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.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Paul Revere’s Iconography

The April 1774 issue of Isaiah Thomas’s Royal American Magazine included this portrait of local politician Samuel Adams engraved by Paul Revere. The full print can be viewed at the American Antiquarian Society website.

Revere wasn’t the most gifted artist in this form, but we have to give him credit for working the iconography. Starting on the left we have Liberty with a Phrygian cap on a staff trampling “Laws to Enslave America.” At top is the figure of Fame blowing a trumpet.

Below Fame is Adams drawn inexpertly but recognizably from the portrait by John Singleton Copley, in an elegant and modern Chippendale frame. At the bottom is the Magna Charta of British rights.

On the right things get really busy. I think the female figure is Britannia, embodiment of traditional British power. She bears the implements of Athena, including a helmet, spear, and shield with the face of Medusa. Britannia has caught a grenadier of His Majesty’s 29th Regiment of Foot (the principal unit involved in the Boston Massacre) as he’s trying to torment a rattlesnake, symbol of America.

The month before, Thomas had published Revere’s companion portrait of John Hancock in the same sort of frame with Fame above. In that image Liberty subdued the rattlesnake-grabbing grenadier with the help of the British lion, and on the left stood a bearded knight in full armor. Honestly I don’t know what he was supposed to be.


Daud said...

I wonder if the knight might indicate Col. Hancock's status as a "warrior."

Seeing these two portraits, I have wondered if Revere had access to another engraved copy of Copley's works, or if he based his copies on the original.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, we think of Hancock primarily as a businessman, but in 1774 Bostonians referred to him as "Colonel Hancock," and he very much valued his command of the Company of Cadets.