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.