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, January 10, 2017

Kamensky on Copley in Medford, 18 Jan.

Here’s a passage from Jane Kamensky’s biography of John Singleton Copley, A Revolution in Color, that I quite enjoyed. This describes a period in 1774, when Copley was embarking on his long-dreamed-of Grand Tour of Europe to study art. He had picked up an Englishman named George Carter, a “failed mercer [textile dealer] lately turned painter,” as his traveling companion.
Carter romped through a barbed picaresque worthy of Cervantes, while Copley chronicled his earnest Pilgrim’s Progress. Their differing sensibilities began to chafe, at least on Carter.

“Mr. Carter [is] well versed in traveling, has the languages…is a very polite and sensible man, who has seen much of the World,” Copley told his mother. It was “an happy event[,] the having a companion,” he assured [his wife] Sukey, “by this everything goes easy.”

The very next day Carter noted: “my Companion…is a perfect dead Wait.”

As the week's stretched to months, Carter’s litany of complaints grew longer and louder. Copley was needy, “not knowing a Syllable of the Language,” yet had “so much to say in his own…that it rather Fags the Spirits.” He could be combative and even perverse, always taking “Things at the wrong End.”

He defended the untenable, arguing that “a Huckaback Towel was softer than a Barcelona Silk Handkerchief,” or that fealty to law was nobler than unforced honor. Yet he brooked disagreement poorly. Carter’s diagnoses: Copley had been too “long the Hero of each little Tale,” allowed to believe “there is Nothing that he is not Master of.” Boston was a small pond. . . .

Carter wearied, especially, of Copley’s paeans to the colonies. Every leaf, every vista, was measured against America—and found wanting: the mirror image of Copley’s letters home. American wood burned hotter than English coal. American milk tasted sweeter than French; surely the French cows “had eat dandelion.” (This after Copley had slurped eleven cups of milky tea greedily enough.)

From Toulon, near the end of September, Carter wrote,
My Companion is solacing himself that if they go on in America for an 100 Years to come as they have for 150 years past, they shall have an independent Government…Art will then be more encouraged there, great Artists would arise and that was the great object that induced him to take this Tour to Roame.

I just hinted that it was probabl[e] he might not live to see that Period; and therefore his coming to Rome, if that was the End intended to be answered, would he not be some what mistaken in the Outset?
Copley didn’t get that.

Prof. Kamensky, director of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, will speak about Copley at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford on Wednesday, 18 January. This event will start at 7:30 P.M. Copies of A Revolution in Color will be available for purchase and signing.

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