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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Monday, August 06, 2007

Why is Copley Square Named for Copley?

Recently the director of the Boston Public Library made a public case that the Copley subway station be renamed “Copley/B.P.L.” or something else that would include his institution.

There’s some precedent for that, as in the “Hynes/I.C.A.” stop. But the I.C.A. (Institute of Contemporary Art) has moved away, and half of us in Boston never stopped calling that station by its old name of “Auditorium” anyway. Plus, the B.P.L. isn’t the only major institution or building or destination at the Copley stop: there’s also Trinity Church and the Hancock Tower, to start with.

Many Boston destinations get by just fine without subway stations named after them: the Gahden (North Station), Fenway Pahk (Kenmore, with Fenway slightly less convenient), Faneuil Hall (Government Center). And it’s not really a problem finding the Boston Public Library by subway. Ride to Copley, come up the stairs, and turn around. That big stone building, looks like a library? That’s the library. Finding the Rare Books & Manuscripts Department inside the building—that was the challenge.

In any event, during that renaming discussion I started to wonder: How did that area get named after John Singleton Copley in the first place?

After all, Copley left Boston in 1774 and settled in England. Though he had tried to be neutral during most of the political turmoil of the 1760s and 1770s and took no part in the Revolutionary War, he was undoubtedly a Loyalist. Cities don’t usually name landmarks after people who go to live in what becomes an enemy country.

So here’s the story, pieced together with help from the Friends of Copley Square. In 1870, the original Museum of Fine Arts was built on that square, which was created as part of the Back Bay landfill. (In other words, that whole area was underwater every high tide during the Revolution.) To highlight the proximity of the classy museum, real estate promoters and city planners called the area “Art Square” for the next decade. Then in 1883 the city renamed the square to commemorate the most famous and talented artist born in Boston.

The choice of Copley’s name reflected a number of factors, I think:

  • A century that had passed since the Revolution, letting passions cool. In fact, the top echelon of Boston society was feeling more sympathy for Loyalists in the late 1800s than for those violent revolutionaries.
  • One of Copley’s sons had become a top London lawyer, then a viscount. So his name also had a bit of aristocratic glamor attached to it.
  • Romanticism and the artistic movements that followed made visual artists into cultural heroes rather than expensive craftsmen. For people of the mid-eighteenth century, it would probably have seemed ludicrous to name a city square or street after a mere portrait painter. Decades later, doing so showed the city’s sophistication.
  • The city’s deposited Copley’s excellent portraits of John Hancock and Samuel Adams, which it had owned since 1863, in the museum in 1876, thus providing the start of its world-class Copley collection.
The Boston Public Library building didn’t go up at that location until 1895—so it’s always been at Copley Square, and we’ve been able to find it for over a century.

As for that statue of Copley in the public park, created by Lewis Cohen and pictured above? It's been there for (wait for it) five years.

1 comment:

Mr Punch said...

There used to be a railroad station called "Trinity" in Copley Square - it was sort of the same as Back Bay, when the names of rail, el, and subway stations depended on which line you were on.