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

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Signature Style of Paul Revere

Yesterday I showed a watercolor painting of a British officer that the Skinner auction house is selling this weekend. And here’s the detail that makes this image so interesting: the words at the bottom of the picture identifying the subject as “Major John Pitcairn” and the artist as “P. Revere.”

I’m skeptical of most things from the Revolution that aren’t clearly contemporaneous, and some that are. I was therefore skeptical about the authenticity of this portrait. As Skinner says, it’s the only known painting credited to Paul Revere. For his engravings he relied on other artists like Christian Remick and Henry Pelham, or he copied prints from Britain. Even that note on the back of this picture’s frame says:
The portrait is a really creditable piece of painting, revealing the facial evidences of individual character, a work that must enhance his artistic reputation, at present resting upon the various engraved Views in which the figures barely escape caricature.
Yet the draftsmanship is neither so competent nor so incompetent as to indicate, at least to these untrained eyes, whether it’s authentic. If George W. Bush can take up painting in retirement, why couldn’t Revere?

On the other hand, if the only thing connecting this artwork to Revere is his signature, I figured I should take a hard look at that. I went looking for other examples of Revere’s signature, and found variations over time.

Here’s how Revere signed the 1767 non-consumption agreement recently digitized at Harvard’s Houghton Library:
The way he wrote his name at the start of his first deposition about the events of 18-19 Apr 1775, digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society:
His name at the start of the “fair copy” of that deposition, also through the M.H.S.:
And his formal signature on the bottom of that document:
Finally, an 1816 receipt:
In all those signatures, the left leg of the P and R swoops up to the left. Those two capital letters also have a big swoop down from the top—sometimes a huge swoop. Those details also appear in the name on the painting.
However, in the penned signatures above, all the letters after the initial capitals are connected. In contrast, the “P. Revere” on the watercolor is made up of separate letters. And the little R is in a different style from the same letter in all the examples above. In those respects, that label is more like the way Revere added his name to engravings, as shown below in images from the American Antiquarian Society.
But, as you can see, Revere used different lettering styles on different prints. I didn’t try to capture all the variations. Yet another consideration is that Revere had engraved his names on those plates backwards. So it would be natural for him to write his name a little different when he wrote it in pen, even if he was trying to write it as it usually appeared on his engravings.

And, of course, someone else writing Revere’s name on this watercolor could have found similar examples to copy.

In sum, I was hoping to find definitive evidence to confirm or allay my skepticism about this painting, and I didn’t find it in the signature.

TOMORROW: Peeking inside the frame.

1 comment:

Historical Ken said...


Thank you for the explanations of Paul Revere's signatures.
Absolutely fascinating!