Depicting Revolution and Independence

A Revolution in Color: The World  of John Singleton Copley
A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley
Jane Kamensky
W.W. Norton
544pp  £26.99 

In London’s National Portrait Gallery a large canvas depicts Britain’s ermined decision-makers during the American War of Independence. Central to the importance of the painting, though physically off centre within it, is a stricken William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham. Immediately around him is a cluster of figures, seemingly caught in concerned movement. Chatham and those closest to him, in proximity as in politics, rightly engage one’s immediate attention. However, one’s eye will be soon drawn to a group on the far right. These are the followers of the Marquess of Rockingham and their depiction by the artist, John Singleton Copley, answers the important question as to why they and the Chathamites failed to unite in their opposition to the war. The context is important: the date is 7 April 1778 and the Rockinghamite Duke of Richmond, paper in hand, has just proposed that American Independence be recognised. Chatham vigorously opposed this and collapsed while making his case, dying a month later. In capturing the moment, Copley brilliantly conveys the personal animosity of Rockingham and his followers by dramatically presenting the view of an observer who noticed ‘four or five [of them] getting in a circle and laughing, the day Lord Chatham fell’.

The Death of the Earl of Chatham illustrates a profound judgment of Jane Kamensky in this exceptionally engrossing book: that Copley ‘shows us those above him on the ladder of hierarchy in their true colours’. Kamensky presents an intriguingly complex man greatly affected by his times. Copley lived in Boston for the first half of his life, coming from poor, if artistically well-connected, beginnings. By the early 1770s he was painting portraits of Sam Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere. Just before the Boston Tea Party he had also married well, to the daughter of a leading merchant who was an unapologetic tea importer.

Kamensky’s descriptions of Boston during the 1760s and early 1770s are so evocative that the reader is there with Copley. We see the alternating periods of violent upheaval and tentative calm; and we see it through Copley’s eyes, particularly in the thrilling passages that relate how the nervous and stammering artist tries and fails to succeed as a mediator between the tea consignees and their Sons of Liberty opponents. 

In 1774 Copley travelled to Italy to study Raphael and Correggio. Extracts from the letters he received from Boston highlight, in lurid detail, the loyalists’ fate in the months between the Tea Party and the opening skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.

From 1775, with his family with him in England and the end of their correspondence, the domestic Copley inevitably becomes less visible to us, but is replaced by the public artist, who eventually achieved fame in London, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1778. Had Copley possessed the interpersonal skills of Benjamin West – a child of the American backwoods who had transformed himself into a sophisticated London courtier and been appointed History Painter to the King – then he would have found social and financial security for the rest of his life. As Kamensky demonstrates through well-chosen anecdote, that was a necessary talent Copley sorely lacked. So able to assess the characters of others and to capture them in paint, Copley was unable to show himself to best advantage. Defiantly pedantic and certain of his own rectitude, he turned on a Royal Academy that his artistic skill had enabled him to join and it, with West as its president, ultimately turned on him. Copley spent far too long on projects that would never sell and failed to maximise the potential of those that could. Throughout, he continued to create paintings that were so powerful in their detail that some critics accused him of deflecting the viewer from his subjects’ central themes. Those critical judgments were ill-considered. As with The Death of Chatham, the brilliance is in the balance between the central theme and the defining detail, just as it is in this stunning biography.  

George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016).

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