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The Death of Major Peirson, 6th January 1781, John Singleton Copley, 1783, © Tate, London
This jacket lining displays the large oil painting by American artist John Singleton Copley that depicts the death of Major Francis Peirson at the Battle of Jersey on 6th January 1781. Major Peirson led an attack against the French troops, during which he was killed by a French sniper, although Copley increased the drama of the event by making the moment of Peirson's death coincide with the British victory over the French, rather than earlier in the battle. More details about the artist and painting can be seen below.
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The painting can be found in the Tate's collection in London. Tate Images is part of Tate Enterprises Limited, the trading arm, of Tate. All its profits is covenanted to Tate each year and plays a vital role in supporting all four of its galleries, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St. Ives.
John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) made his artistic presence firmly felt on both sides of the Atlantic. The native Bostonian has been said to be the most important colonial American artist. He was embedded in the early history of America as a depicter of such illustrious political figures as John Hancock, and his paintings delineated the realism fashionable in early American art and which continues to influence the American artistic canon.
Copley was also connected to the beginnings of the nation of the United States of America thanks to his family connections; his wife’s father was due to receive the tea which incited the Boston Tea Party, a central event in the American Revolution.
Upon moving to England, where his work was initially compared to that of such geniuses as Titian and Rubens, Copley proceeded to shape the contemporary historical painting of the time, bringing a modern eye for detail to the historic tradition. His knack for conveying sensuality and vitality in his painting served him well in both nations. The Wikipedia page on Copley details more about his life and times.
The Death of Major Peirson was completed in 1783, two years after the event it depicts. The epic, yet meticulously composed painting was first exhibited publicly in 1784 to large crowds of eager viewers and one critic remarked 'the chorus of praise reached all the way to Buckingham Palace'. The focal points of the painting are made distinct by the bold, elegant use of colour and movement. Major Peirson, the victim, is appropriately clothed in white against which the traces of his dramatic wound can be seen, echoing the red of the uniforms which surround him as he lurches toward the viewer in the throes of death. Pompey, the heroic black servant who avenges his master’s death while clothed in rich blacks and golds, was said to be modelled on the servant of James Christie, the founder of the eponymous Christie’s auction house.
At the time this work was made, the motif of the vanquisher dying during gallant military struggle had just been popularised by another American artist transplanted to Britain, Benjamin West.
The original work exchanged hands several times early in its life, moving amongst Copley himself; the successful engraver John Boydell, who had commissioned the painting from Copley; and a Mr. Tassie, by way of Christie’s auctioneers. It eventually ended up at the National Gallery upon Copley’s death, although the States of Jersey had hoped to purchase it at auction. Not to be deterred, the States of Jersey then entrusted the young artist William Holyoake with the task of creating a second version of the painting. This copy can be seen hanging in the Royal Court in Jersey.
Further information on the painting can be found on the Tate website.
This painting puts the viewer right in the heart of the battle at the key moment of the death of the 24-year-old Major Francis Peirson. The viewer is looking towards the Royal Square on what is now Peirson Place, with action from the battle happening in almost all directions, while the vibrancy of the colours used by Copley really makes the painting almost leap off the canvas.
If you look to the top left of the painting you can make out the British reinforcements coming over the hill which ensured the French invaders were overpowered and most eventually surrendered. Some of the statues that can be seen in the painting still stand today and still bear the bullet holes from the battle more than 235 years ago.
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