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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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Miles Sherbrook in the Flesh

Lately I’ve been noodling on John Singleton Copley’s portrait of the New York merchant Miles Sherbrook (1738-1815), now at the Chrysler Museum. As you can see above, Copley painted Sherbrook without a wig.

Copley made several other pictures of men not wearing wigs or powdered hair. The most famous are his portraits of the Boylston brothers. Other examples show Ebenezer Storer, Nathaniel Hurd, Thomas Hubbard, and Joseph Sherburne.

In all those pictures, however, the gentlemen wore nightcaps and banyans in a studious form of casual dress. Viewers could glimpse their shaved scalps, showing how the men kept themselves prepared for formal dress, but for their portraits they made a show of not being dressed for the world, of staying at home to do the work of wealthy scholars. (The Rev. Thomas Cary also posed in a banyan with no wig, but his head wasn’t shaved.)

In contrast, Sherbrook is dressed for a day at the counting-house. He holds a piece of correspondence dated 1771, not a scholarly book, architectural drawing, or artwork.

The pose and costuming are a lot like Copley’s 1764 painting of Benjamin Hallowell, but that Customs official wore carefully curled, “lightly powdered” hair, probably not his own. 

Another comparison is Copley’s portrait of John Bours, who also wore a gentleman’s suit and his own hair. But Bours’s pose, apparently lost in thought about the book he’s reading, seems more scholarly than mercantile.

Sherbrook displays his own receding, thinning, graying hair. Other details of the portrait eschew luxury as well: no gold buttons or trim, no watch or buckles. The jacket has “coattails that Copley made progressively slimmer in the course of painting—as pentimenti evidence,” according to John Singleton Copley in America. Another sign of lack of vanity: Copley included the pockmarks left on Sherbrook’s face by smallpox.

Why did Copley create such an unusual picture? I considered the possibility that Sherbrook’s aesthetic represented a different culture from his neighbors’. But he wasn’t Quaker like Thomas Mifflin, another gentleman Copley painted without a wig. Sherbrook had come to America from Britain as a young man and remained the agent of his London firm, so was he displaying a more progressive fashion from the imperial capital? By 1771, though, he had been in New York for fifteen years, enough time for to marry a local woman and assimilate to local manners.

We know that Sherbrook signed up for a portrait by Copley through Stephen Kemble even before the painter came to New York in 1771. Furthermore, in his house Sherbrook had what Copley called his portrait of “Capt. Richards”—most likely Sherbrook’s wife Elizabeth’s late uncle and guardian, Paul Richard, who was referred to with the rank of captain in a 1746 legislative act. Copley also painted Richard’s widow on his 1771 visit.

According to Copley, that Richard portrait was “so much admired that vast numbers went to see it.” Sherbrook even let the painter display it at his own rooms to attract more customers. That picture is lost, so we have no clue about how Richard was clothed or wigged, but we can be sure that Sherbrook knew and valued Copley’s work and that Copley was grateful to him.

Thus, Copley’s painting of Miles Sherbrook shows the man as he wanted to be preserved, pocks and all.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Miles Sherbrook's hairdo, or lack thereof, brought to mind Copley's portrait of Daniel Rogers of Gloucester. Admittedly, Rogers does have the sides curled (if indifferently), but he does have the same receding natural hairline look going on. And while Rogers is more flashily dressed, his overall posture/pose is less than elegant.

Also, one small quibble: you state that Sherbrook has "no buckles" whereas I clearly see a brass buckle at the knee. Not sure where else you'd see buckles anyway except for his footwear which is out of view in any event.

J. L. Bell said...

You’re right about the buckle at the knee, of course. I was thinking about the shoe buckles that men in full-length portraits sometimes almost seem to thrust at us. Even John Hancock’s knee buckle seems more luxurious, though—in part because it matches the trim on his coat.

The Daniel Rogers portrait is indeed an interesting comparison because it does show a receding hairline. But the rest of Rogers’s hair is indeed curled, and the trim on his coat is almost over the top. (Hancock showed how elegance is done.)

It’s quite possible my curiosity about Miles Sherbrook’s hair is based on modern attitudes toward male pattern baldness as regrettable. The fashion for wigs offered him the chance to shave his head, to wear a full head of someone else’s hair, to wear a nightcap on casual occasions. Manners even encouraged him to do so, it seems. Most genteel middle-aged men did so. But Sherbrook chose to be immortalized with a more natural look.