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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Saturday, October 06, 2018

A Portrait Vandalized at Harvard

On 26 Nov 1765 the Harvard Corporation made the following decision:
Whereas Governr. [Francis] Bernard, as we are inform’d by our Treasr. hath offer’d to give his Picture to the College, Thereupon unanimously Voted, That We thankfully accept it.
Bernard was already fairly unpopular in the midst of the Stamp Act protests, but he was an influential benefactor for the college. And hey—it was a free painting.

The record doesn’t state who made that portrait, but if it was done locally the artist was almost certainly John Singleton Copley, Boston’s most accomplished and fashionable portraitist in the 1760s. The Swiss artist Pierre Eugène Du Simitière saw Gov. Bernard’s portrait at Harvard when he passed through Massachusetts in 1767.

On 6 Oct 1768, 250 years ago today, the “Journal of Occurrences” that the Boston Whigs wrote and sent to the New-York Journal stated:
From Cambridge we learn, that last evening, the picture of ———— ————, hanging in the college-hall, had a piece cut out of the Breast exactly describing a heart, and a note—that it was a most charitable attempt to deprive him of that part, which a retrospect upon his administration must have rendered exquisitely painful.
Lest there be any doubt about which picture that was, John Tudor wrote in his private diary the same day:
Last evening the picture of Governor Bd. hanging in College Hall had a piece cut out of the Breast like a Heart & a Note left, giving the Reason.
Notably, no Boston newspapers reported this vandalism at the time, though some reprinted the item from the New York paper a few weeks later.

The next month, the Harvard Corporation agreed to frame Bernard’s painting and display it in the college’s Philosophy Chamber, which was more secure. The board moved portraits of two other benefactors, Thomas Hancock and Thomas Hollis, into that room as well. Left unstated was the college was going to spend money to repair the damaged canvas of the governor.

On 14 Mar 1769, “Journal of Occurences” reported:
G—r B—d’s picture has been lately returned to Harvard-College to be hung up in the Library: Our American Limner, Mr. Copely, by the surprising art of his pencil, has actually restored as good a heart as had been taken from it; tho’ upon a near and accurate inspection, it will be found no other than a false one.—

There may it long remain hanging, to shew posterity the true picture of the man, who during a weak and w[icke]d Ad[ministratio]n, was suffered to continue in the S[ea]t of G[overn]m[en]t, a sore scourge to the people, until he had happily awakened a whole continent to a thorough sense of their own interest, and thereby laid the foundation of American greatness.
By then Bernard was thoroughly unpopular, and he left Massachusetts for good a few months later.

The painting of Bernard is no longer in Harvard’s inventory. It might have disappeared during the war, when the college became a barracks for the Continental Army, or in the following years. It’s also conceivable that the painting quietly went back to Bernard and is the same Copley portrait that he presented to his alma mater, Christ Church College at Oxford.

I see scholars writing two different things about that painting (shown above). Some Copley experts date the Christ Church portrait to the mid-1770s, saying it was made in Britain after the artist had moved there for good.

Others suggest that Bernard donated that painting in 1772 when he received an honorary degree at Oxford, meaning Copley must have completed it in the 1760s before the governor sailed. I don’t know if that canvas has been examined for repairs in the chest area. Of course, Copley could have supplied Gov. Bernard with two copies of his portrait to give away.

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