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John Singleton Copley

John Singleton Copley, the son of Richard Copley by his wife, Mary Singleton, of Quinville Abbey, was born in the year 1737, shortly after his parents had emigrated to Boston from the Co. Clare on account of his father’s ill-health.

His father died while Copley was still young, and his mother, marrying Peter Pelham, a portrait painter and mezzotint engraver, young Copley was taught the rudiments of his art by the latter. When only 16 years old he painted and engraved a portrait of the Rev. William Welstead and his success was assured. As a result he received commissions to paint many of the distinguished Americans of his day, including George Washington.

In 1766 he exhibited anonymously at the Society of Incorporated Artists in England, “The Boy with a Squirrel,” a portrait of his step-brother, and this was received so well that Copley left America for England and never returned. After a short stay in England he went to the Continent to study Art, particularly to Parma and Rome, and on his return in 1776, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. Three years later he was elected a Royal Academician.

Copley, who exhibited many interesting pictures at the Annual Exhibition of the Academy, was commissioned to do a very large picture, still hanging in the London Guildhall, of “The Repulse and Defeat of the Spanish Floating Batteries at Gibraltar.” These historical paintings were famous for the number of contemporary portraits they contained and must have entailed an enormous amount of work. He was considered one of the greatest portraits-painters of his day, and the commissions he received for this kind of work made him a rich man.

He died at his home in George Street, Hanover Square, London, in 1815, and is buried at Croydon churchyard. Boston is justly proud of his associations with that city, and, besides purchasing one of his great pictures, a historical oil painting of Charles I in the House of Commons, by public subscription, it named one of the finest squares in the town Copley Square.

In 1872, many of his paintings and drawings were destroyed in the great fire of Boston, and, in the following year, “A Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley” was privately printed in that city.

In 1769, before leaving America for England, he married Susannah, daughter of Richard Clarke, of Boston. The latter became famous afterwards as the pro-British tea merchant whose consignment of tea was thrown overboard as a protest against the English tea-duties in the famous Boston Tea-Party.

Copley had one son and two daughters, and the former became, as Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Chancellor of the British Exchequer.

Source: Robert Herbert, ‘The Worthies of Thomond, II’, Limerick, 1944.

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