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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Friday, May 12, 2017

The Tate’s New Copley—or Is It?

At the end of last year, the Tate Britain museum in London announced that it had accepted the gift of a significant John Singleton Copley painting from 1776, saying:
The Fountaine Family shows how Copley adapted his style to the British market, emulating the work of Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), whose renewal of the conversation piece format in the 1760s greatly influenced British art. The painting depicts Brigg Price Fountaine, a wealthy member of the Norfolk gentry, standing in the centre of an elegant drawing room at Narford Hall, the Fountaine ancestral home. To the left is his wife Mary and to the right are their two children, Andrew and Elizabeth, with a spaniel playing at their feet. Andrew is also depicted in the two preparatory drawings by Copley hung next to the painting.

The painting remained with the Fountaine family for many years, before being offered at auction in the late 1980s, described simply as English School, circa 1780. Art historical research and technical examination since then demonstrated the attribution to Copley. The two preparatory drawings discovered at The Courtauld Institute of Art in 1988 provided decisive evidence of Copley’s authorship. . . .

The Cultural Gifts Scheme was introduced by the Government in 2013 as an initiative to encourage life-time giving to UK public collections. The addition of The Fountaine Family not only improves Tate’s existing collection of eighteenth-century conversation pieces, but it also illuminates how an ambitious American artist adapted to a distinctly British format and style. The work complements the three Copley works already in Tate’s collection – Portrait of Mrs [Relief] Gill c1770-1 painted in America; and two major subject paintings painted in Britain, The Death of Major Peirson 1781 and The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham 1779-80.
This article shows the painting alongside the sketches of a boy’s head and body. Here’s a better view of the head (shown above) and body sketches from the Courtauld Gallery.

The British Arts Council’s report on the painting (pages 22-23 in this P.D.F. download) shows that one and the same man, David Posnett, purchased the painting in the 1980s, built the case that it was by Copley, and donated it to the Tate, thus defraying his taxes. Posnett was in the art trade for decades and was chairman of the Holborne Museum in Bath from 2000 to 2013. He has received the honor of the O.B.E.

Nevertheless, I’m deeply skeptical that this is a Copley painting. The boy in the sketches, which have long been accepted as Copley’s, is posed somewhat like the boy in the painting. But the painting itself looks nothing like Copley’s work.

By the time he left America in 1774, Copley had perfected some signature elements of his portraits: shimmering fabrics, vivid flesh, expressive faces and hands. He put all those qualities into the magnificent portrait of his own family that he displayed in London in 1777—to so much acclaim that he later commissioned an engraving of it.

For the attribution of the Fountaine family portrait to Copley to be correct, he would have had to toss all those qualities aside in place of awkward anatomy and flat surfaces, supposedly because they were more fashionable in London. He would have had to sketch a serious, round-cheeked boy and then on the canvas rendered him as a torqued mannequin with tiny hands.

And then, just a few months after producing that picture for Fountaine up in Narford Hall, Copley would have gone back to his own style for a piece he planned to exhibit in London. None of that makes sense. (And that’s not even what Zoffany family portraits look like, either. They’re full of lively character.)

I can imagine Copley being influenced by the recent “conversation pieces” by Zoffany and others. He might have studied examples, even sketching figures from them in his style. And then he tried out the form with his own family as models, creating the biggest group portrait he’d made to date. But I’m not convinced he took an one-off side journey into the style of a second-rate provincial portraitist.


Amy said...

Agreed! Doubt he would stoop to such a terrible style. Perhaps the commission fell through, and was completed by another (cheaper) artist, so the prep sketches are erroneously linked to the later painting.

G. Lovely said...

The poses, the proportions, the modeling? It's hard to see that anyone could even consider this Copley's work without hard forensic evidence.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the other commenters. I could not draw such a sensitive portrait sketch, but I could certainly paint as good a family picture as you show. Is there any statement of the painting being a Copley by anyone whose financial interests are not served by such a statement?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Wow, talk about turning a blind eye....there's nothing here that would lead to an attribution to Copley, except perhaps the time period. Oh, and the tax deduction.