“Portrait and history painter. Born 3 July 1738, probably at Boston, where his parents
were recent Irish immigrants; died London 9 September 1815. Elected ARA 1776; RA
1779. In Boston, more or less self-taught, he became the most remarkable portrait
painter New England has produced, with a penetrating sympathy for the local character.
He contributed from America, to the SA London 1766-72 and was made a Fellow. He left
Boston for Europe in June 1774 and traveled via London and Paris to Rome, where,
partly under Gavin Hamilton’s guidance, he studied intensively Raphael and the Antique.
In October 1775 he rejoined his family in London, where he settled for the rest of
Copley’s English style is curiously different from his New England style
in portraiture. His portrait arrangement are much more sophisticated and owe a good
deal to the latest English portraits he had seen – even though many of his early
London sitters had American connections. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1776-1812.
His first major work in his new style is the ‘Copley Family’, RA 1777 (Washington).
But he was always ambitious to be a history painter and he created a sensation with
‘Watson and the Shark’, RA 1778 (Washington), an entirely novel realistic representation
of a dramatic contemporary incident. His ‘Earl of Eglinton’ RA 1780 (Los Angeles)
is almost a miniature contemporary history picture, and from 1779 to 1781 he was
engaged on the huge ‘Death of Chatham’ (Tate Gallery), which was shown privately
with a shilling entrance fee and established a new precedent in heroic reportage.
The best of these history pictures in ‘The death of Major Pierson, 1783, (Tate Gallery)
which anticipate some of the achievement of Delacroix. Copley’s other great histories
are ‘The Siege of Gibraltar’, 1783-91 (Guildhall) and his last major work, ‘The Victory
of Lord Duncan’, 1798/9 (Camperdown House, Dundee). His history pictures of scenes
from an earlier age are unfortunate.
He also had a considerable practice in portrait painting (he was charging
100 guineas for a full length in 1783) and is at his best showing people in their
public character. His two most remarkable portrait groups – ‘Three Princesses’, RA
1785 (Buckingham Palace) and ‘The Sitwell Family’, RA 1786 (Renishaw Hall) – were
severely criticized but are highly original. He also painted a number of religious
Copley had a difficult and cantankerous nature and spent the years after
1788 feuding with Benjamin West and making life difficult for himself and his fellow
Academicians. ‘The Red Cross Knight’ RA 1793 (Washington), a sort of family allegory,
shows that he was still capable of brilliant invention. He was the most distinguished
painter of the contemporary historical scene in English eighteenth-century painting.”
(Bibliographical source: Waterhouse, Ellis Kirkham. The dictionary of British 18th
century painters in oils and crayons. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors' Club, 1981.)