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.