete for work against America’s own painters.  Today in My Daily Art Display I am focusing my attention on of those great 18th century American artists, John Singleton Copley, who in fact moved across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, from Boston to London.

John Singleton Copley was born in 1738 in Boston, Massachusetts.  Both his parents, Richard and Marie were of Irish descent and had arrived in America just two years before he was born.  His mother ran a tobacco shop which was on the Long Wharf pier at the port.  His father, who was also a tobacconist, suffered from poor health and went to the West Indies around about the time of his son’s birth in the hope that the warmer climate may help,  but he died there in 1748, although the actual year of his death is contested.   His mother remarried when Copley was 10.  She married the engraver, painter, and schoolmaster Peter Pelham and it was believed that he gave young John Copley his first artistic tuition.   Pelham made his living by selling his portraits and engravings and even ran evening classes in arithmetic and writing as well as a dance class.  Another tutor of Copley was the Scottish born portrait painter John Smybert who had left his homeland and had come to America in 1826.  Both Copley’s tutors died when he was just thirteen years of age and so his artistic tuition was handed over to Joseph Blackburn, an English portrait painter, who had left home and worked in Bermuda and in colonial America.  Blackburn worked in Boston and eventually set up a studio in the town.  Although this master-student partnership started well it ended in acrimony.  The master (Blackburn) realised his student (Copley) was becoming a far better artist than himself and jealousy ended the arrangement. 

Boy with a Squirrel by John Singleton Copley (1765)

In 1776 Copley had sent his painting, entitled Boy with a Squirrel, to London, for the Society of Artists Exhibition.  The painting featured his step-brother, Henry Pelham with his pet squirrel.  It was the first work of art painted in America to be exhibited abroad and it was well received by the critics and on the strength of this work he was made a Fellow of the Society of Artists of Great Britain.  Benjamin West, the American artist who had moved to London in 1763,  invited Copley to do as he had done and move to Europe to continue his artistic studies.  For Copley, the invite was tempting and in some ways made him more unhappy with his present situation.  He was aware of his talent and the lack of artistic stimulation in Boston.  In the book Letters & Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776, there is one letter which Copley wrote to the American artist, Benjamin West:

“…In this Country as You rightly observe there is no examples of Art, except what is to [be] met with in a few prints indifferently executed, from which it is not possible to learn much…”

However although the invite to leave America was tempting Copley was aware that his portraiture was selling well and he had a good standard of living, mixing with the aristocracy who were his patrons and so he decided to stay in Boston and wrote back to Benjamin West in 1768 explaining his reasons:

“…I should be glad to go to Europe, but cannot think of it without a very good prospect of doing as well there as I can here. You are sensable that 300 Guineas a Year, which is my present income, is a pretty living in America. . . . And what ever my ambition may be to excel in our noble Art, I cannot think of doing it at the expence of not only my own happyness, but that of a tender Mother and a Young Brother whose dependance is intirely upon me…”

Susanna Farnham Clarke (Mrs Susanna Copley) by John Singleton Copley

However, although not wanting to move to England himself, he continued to send his art work to London where his artistic reputation was on the rise.   In 1769 John Copley married Susanna Farnham Clarke, whose father was one of the richest Boston merchants and a very wealthy and powerful business man, the Boston agent for the prestigious Honourable East India Company.   Copley and his wife were very happy and his wife’s beauty was portrayed in a number of her husband’s paintings.  The Copley’s marriage lasted for forty-five years and they went on to have six children.
Copley’s early works were in oils but he then began to dabble with pastels.  By the age of nineteen Copley had built up a reputation as an outstanding portraitist.  However Copley wanted to branch out and tackle historical paintings which at the time were very popular and the market for them was excellent.  Copley’s family connections and his wife’s relatives were Loyalists, staunch supporters of British Colonial rule.  Copley’s father-in-law was the merchant to whom the cargo of tea was consigned which sparked the infamous Boston Tea Party in December 1773 and this incident and what followed drove Susanna Clarke’s father to the brink of bankruptcy.

The unstable political climate worsened by the day, leading in 1774 to the rise of patriotism and the birth of the Patriots, the supporters of the colonists of the British Thirteen United Colonies who would within eighteen months rebel against British control.  Copley’s lucrative work started to dry up and it was because of his fear of an oncoming war that Copley decided to take up Benjamin West’s invitation to come to England.  His clear intention was to return to America as soon as the troubles were over, at a time when there would be a resurgence of his once-thriving art business and he would be looked upon once again as America’s leading portrait painter.  He set sail for England from Boston on June 1st 1774 leaving his mother, wife and children in the care of his step brother, Henry Pelham.  Copley had fully intended to return soon to America but the long and bloody War of Independence which eventually broke out in 1775 forced him to postpone his return. After the war ended, Copley financial situation no longer permitted a return, and the painter ended up staying in Britain forever.

On his arrival in England in 1774 Copley sought out Benjamin West who introduced him to Sir Joshua Reynolds both of whom were founder members of the Royal Academy of Art.  Copley set off in September of that year on a nine month European tour taking in Paris before moving to Italy and from there journeying north into Germany and the Low Countries.  In 1775 whilst still in Europe, Copley became alarmed at the deteriorating political situation in America and for the safety of his family.  In a letter to his step brother, Henry Pelham, he wrote:

“…if the Frost be severe and the Harbour frozen, the Town of Boston will be exposed to an attack;  and if it should be taken all that have remained in the town will be considered as enemies to the Country and ill treated or exposed to great distress…”   

Having also been alarmed about the situation at home, Copley’s wife and children, unbeknown to her husband,  had already left Boston at the end of May 1775 and arrived in London where they stayed with her brother-in-law.  Her father and her brothers followed shortly after.  Copley returned from his European trip and he and his wife set up home in London where Copley remained for the rest of his life.  By the start of the nineteenth century, life for Copley the artist, was becoming problematic.  He was still painting but sales were declining probably due to the Napoleonic Wars.  The house his family were living in was expensive to run and the cost of putting his son, John Jnr. through law school was proving costly.  The problem for Copley was that he couldn’t equate the fall of his earning power with the necessity to rein back his expenditure.  He became very depressed with life and by 1810 his health was concerning those around him.  At a dinner party in August 1815 Copley suffered a stroke and although he seemed to be recovering, he suffered a second seizure the following month and died in September 1815, aged 77.

On his death, Copley was deep in debt and his barrister son, John, who would later become Lord Lyndhurst and Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, had to settle his father’s financial affairs, maintain his parents home and look after his mother, Susanna, until she died in 1836.

In My Daily Art Display today I am featuring the large oil on canvas painting entitled The Copley Family, by John Singleton Copley, which he completed in 1777 and is now housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  It measures 184cms x 229 cms (72 inches x 90 inches).  He started this group portrait painting a year after his family had arrived from America and settled in London and shortly after he himself had returned from his artistic tour of Europe.  Although an accomplished portraitist, this was the first time Copley had executed a group portrait.  The figures are almost life-size and his talent as a portraitist ensure that they all have a life-like appearance.

Copley himself is seen standing at the back of the family group grasping a sheaf of sketches and stares out at us in a manner which gives the impression that he is about to introduce the members of the Copley family to us.  Copley’s father-in-law, the once prosperous merchant, Richard Clarke is seated on the left of the painting, stern-faced avoiding our gaze, holding the youngest of his grand-daughters, Susanna.  To the right of the painting we see Copley’s wife Susanna, cradling her son John.  Look at how Copley has captured the look of love and tenderness in his wife’s face as she gazes down at her son.  On the far right of the painting and to his wife’s left, her daughter, Mary, vies for her attention.  Standing upright and in a formal pose is Copley’s eldest child, his daughter Elizabeth.  It is interesting to note that in those days boys wore dresses like their sisters until they were about six or seven years of age and old enough to wear breeches.

Copley had decided on the setting of the painting so as to give an air of classical refinement.  He has achieved that by the inclusion in the painting of elegant and fashionable furnishings and as we look over the shoulders of his sitters we see the ancient and classical Arcadian landscape à la Claude Lorrain and this background setting could well have come from paintings Copley had seen during his travel around Italy.  This group portrait of a family is of greater intimacy as it is the father who has lovingly depicted the scene.

Bronze statue of John Singleton Copley in Copley Park, Boston

John Singleton Copley’s hometown Boston has memorialised their artist by naming a city square after him, Copley Square, located in the Back Bay district of the city.  The square-shaped park at the centre is a mass of greenery and on the north side is the bronze statue of the artist.