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, March 12, 2009

The Confusion over Henry Pelham’s Massacre Image

During Boston Massacre week, my posting about how Henry Pelham complained that Paul Revere had copied his image of the shooting on King Street prompted some questions from Boston 1775 visitors.

As the links back there show, Pelham’s print looks very much like Revere’s—which is only natural, since Revere appears to have copied it. The silversmith altered only a few details, such as adding the label “Butcher’s Hall” to the Customs House on the right.

Pelham’s can be quickly distinguished from Revere’s by the title “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power” at top and a skull and crossbones at bottom left. Here’s a colored version from Bryn Mawr.

Unfortunately, a few years back, the website for the P.B.S. television show Africans in America offered a lesson plan with this page identifying the image above as Pelham’s print of the Massacre. That image isn’t even in the same medium as the 1770 prints. As the quality of line and coloring shows, it’s a lithograph rather than a painted copperplate engraving.

That lithograph was created around 1856 by John Henry Bufford, working from a painting by William L. Champney. I’ve also seen a grayscale version reproduced in books. And now it’s appeared on a lot of educational websites as Pelham’s picture.

Obviously, there are some resemblances. Champney based his composition on the Pelham/Revere prints: the Old State House and the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy’s meeting-house are again in the background, and the soldiers on the right all fire in a line. However, Champney’s work reflects the political issues of 1856 rather than 1770. He put Crispus Attucks, with clearly African features, at the center of the composition. This print was part of the Abolitionist movement’s recovery of Attucks as a symbol of black patriotism. In contrast, Pelham and Revere buried Attucks in the otherwise-white crowd, if they showed him at all.

The Pelham/Revere print from 1770 and the Champney/Bufford lithograph from 1856 do lend themselves to a compare-and-contrast lesson on visual images as historic documents and/or political propaganda. But it helps to get the names and dates right.

And there’s more digital confusion out there. Several websites attribute the Champney/Bufford image to James Well Champney (1843-1903), a more famous American landscape painter—who was only sixteen when that picture was published. Others misspell the lithographer’s name as “Pufford.” (I did that myself in an early draft of this posting.)

And this site puts the label “Pelham Picture” on an even later painting of the Massacre. Okay, that site’s just an elementary-school project. But still, the real lesson here is not to believe everything you see on the internet without checking other reliable sites.


Mitch Kachun said...

I'm wondering several things about the Champney/Bufford image. There are other contemporaneous images of the Massacre (some showing Attucks, some not) that appear in school books, other books like Nell's \Colored Patriots of the Revolution\, or broadsides advertising Nell's Attucks Day celebrations. But the Champney image seems unique in *not* being published in a book. Why was it created? Were both these men active abolitionists? Was the painting commissioned? And does the painting still exist, and if so, where?

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t know if Champney’s painting survives, or was meant to.

Obviously, the print was made for mass consumption. As a color print, and not a small one, it was probably meant for display on its own. All of which means that in 1856 the manufacturer saw a potential market for that image.

Champney and Bufford might have been motivated by politics to make the print. But more important to its actual manufacture is that their printer thought there were enough Americans with money motivated to buy a copy.

Anonymous said...

i just saw the pelham version framed in an antique shop.it was beautiful.how could i tell how old it is and its value?

J. L. Bell said...

I’m no expert on dating prints, but I know that a lot of Revolutionary-era images have been reprinted over the centuries, using various technologies. Some prints of Revere’s Massacre engraving are well over a hundred years old, but not from the original run.