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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Thursday, May 07, 2015

Portraits of the Young Pepperrells

This John Singleton Copley painting, now in the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art, shows the younger Sir William Pepperrell (1746-1816), his four children, and his late wife, the former Elizabeth Royall.

Yes, Elizabeth Pepperrell was dead when Copley created this picture in 1778. Her vacant stare in the center of the painting, and her limited interaction with the other family members, might signal how she had been dead for three years. Copley had also painted her as a teen-aged girl about twenty years before; that canvas is now at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

In “The Ghost of a Pepperrell Lady,” Dianne Fallon laid out the story of the Pepperrells’ marriage, which ended in the summer of 1775. Elizabeth died during the siege of Boston, two months after giving birth to her fourth child and only son, William.

Sir William blamed the lack of fresh meat. He wrote to his mother in Maine, “Love I never can again, till my soul is rewedded to that of my dear Betsy’s in the Joy of praising God forever.” He took his children to England in 1776 and became a leader of the Loyalist community there. He never remarried.

In the early 1780s Mather Brown painted little William and one of his older sisters—I’m guessing Harriet, born in 1773 and on the right above. As the family heir, he’s standing and looking out at us viewers; she’s seated and looking at him.

That canvas ended up in Maine, probably owned by a member of the extended Pepperrell-Sparhawk family who didn’t leave in the war or came back afterward. For example, the children’s great-grandmother lived at Kittery Point until 1789, and she might have wanted a picture of the little ones.

In 1894 Cecil Hampden Cutts Howard wrote that that canvas had “in some inexplicable way drifted into the hands of the proprietor of The Portland Museum, from whom it was purchased by our poet, the late Mr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” In fact, it was bought for the poet by his brother, the Rev. Samuel Longfellow, believing it was a Copley. Henry paid far more than the painting cost to have it restored and framed, and it still hangs today in the parlor of his house, Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge.

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