J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Marking the Bounds of John Singleton Copley’s “Farm”

“Mapping Revolutionary Boston” Week at Boston 1775 starts with a look at the “Copley Farm,” one of the pins in the upper part of the map on that website/app from the Bostonian Society and Wellesley College.

That land was property on the western slope of Beacon Hill assembled by John Singleton Copley in the early 1770s, after he’d established himself as North America’s premiere portraitist and married into the wealthy Clarke family. Some of the buildings on that land appear in the upper left of Christian Remick’s picture above.

In 1795 Copley’s younger half-brother (and former model and assistant) Henry Pelham wrote to him about that property:
I now return you an answer to your several inquiries respecting your land on [i.e., facing on] the Common, in Boston, which I have particularly known for upwards of thirty years, having, when a boy at school, almost constantly bathed at the strand upon the western side of it. But from the time of your purchasing the western part from Mr. [Peter] Chardon I have been intimately acquainted with it, having twice had it under my care.

First, in the year 1771, while you were in New York, when I renewed part of the fences, and, with the concurrence of the selectmen, laid out a broad road from George’s Street [Hancock Street] to the water, and planted a row of trees in continuation of those in front of Governor [John] Hancock’s ground; and, next, in the year 1775, when I inclosed the whole with a Portland rail fence, to replace the former fence, which had been demolished for fire-wood by the troops, who, the winter before, were quartered in Boston. . . .

At the northwest corner of the field was a very high, steep cliff of loose, rolling gravel, which made it necessary to run the fence upon the upper edge of it,…both for the safety of cattle and for the ease of fencing. . . .

I can testify that you had such possession till your leaving the country in 1774; that in the year 1775 I inclosed the grounds on your behalf, and held the possession for your use till hostilities commenced between Great Britain and America, when those grounds were occupied by the British troops for encampment and erecting fortifications.
Copley had written to Pelham for that confirming information because he was about to start a lawsuit to get back that land. He had lived in England since a few months before the Revolutionary War began, meaning that Massachusetts’s laws confiscating the property of Loyalists who left during the war didn’t affect him. As agent for his Boston property, Copley had chosen Samuel Cabot, husband of one of his wife’s cousins.

In 1795 Cabot reached a deal to sell that land to the Mount Vernon Proprietors for five times what Copley had paid. At first, the painter was quite pleased. Then he learned that the new Massachusetts State House was to be built nearby. Copley decided that Cabot could have gotten a better price, and might have colluded with the buyers. He sent his son, a young lawyer, to Boston to contest the sale in court, but lost. And that was the start of the posh neighborhood of Beacon Hill west of the State House.

No comments: