Biographies for Children
John Singleton Copley
hen the city of Boston, Massachusetts, was just a small town in which there were no schools where boys and girls could learn to draw and paint, one little fellow by the name of John Singleton Copley was quite sure to be waiting at the door when his stepfather, Peter Pelham, came home to dinner or supper, to ask why the pictures he had been drawing of various people did not look like them. Peter Pelham could nearly always tell John what the matter was, because he knew a good deal about drawing. He made maps and engravings himself.
John remembered what his stepfather told him and practised until he made really fine drawings. Then he began to color them. He did love gay tints, and as both men and women wore many buckles and jewels, and brocades and velvets of every hue in those days, he could make these portraits as dazzling as he chose.
There is no doubt John loved to make pictures. He had drawn many a one on the walls of his nursery when he was scarcely more than a baby. He later covered the blank pages and margins of his school-books with faces and animals. And instead of playing games with the other boys in holidays, he was apt to spend such hours with chalks and paints.
When John was fourteen or fifteen, his portraits were thought so lifelike that Boston people paid him good prices for them. He was glad to earn money, for his kind stepfather died, leaving his wife to the care of John and his stepbrother, Henry. He had been working and saving for years when he married the daughter of a rich Boston merchant. This wife, Suzanne, was a beautiful girl, proud of her husband's talent and anxious for him to get on in the world. The artist soon bought a house on Beacon Hill which had a fine view from its windows. He called this estate, which covered eleven acres, his "little farm." You can guess how large it looked when I tell you that the farm is to-day practically the western side of Beacon Hill.
The young couple were happy and must have prospered, for a man who saw the house on the hill wrote to his friends: "I called on John Singleton Copley and found him living in a beautiful home on a fine open common; dressed in red velvet, laced with gold, and having everything about him in handsome style." It is evident John still liked bright colors.
John had never seen any really good paintings; he had never had any teacher; and he longed to see the works of the old masters in other countries. But at first he did not want to leave his old mother; then it was the young wife who kept him here; and by and by he felt he could not be away from his own dear little children, so it was not until he was nearly forty that he went abroad.
In one of the first letters that Suzanne got from her husband he told of the fine shops in Genoa. She laughed when she read that in a few hours after he landed he bought a suit of black velvet lined with crimson satin, lace ruffles for his neck and sleeves, and silk stockings. "I'd know," she said to herself, "the suit would have a touch of crimson--John does love rich colors!"
All his letters told how wonderful he found the old paintings and often described his attempts to copy them. After he had visited the galleries and museums of Italy, he went to England. He was delighted to find that his wife and family had already fled there because of the Revolution in America. He had heard of the trouble between the Colonists in America and England and had worried night and day for fear harm would come to Suzanne and the children. Of course he worried about the "little farm" too, but it was no time to go back to Boston, and he could only hope his agent would protect it.
The Copleys liked London, but some days they felt homesick for Beacon Hill. Still he must keep earning money, and there were plenty of English people who wanted to sit for their portraits, while of course, with the fierce Revolution raging, and with soldiers camping everywhere, Boston people did not care much about having their pictures painted.
In London John began to paint pictures that showed events in history. Sometimes he would take for a subject a famous battle, sometimes a scene from the English Parliament, or perhaps a king or lord doing some act which we have read about in their lives. These pictures were immense in size and took a long time to do, because Copley was particular to have everything exactly true. George the Third was so much pleased with his work that when he was going to paint the large work "The Siege of Gibraltar", his Majesty sent him, with his wife and eldest daughter, to Hanover, to take the portraits of four great generals of that country, who had proved their bravery and skill on the rock of Gibraltar. All the uniforms, swords, banners, and scenery were as perfect as if Copley had been at the siege himself, and the officers' faces were just like photographs. The king was very kind and generous. He told Copley not to hurry back to England but to enjoy Hanover thoroughly, and to give his wife and daughter a holiday they would never forget. To enable Copley to go into private homes and look at art treasures which the public never saw, the king gave him a letter asking this courtesy, written with his own hand.
This large canvas, "The Siege of Gibraltar", is owned by the city of London. There is another huge painting, "The Death of Lord Chatham", at Kensington Museum, which Americans like to see. It shows old Lord Chatham falling in a faint at the House of Lords. The poor man was too sick to be there, but he was a strong friend to the American Colonies and had declared over and over again that the king ought not to tax them. When he heard there was to be voting on the question, he rose from his bed and drove in a carriage to the House to say once more how wicked it was. The members of the House of Lords look very imposing with their grave faces and robes of scarlet, trimmed with ermine, but they sometimes act in a childish manner and show temper. One man who almost hated Chatham for so defending the Colonies sat as still as if he were carved out of stone when the poor old lord dropped to the floor. This picture shows him sitting as cold and stiff as a ramrod while all the other members have sprung to their feet or have rushed to help the fainting man.
The Boston Public Library holds one of Copley's historical pictures. It shows a scene from the life of Charles the First of England. He is standing in the speaker's chair in the House of Commons, demanding something which the speaker, kneeling before him, is unwilling to tell. There is plenty of chance for John Copley to show his love for brilliant coloring, for the suits of the king, his nephew, Prince Rupert, and his followers are of velvets and satins, the slashed sleeves showing facings of yellow, cherry, and green. The knee breeches are fastened with buckles over gaudy silk stockings and high-heeled slippers. The men wear deep collars of lace, curled wigs, and velvet hats with sweeping plumes.
But in a picture at Buckingham Palace called "The Three Princesses" there is a riot of color. The scene is a garden, beyond which the towers of Windsor Castle show, with the flag of England floating above it; there are fruit-trees and flowers, parrots of gay plumage, and pet dogs. The little girls' gowns are rainbow-like, and one of them is dancing to the music of a tambourine. It is a darling picture, and the royal couple prized it greatly.
When John Copley was only a young man, he sent a picture from Boston to England, asking that it might be placed on exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was called "The Boy and the Flying Squirrel." The boy was a portrait of his half-brother, Henry Pelham. Copley sent no name or letter, and it was against the rules of the Academy to hang any picture by an unknown artist, but the coloring was so beautiful that the rule was broken, and crowds stopped before the Boston lad's canvas to admire it. When it was discovered that John Copley painted it, and it was known he had received no lessons at that time, he was urged to go abroad at once. At the time he could not. But the praise encouraged him to keep on, and before he had a chance to visit Italy, he had painted nearly three hundred pictures. Nearly all of these were painted at the "little farm" on Beacon Hill, when he or Suzanne would hardly have dreamed the day would come when he should be the favorite of kings and courts.