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, March 07, 2009

Henry Pelham Complains to Paul Revere

This is an image of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre. It’s one of the most elaborate prints he ever produced, with a complex composition and background in perspective. And it went on sale only three weeks after the shooting. How did Revere manage that?

The story starts with this advertisement for this print in Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette on 26 Mar 1770:

To be Sold by EDES and GILL
(Price Eight Pence Lawful Money)
A PRINT containing a Representation
of the late horrid Massacre in King-Street.
That caught the attention of twenty-one-year-old Henry Pelham, half-brother of the painter John Singleton Copley. Pelham had been Copley’s model for “Boy with a Squirrel,” and was an aspiring artist himself. On Thursday, 29 March, Pelham addressed an angry note to Revere:

When I heard that you were cutting a plate of the late Murder, I thought it impossible, as I knew you was not capable of doing it unless you coppied it from mine and as I thought I had entrusted it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of Honour and Justice than to take the undue advantage you have done of the confidence and Trust I reposed in you.

But I find I was mistaken, and after being at the great Trouble and Expence of making a design paying for paper, printing &c, find myself in the most ungenerous Manner deprived, not only of any proposed Advantage, but even of the expence I have been at, as truly as if you had plundered me on the highway.

If you are insensible of the Dishonour you have brought on yourself by this Act, the World will not be so. However, I leave you to reflect upon and consider of one of the most dishonorable Actions you could well be guilty of.

H. Pelham.

P S. I send by the Bearer the Prints I borrowed of you. My Mother desired you would send the hinges and part of the press, that you had from her.
Pelham had been working on his own engraving of the Massacre, titled “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power.” It looked astonishingly like Revere’s—except the perspective and other artistic details were handled more skillfully. Pelham also had a bill from Daniel Rea, Jr., for “12 Quire of Paper” and “Printing 575 of your Prints,” coming to £5.9s.

Pelham’s print is relatively rare, but here’s an uncolored example from the New York Public Library. Revere had obviously copied this image from Pelham’s sketch or early impression, just as the silversmith copied all of his other major engravings, either from drawings by his partner Christian Remmick or from British models. Revere may not have considered that wrong, since it was a standard way to reproduce art, or he may have felt this copying was justified by the need to show people “the late horrid Massacre.” I also wonder if Revere and his activist allies were getting impatient while Pelham fussed over his art.

Somehow Revere and his friends were able to soothe young Pelham’s temper. On 9 April, Edes and Gill started advertising Pelham’s prints for sale, helping him earn back his investment. The silversmith’s accounts showed he continued to do business with the Copley/Pelham family in the next few years.

Designing this image was the height of Henry Pelham’s Whiggism. His family was Anglican to begin with, which made him more apt to side with the royal government. Then Copley married a daughter of tea importer Richard Clarke, leaving the family beleaguered during the crisis that led up to the Tea Party. By the outbreak of the war in 1775, Pelham was so angry and suspicious about the Patriot cause that he feared a mob would attack another half-brother, Charles Pelham, in Newton. Henry left Boston with the British army and settled in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Revere reused the back of the copper plate on which he had copied Pelham’s Massacre image to carve a design for Massachusetts’ wartime currency.


Unknown said...

Interesting! As you probably know, Revere's version has a hidden gunman firing from a window just above the officer's sword. (This can be clearly seen if one zooms in on the high resolution version on Wikimedia Commons.) There seems to be a similar puff of smoke in Pelham's version, but I can't tell if he has a gun barrel coming out of the window like Revere did.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Pelham’s version also shows a gun shooting from a Customs House window. The town’s report on the Massacre included Charles Bourgate’s claim that he’d been forced to shoot down twice that way, and witnesses’ testimony that they’d seen or might have seen such shots.

In the few weeks immediately after the Massacre, Bostonians were committed to that version of the event (or at least to promulgating it). By the end of the year, Bourgate’s accusation collapsed.

One change Revere made to Pelham’s design was to add the label “Butcher’s Hall” on the Customs House.

Steven Wyder said...

I knew Revere copied this, but have never actually viewed the Pelham version. Thanks J.L. another great post.

Anonymous said...

Henry Pelham also produced on of the best maps of the Boston area at the time of the Revolution: http://www.bpl.org/research/pelham.htm