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, January 17, 2019

Two Images of the Boston Massacre at Auction

The next Seth Kaller auction of manuscripts and printed Americana includes a print of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre. The auction is scheduled for 24 January, and the price estimate is up to $200,000.

This is a second-state copy, shown by the clock on the Old Brick Meetinghouse tower. Its hands point to 10:20 P.M. while the earlier copies say 8:00. (The shooting probably occurred around 9:30.)

This copy is hand-colored, a luxury touch that customers paid extra for. That coloring offers further support for one of my arguments about this engraving.

Some people complain that Revere either didn’t show Crispus Attucks or portrayed him as white. That’s based on interpreting the figure lying face down in the center foreground as Attucks, and on seeing uncolored images.

I think that central victim is ropemaker Samuel Gray. In the colored prints, that man often has blood coming from wounds on his head, and Gray was indeed shot in the head.

There are multiple victims in the crowd at the left, as shown in the detail above. One face is colored to be darker than the others. That face is even more dark in the Philadelphia library’s copy. In addition, that victim is often painted with two bloody wounds in his chest, which is how Attucks was shot. At least in this colored print, it’s easy to identify Attucks and recognize him as a person of color.

If an original Revere engraving is beyond your price range, Boston 1775 friend Charles Bahne alerted me to a variation on that image being sold closer to home.

CRN Auctions of Cambridge is offering a hand-drawn copy of Revere’s print for sale on 27 January. It came from the Doggett family, who moved from Boston to Maine in the early twentieth century.

Above the drawing is the same title that Revere engraved on his copperplate, minus the word “Bloody.” At bottom is the rhyming verse from the Revere print. That text wasn’t written to match the lettering on the print. Instead, it’s in an eighteenth-century business hand, using the long s.

All in all, I’m baffled at why this picture was made. Was it a drawing and handwriting exercise for a teenager? A patriotic memento? An attempt to replace Grandpapa’s beloved picture after it got damaged (“Quick, Judah, make a copy and he’ll never notice!”)?

The auction house’s description seems to hold out the possibility that this painting was produced by Christian Remick and served as the model for Revere’s print. But we know that Revere copied the image from Henry Pelham, whose perspective and figure drawing was better than both Revere’s and this unknown artist.

In addition, the hand-drawn copy shows the clock at 10:20, meaning it was based on Revere’s second state.


MCinOR said...

Is Samuel Gray a member of the Gray's, famous for their sailing expeditions such as Robert Gray?

J. L. Bell said...

Almost nothing is known about Samuel Gray. He was a young man, unmarried, boarding with another family. He didn’t own property, earning his living at a ropewalk instead of his own small shop. The owner of that ropewalk was named John Gray, but there's no indication in the contemporaneous record that they were related. Nor is there any sign that Samuel Gray might have come from Rhode Island, like Robert Gray the mariner.