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John Singleton Copley

1738-1815

COPLEY, John Singleton, painter, born in Boston, Massachusetts., 3 July, 1737; died in London, 9 September, 1815. I le is commonly called self-taught, but he probably received some instruction from his stepfather, Peter Pelham, who died in 1751. Boston was then a small provincial town where art was almost unknown and good instruction unattainable. Young Copley began at an early age to see visions of lovely forms and faces, which nature impelled him to reproduce with such materials as he could procure or make for himself. In the uncongenial atmosphere of colonial Boston such talent was phenomenal, and, as he was really successful in producing likenesses, he soon gained local celebrity by executing portraits of many members of the leading families, as is still attested by almost every notable collection in the city. 

In 1760 he sent to Benjamin West, in England, without name or address, a portrait, which at once gave him a place among artists of recognized merit. This painting is known as "The Boy and the Flying Squirrel," and represents the artist's half-brother, Henry Pelham. Through West's influence the picture was exhibited at Somerset house. Its American origin was at once suspected, because the wood of the stretching-frame was made of American pine but the authorship was not decided until, after long delay, the letter of transmittal reached England.  In 1767, on West's nomination, Copley was elected a fellow of the Society of artists of Great Britain.  In 1769 he married Susannah, daughter of Richard Clarke, a lineal descendant of Mary Chillton, who came from England in the "Mayflower." The first years of  their married life were passed in Boston, in a solitary house on Beacon Hill, where four children were born, including the son that became  lord chancellor of England. During these years correspondence had continued with English admirers, and in 1774 Copley sailed for England, and after a short sojourn there visited Italy, spending a year in studying the old masters, and then settled in London. Here he was joined by his wife, and he thenceforward made it his home. He rose with almost unprecedented rapidity to the height of professional fame. He was patronized by the royal family and the nobility, and met with uninterrupted success. 

In 1777 he was elected an associate member, and in 1779 a full member, of the Royal academy. When he sent copies of the engraving of his picture, " The Death  of Chatham," to Washington and John Adams, the former wrote, " It is rendered more estimable in my eye when I remember that America gave birth to the celebrated artist who produced it." Adams said, "I shall preserve my copy both as a token of your friendship and as an indubitable proof of American genius." Although he was essentially a portrait-painter, Copley composed some large historical works, of which the ' Death of Chatham, the "Death of Major Pierson," and the " Siege of Gibraltar" are in the National gallery, London. The first two of these and his "Charles I. Demanding  in the House of Commons the Five Impeached Members" were engraved and became very popular.  Among his other historical works are "Offer of the Crown to Lady Jane Gray " (1808); " King Charles signing Strafford's Death-Warrant" ; "Assassination of Buckingham "; " Battle of the Boyne"; "King Charles addressing the Citizens of London"; "The Five Impeached :Members brought back in Triumph"; and " The King's Escape from Hampton Court." 

Among his best portrait compositions are "The Daughters of George III." (Buckingham Palace); "The Family Picture" (Charles Amory, Boston): " The Red Cross Knight" (1788, S. G. Dexter, Boston); " Mrs. Derby as St. Cecilia" (W. Appleton, Boston); and "Mrs. died D. Rogers" (1789, H. born Rogers, Boston). Most of Copley's best works were collected by Ills son, Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst, and were dispersed at his sale in 1864.  See A, T. Perkins's "Life of J. S. Copley" (1873); "Memorial History of Boston" IV. (1881); and Mrs. Martha born Amory's "Life of J. S. Copley" (1882).

*His son, John Singleton, Jr., afterward Baron Lyndhurst, born in Boston, 21 May, 1772; died at Tunbridge Wells, England, 11 October, 1863. His father attempted to educate him as an artist ; but he had no taste for that profession, and is credited with having declared in a fit of childish impatience that coming generations should speak of "Copley the father of the lord chancellor, not of Copley the son of the painter." He was graduated with high honor at Cambridge in 1795, and shortly afterward visited the United States with a view to regain his father's property in Boston, which had been sold through a mistake. This he failed to accomplish, but spent some time in this country, visiting Washington at Mount Vernon, and traveling extensively through the northern and middle Atlantic states. Of his experiences he made copious notes and wrote descriptive letters in Latin to the vice-chancellor of Cambridge university. Returning to England in 1798, he was called to the bar in 1804, and entered parliament in 1818. In 1827 he became chancellor, and was raised to the peerage as Baron Lyndhurst of Lyndhurst, 27 April the same year. He was twice married, but, as he had no male issue, the title lapsed at his death. See Lord John Campbell's "Lives of the Lord Chancellors" (7 vols., London, 1846-'7) ; "Select Biographical Sketches," by William Heath Bennet ; "Life of John Singleton Copley" (supra); and "Life of Lord Lyndhurst," by Sir Theodore Martin (London, 1883). -- Edited Appleton's Cyclopedia American Biography Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM

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