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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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Winthrop Chandler’s Bunker Hill

This is Winthrop Chandler’s representation of the Battle of Bunker Hill, painted probably in 1776 or 1777 as a firescreen for the house of a cousin in Pomfret, Connecticut. It’s now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and you can get a closer look at the museum’s website.

I say “representation” because Chandler didn’t depict the battle or Boston harbor accurately. As the museum explains:
Although Chandler may have spent time in Boston during the 1760s, the Connecticut-based artist was not present at the battle of Bunker Hill. Nor, apparently, was his composition inspired by a print. This depiction is instead Chandler’s own notion of the military engagement, one of the most costly British victories of the war.

While Chandler’s view is not accurate from either a military or a topographical standpoint (the spectator seems to be looking down over Charlestown from Breed’s Hill, where the battle actually took place), it conveys the drama of the event through telling detail. Wounded soldiers and riderless horses are scattered across the foreground. British ships blast the shoreline with cannonfire, while tiny figures cling to the rigging or flail in the water. At right, a house bursts into flame, a prelude to the bombardment of Charlestown. And, spaced neatly throughout the picture are the three forts that guarded the harbor, each proudly flying the Grand Union flag.
That flag isn’t documented in the Boston theater until at least six months after the battle, and maybe not even then. It certainly didn’t fly inside Boston’s forts, as Chandler depicted. Those were, after all, held by the British. But this painting does show how, only a couple of years after the battle, it had already become a patriotic touchstone.

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