John Singleton Copley RA (1738 - 1815)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

John Singleton Copley was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1738, the son of Anglo-Irish traders who owned a tobacco shop on Long Wharf, one of the main ports for American colonial shipping. When Copley’s father died in 1748, his mother remarried Peter Pelham who encouraged the young Copley’s artistic education, himself a skilled painter and engraver.

Copley spent his youth undertaking commissioned portraits of wealthy Boston merchants and engraving works for reproduction, establishing himself as the leading portrait-painter of New England society. 1766 saw a breakthrough for Copley; he sent an oil painting, Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765) to London for exhibition at the Society of Artists, which caught the attention of Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West. They admired his skill but advised that Copley would benefit from studying Old Masters in Europe, to refine and develop his own style.

During the late 1760s and early 1770s, Copley achieved the height of his fame in America, painting portraits of prominent figures such as Samuel Adams (later to become a Founding Father) and Thomas Gage, the British commander in North America. Copley married Susanna Clarke in 1769, whose father was Richard Clarke, the official agent of the East India Company in Boston, the magnate whose cargo was tipped into the harbour during the Boston Tea Party of 1773. It was this event that pushed Copley to emigrate with his family from America to Europe, given the perilous political situation and his personal connections with British colonial rule. This also aligned with Copley’s ambitions to establish himself as an artist in British society, which he deemed as more authentic and prestigious than the Boston mercantile world.

Between 1774-5, Copley travelled through Europe, predominantly in Italy, studying and making copies of the Old Masters. In late 1775 he arrived in London, joining his family who had settled their directly after leaving America in 1774. Over the next few years, Copley developed a successful portrait-painting trade in English society, exhibiting paintings at the Royal Academy, and being elected an Academician in 1779.

Copley was keen to move beyond the lucrative business of portraits and establish his reputation as a notable painter of historical pictures, considered the highest genre of painting. He became particularly renowned for his contemporary history paintings, which focussed on recent well-known events. His most lauded and unique such painting was Watson and the Shark (1778), which conveyed the true story of the merchant Brooke Watson who survived a shark attack aged 14. Other notable contemporary history paintings from this time include The Death of the Earl of Chatham (1779-81), which incorporated portraits of 55 English noblemen, and The Death of Major Peirson (1782-4), which particularly attracted the praise of George III.

After 1800, the quality and quantity of Copley’s artistic output declined. This was due to several factors including deteriorating health, increasing involvement in arguments and spats with fellow artists and growing debts. He suffered a stroke in August 1815 and died the following month.

RA Collections Decolonial Research - Extended Case Study

A Massachusetts-born painter, John Singleton Copley’s work was extremely popular with the emerging merchant classes of Boston. He emigrated to Britain in the 1770s and established himself in Georgian society, which he deemed a more prestigious and sophisticated artistic milieu than the American colony. His parents were shopkeepers and tobacco traders based in Boston, dealing tobacco that was likely produced by enslaved people in the Caribbean. The neighbourhood of Long Wharf in Boston where Copley was raised accounted for 40% of all American colonial shipping and the young Copley’s upbringing was one where enslavement and colonial exploitation were an inseparable part of the fabric of society, and the basis of mercantile wealth.

In 1769, Copley married Susannah (Sukey) Farnham Clarke (1745-1836) whose father, Richard Clarke (1711-1795), was the official agent of the East India Company in Boston. The Clarke family relied on the labour of enslaved people both in their households and in their various businesses. After their marriage, Copley and his wife purchased a farm in Beacon Hill in Boston, where records confirm that some of the domestic staff were enslaved (see Note 1). Four years later, amid turbulent political unrest and growing calls for independence from Britain, Copley was pressured to leave America. His family’s interests were intimately tied up in British colonial rule – his father-in-law, Clarke, was the East India Company trader with a monopoly on tea imports whose cargo was thrown into the harbour during the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Having left America in late 1774, Copley settled with his family in London. In 1800, his daughter married the cotton planter and merchant Gardiner Greene (1753-1832), who owned plantations in Guyana (see Note 2). Greene was also Copley’s artistic agent in Boston for 20 years.

Copley was deeply wary of the rumblings of American independence and the threat this posed to his position as one of the wealthy Boston elites. However, Copley mixed with people from across the political spectrum, counting among his friends and clients both prominent conservatives and radicals. He was patronised by the plantation-owning military commander Thomas Gage and his wife Margaret Gage, while also forming friendships with progressives and abolitionists such as the Founding Fathers Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

One of Copley’s best-known and lauded paintings, Watson and the Shark (1778), portrays a Black man as a central protagonist. The work was commissioned by the merchant and later Lord Mayor of London, Brook Watson (1735-1807). It depicts the true story of Watson as a teenage cabin boy, when he was the victim of a shark attack in Havana, Cuba. Several figures are shown attempting to rescue the young Watson from a small boat; among them, prominent and heroic at the centre of the composition, is a Black sailor.

The portrayal of this individual has sparked much debate. It has been suggested that he represents compassion, extending a rope for the victim to grab. However, technical analysis of the painting suggests that the figure was originally white and only later did Copley decide to include a Black figure instead. This may be a purely contextual addition, to root the scene in the Caribbean as many West Africans worked on merchant vessels at this time, whether enslaved or as free men. Moreover, the image of the ‘noble savage’ was a widely-used trope in artistic and literary circles during the 18th century. Copley’s decision to represent one of Watson’s rescuers in this heroic scene as Black cannot necessarily be taken as any indication of his sympathy or respect for people of colour or for the plight of enslaved people.

Notes 1. Jane Kamensky, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley, 2016, pp. 163-166 2. (accessed 4 March 2022).

Relevant ODNB entries

Staiti, Paul. “Copley, John Singleton (1738–1815), portrait and history painter.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022.


Royal Academician

Born: 3 July 1738 in Boston, Massachusetts, United States

Died: 9 September 1815

Nationality: American

Elected ARA: 4 November 1776

Elected RA: 9 February 1779

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

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