I’m very glad that the bicentenary of Spencer Perceval’s assassination appears to be getting improved coverage today. At last.
But Perceval wasn’t the only PM to meet his maker on 11 May. Exactly 34 years previously, William Pitt (“the Elder”), 1st Earl of Chatham, died quietly at the family home in Hayes, Kent. But the death of “The Great Commoner” is remembered far more dramatically in a favourite painting of mine by the American artist John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815). Though called The Death of the Earl of Chatham, what the painting is actually of is Pitt’s collapse in the House of Lords some weeks earlier, on the 7th of April. The picture can be seen at The National Portrait Gallery and I would urge you to look out for it on your next visit. Here it is.
Apart from the dying Earl, the picture includes John Jeffreys Pratt, 1st Marquess Camden; John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham; Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn; Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford; William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield; James Charles Pitt; William Pitt; William Henry Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland; Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond and Lennox; Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham and 44 others.
This is a typical genre painting of the age, popular throughout Europe since at least the 16C. Mostly commissioned, the idea was to fill the picture with portraits of worthies, the more flattering the better. No doubt Copley, talented though he undoubtedly was, as an immigrant from the colonies would be most keen to garner favour in a world dominated by such as Joshua Reynolds.
So. While reminding myself of this splendid picture, I thought that John Singleton Copley rang a bell. It was the American thing. Of course. He was the guy who made one of the largest oil painting in England, The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782. It was commissioned by the City of London very shortly after the incident itself and can be viewed today at the Guildhall Art Gallery, where it occupies the whole back wall of the gallery over two floors. Read the full remarkable story of this painting here.
My curiosity about this emigre artist in London now suitably whetted, I looked for more of his works. Most are fairly standard and unremarkable for the age, although all very skilfully done. There is an exception: another highly dramatic and unusual depiction: Watson and the Shark. This painting shows the real story of a teenager Brook Watson being attacked by a shark off the coast in Cuba. The fish destroyed the bottom half of the boy’s right leg. Undeterred by his disability, Watson went on to have a fascinating and successful career as a commissary and merchant and, back in London a founder and chairman of Lloyds. He was MP for the City of London for nine years from 1784 and in 1796 became Lord Mayor of London. Not bad. And so we return to London, where you can see two of the pictures mentioned here absolutely for free at the National Portrait Gallery and the Guildhall Art Gallery. We’re so lucky.