The Copley painting of the Battle of Jersey
The 1976 issue of bicentenary stamps to commemorate Jersey's links with the USA portrayed the artist Copley and a sketch for his Death of Major Peirson, which may have prompted many to ask, as I did, why an American artist should have been chosen to depict the Battle of Jersey. Now, as the bicentenary of that battle approaches, the search for an answer has revealed an interesting chain of inter-linked events and personalities.
John Singleton Copley is thought to have been born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1737. At about this time his father died in the West Indies. Before Copley was ten, his mother was living over her tobacco shop on Long Wharf, Boston. It is probable that his first glimpse of Jerseymen was in his mother's shop, or, possibly armed with cutlasses, on their square-rigged vessels in harbour; for Boston was the home of privateer Philippe Dumaresq, whose son is known, from a letter in the La Haule collection, to have been trading there in 1769.
A month after his mother's second marriage to Peter Pelham, the Boston Gazette announced:
- "Mrs Mary Pelham (formerly the widow Copley, on the Long Wharf, tobacconist) is removed to Lindel's Row, against the Quakers' Meeting House near the upper end of King Street, Boston, where she continues to sell the best Virginia tobacco, cut, pigtail, and spun of all sorts, by wholesale and retail at the cheapest prices;
an advertisement that must surely have interested Jersey merchants, who, half a century later, through the Chamber of Commerce, were to protest to the British Government that there would be considerable unemployment in the island, if it was no longer permissible to import tobacco for manufacture from the United States of America.
Peter Pelham, a mezzotint scraper trained in England, had the virtual monopoly for the engraving of portraits in Boston, the only admissible form of art in a Puritan society. To supplement his income he opened a school, where his stepson gained the rudiments of a liberal education and was encouraged in his self-taught efforts to become an artist. Pelham died in 1751, and, at 13, Copley was forced to earn a precarious living as a portrait painter and engraver. His first step towards London came in 1760, when he entrusted anonymously The Boy with the Flying Squirrel, a portrait of his step-brother, Henry Pelham, to a sea-captain, who took it to two future PRAs, Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, the latter a Pennsylvanian artist already established in Europe, who later enjoyed the patronage of George III.
They were impressed and urged Copley to come to Europe to study, but he was not yet ready to travel. His reputation grew steadily in America, his portraits being framed by his contemporary, Paul Revere, son of a Huguenot silversmith and later to gain fame for his midnight ride on the eve of the War of Independence.
In 1769 Copley married Susannah, daughter of Richard Clarke and Elizabeth Winslow; from her family was descended the Captain Winslow, whose federal ship, as reported in La Nouvelle Chronique, sank the confederate ship Alabama off Cherbourg in June, 1864.
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New England Club
Wherever a group settled, a society was formed. Most exclusive was the New England Club founded in the late summer of 1775 by men who had left Boston before the final evacuation. The majority of its members were merchants, lawyers and civil servants of like status, who met weekly to dine. Clarke and his son-in-law, Copley, were founder members. They enjoyed the patronage of ex-Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts and Brook Watson, who had a close relationship with the exiles, helped those who wished to resettle in Canada and negotiated increases in the allowances of those who elected to stay in England.
On his return from Europe, Copley had joined the Royal Academy, his work already well-known. Meanwhile, by substituting modern for classical costume, West, in his Death of Wolfe, had established a new fashion in historical paintings. 1781 found Copley painting in the same genre The Death of Chatham. With the minute attention to detail that had characterised his portraiture, he visited many peers in order to sketch them in their robes. The resulting dramatic picture finally established his reputation in England. It was a favourite with the Loyalists, who often attended art exhibitions, particularly when works by West or Copley were on display. Some were presented by the artist with 'perpetual tickets' when his painting was shown in a public gallery.
News of battle
It is not surprising, in all these circumstances, that, when the opportunity arose, Copley was chosen to depict the Battle of Jersey. News of victory was not slow to reach England, though it was tempered by the tragic tidings of Peirson's death in battle. On 7 January 1781, Captain Mulcaster wrote to Major Peirson's distinguished cousin, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Peirson. On the day of the funeral Adjutant Harrison wrote to the father, Major Francis Peirson, and later gave him a verbatim account of the action, notes on which were preserved in the papers of Lord Chelmsford, a descendant of the family.
News of the battle appeared in the London Gazette on 16 January, welcome news, particularly in the City of London, at a time when defeat in the American colonies was imminent. It was one of the Aldermen, perhaps prompted by Le Mesurier or Brook Watson, who commissioned the picture.
This new link in the chain of events was John Boydell. He had set up as an engraver in the 1740s at a time when the French were predominant in this field. There were few print shops, so he exhibited in toy shops, the most successful being the Cricket Bat in St Martin's Lane. He amassed a small fortune, noting in a 1790 edition of his prints now in the British Museum, that it was 'the only book that had the honour of making a Lord Mayor of London'.
In 1782 Boydell was elected alderman for the ward of Cheap, sheriff in 1785 and Lord Mayor in 1790. The picture was completed by Copley in 1784, and Boydell issued a pamphlet commending it to the public and proposing that an engraving be executed by James Heath. The brochure claimed that 'the background is an exact view of that part of the town of St Heiller's (sic) where the battle was fought', and points out that the central group 'consists entirely of the portraits of officers of the 95th regiment, and officers of the Jersey Militia, and of the said black servant'. In May 1784 the picture was launched at an independent showing, as had been The Death of Chatham, to the annoyance of the Academicians. But one critic wrote of The Death of Major Peirson : 'When it was exhibited in 1784 the chorus of praise reached all the way to Buckingham Palace'.
Did Copley visit Jersey?
Many questions remain unanswered. Did Copley visit Jersey? There is no record of such a visit, though the possibility is not ruled out by his biographer, Prown. Copley may have commissioned another artist, perhaps his step-brother Pelham, to visit Jersey and make sketches for him. He may have drawn on available prints. La Société Jersiaise owns a painting of the town of St Helier from the north-east, executed by one Joshua Heath in 1757. Was Joshua perhaps connected with the more famous James Heath, who was to engrave Copley's painting at a later date?
Certainly the setting is accurate. The Square, with the Royal Arms over the door of the Court House of the period, the pre-Fort Regent Mont de la Ville rising behind, the corner of Vine Street and the statue of George II are all there with one or two discrepancies. There is doubt about the hipped roof of the Court House, and the King's baton is longer and tilted forward, giving him a more determined stance than in the original, as he faces the enemy across le vier marchi, renamed Royal Square in his honour.
A recent article in The Connoisseur suggests that this statue is recorded by William Hogarth in Plate I of his Analysis of Beauty, which features the yard of the brothers Cheere at Hyde Park Corner. Two such statues are visible in the plate and hold the baton in the more elegant if weaker pose we see today. The detail is unimportant and may represent an exercise in artistic symmetry to correspond with the oblique line of the Union flag, composed of the banners of St George and St Andrew; the banner of St Patrick, brought into contention in recent discussions on the Jersey flag, was not incorporated until 1801.
Copley was equally conscientious in portraying accurately the characters in the central group and their several military uniforms. Some of their names were recorded by Adjutant Harrison: Corbet, Christy (sic), his negro servant and an officer of the Jersey Militia. Names are also written above the heads in various preliminary sketches by Copley, preserved at the Tate or at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and the definite order appears in Boydell's brochure of 1796 and may also be seen to-day beneath the picture in the Tate Gallery.
It is also possible to verify the existence of these officers by reference to army lists of the period. Information from the National Army Museum shows that, apart from Hemery, they were all officers in the 95th Foot, which was raised in April 1780 and disbanded in 1783 at the end of the War of American Independence, when some of the officers were placed on half pay, including Captain McNeill, Lieutenant Drysdale and Ensign Smith. Ensign Rowan rose to the rank of Captain in the 52nd Foot and disappeared from the army lists in 1798, Lieutenant Buchanan was on half pay from 1783-4, attained the rank of Major in the 92nd Foot and is not found after 1795. Captain Clephane (David), not to be confused with General Clephane (William Douglas Maclean) of the Scots Guards, under whom commissary Pipon served in Egypt and Minorca, rose to the rank of Brigadier and is thought to have become MP for Kinrossshire.
An interesting glimpse of the Clephanes is quoted in Victorian Voices in a letter written at a later date from Bath by Sir John le Couteur: 'Frederick (Janvrin) took me to his club. I found my father's old friend Mr Clephane there ... Two of his brothers were Generals ... His brother is the officer in Copley's painting of the Battle of Jersey, leading the 95th Grenadiers '.
There remain four personages of particular interest: Adjutant Harrison, Captain Christie's black servant, Captain Corbet and Captain Hemery. Adjutant Harrison wrote on 10 January: 'I was with him the whole time ... he fell with his head against me; I took him out of the action, with assistance, and carried him to the Town ... '. In a preliminary sketch he is holding the leader's feet, but in the final grouping he is further forward and gazes down on Peirson's face. Another sketch shows a priest called to the scene.
Close behind Harrison, an outstanding figure is that of the negro servant, listed by Boydell as Major Peirson's servant, though a preliminary sketch and Harrison's account speak of Captain Christie's black servant. An article in Christie's Review of the Year (1969-70) on 'Some American friends of Mr James Christie I' reveals that, when Copley first came to London, he lived at 12 Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square), where his neighbours included Joshua Reynolds and Mr James Christie, who 'for some years had been holding auctions at his rooms in Pall Mall', and mentions that 'the model for the black servant was Mr James Christie's man, borrowed by Copley from his friend across the square'.
Was this an assumption from the labelling on Copley's sketches, or did the founder of Christie's actually fight in the Battle of Jersey? Information in the Dictionary of National Biography and from descendants of the first James Christie suggest that he did not, though the family had a strong naval and military connection. Christie's second son, Charles, was a captain in the Bengal Native Infantry and was killed during the Russian attack on Persia, while his fourth son, Edward, died of yellow fever at Port Royal in Jamaica as a midshipman, while nursing sick slaves on a captured slave ship. A son by a second marriage, Samuel Hunter Christie, Captain in the Grenadier Company of University Volunteers and second wrangler at Cambridge, became a reforming professor of mathematics at the Royal Military College at Woolwich.
The elder James Christie is said to have resigned a commission in the Navy to take up auctioneering, and his sons would have been too young for the Battle in 1781. Nevertheless a Captain Christie, another James, was present at the Battle and may have been a close relation. On the other hand the regiment had a strong Scottish tradition, and James Christie would be a common enough name in Scotland. This Captain Christie joined the 2nd Dragoons as a Cornet in 1769, transferred from the 95th Foot to the 88th Foot in August 1781, and disappeared from the lists in 1782.
By a similar strange coincidence one finds the names of Christy and Copley in Jersey parish registers in the late 18th century, both members of the veterans' regiment known as Les Invalides. At a later date a negro servant, who claimed to have taken part in the Battle, was to turn up in various places in search of money.
Corbet and Hemery
Of greatest interest to us are the two Jerseymen, Corbet and Hemery. Evidence from Balleine and the dates of his commissions suggest that James Corbet was the son of Moyse Corbet, the Lieut-Governor at the time of the Battle and soon to be court-martialled for signing a capitulation to the French. A footnote by the editors of the Actes des Etats suggests that he was a younger brother. Following in his father's footsteps, James had made the army his career and was appointed captain of the 95th Foot on 8 April 1780. There is some confusion as to whether it was father or son who took command after Peirson's death.
It seems that, once he had recovered from his capitulation and captivity, the father took overall charge, but, on 22 February, Captain Corbet was thanked by the States for taking command of the 95th when Major Peirson died. The cortege at the funeral shows Captain Corbet as chief mourner immediately behind the bier and the dead Major's horse, and in front of the Lieut-Governor and Bailiff, and the Captain was promoted to Major on 31 January 1781. The father was arrested on 17 February, and his Court Martial began in May. Major Corbet junior remained with the 95th until they were disbanded, and then appears to have retired.
With his scene set and his main personages assembled, Copley was able to concentrate on the picture as an artistic creation. We know from preliminary sketches that at first he set the scene in a narrow street and then widened the set to make the impact of the battle more immediate. Drawings show that he moved his central characters until satisfied with the final grouping. Critics have said that, having established his central group, he invented the scenes on the flanks. Yet Harrison mentions the negro servant, despite the theory that he is a concession to the post-Rousseau fashion for the "noble savage", comparable with the Red Indian in West's Death of Wolfe, and he reports the arrival of the Grenadiers on the left.
Another suggestion is that the fleeing family were introduced to emphasise the sufferings of civilians in time of war. A rumour has long persisted that the women and children are Hemerys. Clement Hemery, though not in the army lists, may well have been one of the officers who sat for Copley. He was a Captain in the Jersey Militia and still trading with Labrador in the family fishing concern, so would have been in close contact with the London merchants. He may have mentioned his family while sitting for his portrait.
However, there is no doubt that in the final outcome artistic line and grouping were more important than total 'pre-Raphaelite' exactitude. Does it matter in so great a picture? Critics have sought for a source of inspiration as far back as The Entombment of Christ by Rubens, or West's more recent Death of Wolfe. Whether the critics were right or wrong, from the time of its completion the picture was to have an interesting life of its own.
In 1796 a new brochure appeared from Mr Boydell:
A MOST CAPITAL PRINT OF THE DEATH OF MAJOR PEIRSON
Painted by J S Copley RA and engraved by Mr Heath.
On Account of the length of time this print takes in working off, it cannot be delivered to non-subscribers until 1 July 1796, when the price will be raised to Four Guineas.
The brochure describes the circumstances which inspired the picture, quoting at length from the London Gazette, and then continues:
- "The publishers of the present print, happy in every occasion of uniting the promotion of the Fine Arts in England, with the celebration of the heroism or talents of their countrymen, employed Mr Copley to paint this subject; and the picture is allowed by the best judges to be one of those happy efforts that the greatest painter cannot always command. The engraving, to say the least of it, is the most masterly performance in that way, that ever was executed in this country, or perhaps in any other. The proprietors are sorry, however, to be obliged to add, that the publication of the print has been too long delayed.
- "Nothing but that extreme anxiety, to preserve the good opinion with which the public have long honoured them, could compel them to speak of their private concerns on this occasion; but they think it is a duty they owe to the public in general, and the subscribers to this print in particular, to say, that the delay has been owing to several unforeseen accidents. They need offer no other proof of their earnest wish to forward the publication of the print, than to mention that they have held out on this, as they have done on all other occasions, the most liberal remuneration for exertion and despatch; and they are certain every admirer of the Fine Arts will readily admit the fact, when they are informed, that the present print, with all contingent expenses, has cost the proprietors upwards of five thousand pounds".
Those Jersey families lucky enough to possess a print by Heath will appreciate these efforts. A footnote informed the public, and particularly the subscribers, that the picture might be seen at any time at Messrs Boydell's Gallery, 90 Cheapside.
Inflation had already set in, and the Napoleonic Wars were to bring lean times to the artists who had so conspicuously flourished in the latter part of the 18th century. Boydell, who had built a gallery in Pall Mall and commissioned all the leading English artists to paint pictures to illustrate Shakespeare, ran into trouble when he lost his foreign trade. In 1804 he applied to Parliament for permission to dispose of his property by lottery. It is interesting to note that, in 1810, the widow of Philippe Jean, the Jersey miniaturist and portrait-painter, was given permission by the States to 'dispose of her husband's pictures by lottery'.
The Plan for the Shakespeare Lottery was published in London on 5 April 1804:
- 'To be drawn pursuant of an Act of Parliament, passed in the 44th year of His Majesty's Reign, intituled, An Act to enable John Boydell, one of the Aldermen of the City of London, and Josiah Boydell, his nephew and partner, to dispose of their collection of paintings, drawings and engravings, together with the leasehold premises in Pall Mall, called the Shakespeare Gallery, by way of Chance'.
- 'The number of Tickets to be 22,000, at the price of three guineas a ticket.
- 'The whole may be viewed at the Shakespeare Gallery - admittance one shilling each person - such exhibition being reserved to Messrs Boydell, by the Act'.
A catalogue was available at the Gallery and at 90 Cheapside, and the prizes were framed pictures, the first on the list for the ticket drawn first being The Death of Major Peirson by Copley, RA. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, a Mr Tassie, who won the major prize, sold it by auction. The gallery was purchased by the British Institution.
Christie's had always maintained a close connection with the Loyalist artists from America, and their records show that the original painting passed through their hands twice. On 8 March 1805 it was offered for sale by Boydell; it was unsold, and the artist repurchased it from him after the sale - a sad state of affairs, as by now Copley was also in financial trouble. He was perhaps helped by his son, who was beginning his career at the Bar. In June 1804 his daughter wrote: 'On Friday my brother had the honour of being called to the bar and his friends are all very sanguine in the expectation they have formed of his success. We shall lose his company in three weeks as he is going on circuit'.
In 1811 Copley wrote to his son admitting that he could not pay back a loan. Meanwhile John Copley jnr was justifying the hopes of his family. His father died after a stroke in September 1815, soon after the Battle of Waterloo, and Copley jnr remained in the family house in George Street, Hanover Square, whither the Copleys had moved in 1783. He paid his father's debts from his hard-won earnings, was knighted, and in April 1827, was created Baron Lyndhurst of Lyndhurst, Hants. He was three times Lord Chancellor of England. The house in George Street contained a gallery where he kept his collection of paintings. He died there in 1863.
After his death, Lord Lyndhurst's pictures were put up for sale by Christie's on 5 March 1864. The States of Jersey made a momentous decision. They would buy The Death of Major Peirson for the Court House, then in course of renovation, 'provided the price was not in excess of £1 ,000 sterling'. A confident paragraph in La Nouvelle Chronique 2 March 1864, heralded this event:
- 'Nous apprenons qu'en consequence d'une decision adoptee par l'assemblee des Gouverneurs, Bailli et Jures, Administrateurs de l'Impot, M Le Bailli Hammond s'est embarque ce matin par le paquebot-poste pour l'Angleterre. Il se rend a Londres pour acheter le tableau de Copley, representant la mort du Major Peirson (6 janvier 1781). Ce tableau qui etait un des ornements de la magnifique galerie de Lord Lyndhurst, sera vendu en vente publique le 5 mars. L'Assemblee des Administrateurs a compris et rempli son devoir.'
Alas, the hopes of les Administrateurs de l'Impot were dashed. La Nouvelle Chronique, 9 March 1864: 'M le Bailli Hammond est revenu hier par le paquebot-poste de Southampton. La Mort de Peirson par Copley a ete achetee pour la National Gallery au prix de £1,600. Ce tableau, dont la premiere mis a prix fut £300, attirait les regards de tout le monde, et etait le centre d'attraction de tous les amateurs. Lorsqu'il fut adjuge a Sir Charles Eastlake pour la Galerie Nationale les applaudissements eclaterent de tous cotes: les amateurs des grandes et belles oeuvres avaient l'assurance que ce chef d'oeuvre restera en Angleterre '.
By an irony of fate, Bailiff Hammond was to die in similar circumstances to the Earl of Chatham, whose collapse and eventual death had inspired another Copley painting; for, on 14 February 1880, while presiding over a contentious case in the Royal Court, Hammond fell back dead in his chair. Now his portrait hangs in the Court as does Holyoake's copy of Copley's picture, once a mute witness of this other tragic scene. This copy opens another chapter in the story.
In his brief history of the Royal Court House, Mr Raymond Falle reveals that it was the President of the Royal Academy who, 'hearing of the disappointment of the States of Jersey on not securing the painting, suggested to the Bailiff that a copy be made, and recommended a young artist named Holyoake as being suitable to undertake the work'.
I am indebted to the Archives department of the National Gallery for the following information:
- "William Holyoake was born in Birmingham in 1834 and died in London in 1894. He was a member of the Society of British Artists, and exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy and Suffolk Street between 1858 and 1888. The National Gallery have in their archives the following letter written to the Keeper, Ralph Wornum.
- 23 Gt Coram Street Russell Square WC
- 29 March
- "Having been commissioned by the Corporation of Jersey to make a copy of the picture in the National Gallery (The Death of Major Peirson) by Copley, circumstances urge me to solicit permission to be allowed to work in this gallery upon the public days as well as upon ordinary student days, from 16 April until 26 May inclusive.
- "My reasons for soliciting this favour are in the first place that the Corporation of Jersey wish to have the copy by September, and in the second place, my duties as curator of the School of Painting in the Royal Academy render it impossible for me to work upon the copy more than one day a week except during the vacations of that Institution, and as the present vacation will terminate on 26 May, without the privilege I beg, I should be compelled when my task was perhaps half-finished to lay it by for a year before I should have an opportunity of making further progress; this is assuming that it should be possible to induce the Corporation of Jersey to wait so long for their picture.
- "I might add several other reasons but refrain from troubling you in the hope that those I have assigned will be deemed of sufficient wait (sic) to justify you in granting me this most esteemed favour.
- I am, Sir
- Your obedient servant, William Holyoake
It is gratifying to record that this polite young artist was granted his request.
The 'Corporation of Jersey' had not long to wait. Nouvelle Chronique de Jersey, Wednesday 29 August 1866.
- M Holyoake, qui avait ete charge de faire une copie du celebre tableau de Copley representant la mort du Major Peirson, a termine son travail d'une maniere digne de sa haute reputation. Son tableau est arrive a Jersey et est expose en ce moment dans le magasin de M Thomas Moore, doreur, Bath Street. C'est une copie tres exacte de l'original. Elle a environ 12 pieds de longueur sur une hauteur de 8 pieds. Ce tableau est destine, comme on sait, a orner un des cotes de la nouvelle salle d'audience de la Cour Royale.
Was Thomas Moore a connection of John H Moor, carver and gilder, looking glass and picture frame maker, of 26 Bath Street, listed in Hill's Directory of 1874? In the British Press and Jersey Times Almanach of 1866 the occupants of 26 Bath Street are F D Deane, photographic artist, and Thomas H Moore, carver and gilder. That Moore did his work well is reported on 26 December 1866, when, in true Victorian fashion, as much attention is paid to the gilded frame as to the picture itself:
- "Lundi apres-midi les ouvriers ont acheve le placement dans la salle des audiences de la Cour Royale, d'une copie de Copley, representant la mort de Major Peirson, tue le 6 janvier 1781, en defendant Jersey contre les Francais qui etaient arrives jusque sur la Place Royale, St Helier. Cette copie, dont il nous est impossible de juger l'exactitude, a ete faite par M Holyoake. Le cadre, d'un tres bon gout et d'une execution parfaite, sort des ateliers de M Thomas H Moore de Bath Street."
Mr Falle records from Acts of the States that Mr Holyoake was paid £250 sterling for his work and that the total cost of the painting amounted to £269 4s 8d. That is how one of the paintings came to rest where it is now. The original remained in the National Gallery until 1929, when it was moved to the Tate Gallery. In 1953 it was returned to the National Gallery and again transferred to the Tate for exhibition in 1957. It has been housed there ever since.
Historians very properly will continue to search for fresh evidence as to what really happened in that momentous battle on the twelfth day of Christmas, 1781. But, just as the great naval battle of 1805 is represented in the minds of many Englishmen as a column in Trafalgar Square or the many pictures, one by Benjamin West, of an admiral dying in his friend's arms, so the Battle of Jersey will remain for many Jersey people a gallant group of officers in splendid uniforms, converging on a leader whose death is being avenged by an imposing negro with unerring aim, while a group of Hemerys, looking strangely like Mrs Copley and the future Lord Lyndhurst, accompanied by a nurse and baby, rush down Peirson Place to escape, no doubt, those bullets which in our childhood we were led to believe had made black circles on the walls of the Peirson Inn.
Many Jerseymen must have been serving in the Militia at the time of the Battle. I am assured by Dr Frank Le Maistre that our common great-great-great-grandfather Le Feuvre was among them. But those of us not descended from Hemery or Corbet must be content to imagine any ancestor, who may have taken part in the famous battle, as lost in the smoke screen, perched with the pin figures on Mont de la Ville, or following the Reverend Francois Le Couteur to la Rocque.
Thus to domesticate the picture is in no way to diminish its excellence. It is thought by many critics to be the finest picture that Copley ever painted. It holds pride of place in one of the rooms at the Tate, and the great Duke of Wellington himself is reported to have told Lord Lyndhurst, when he saw it in his gallery, that it was 'the only picture of a battle that had ever satisfied him or displayed the reality of the scene, inasmuch as the artist had only attempted to represent one incident and but a small portion of the field-the rest being necessarily concealed by smoke and dust'.