Against a backdrop of the American Revolution, Waters’ debut history explores the lives of expatriate colonial painters John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West as they move from friendship to bitter rivalry in George III’s London.
Both Copley and West were sons of Irish immigrants born in 1738; Copley in Boston, West near Philadelphia. Both began their careers painting portraits in America, and both left the Colonies as the American Revolution was brewing. West arrived in England before Copley and, through a series of introductions and coincidences, gained a royal patronage from King George, also born in 1738. West arrived with no political baggage, however, and had an easier time than Copley, whose painting of Samuel Adams made him suspicious to British eyes. In 1774, when Copley first met West in London, their relations were cordial, and West even tried to help his fellow artist. But time and again, Copley’s artistry was recognized as superior, and West came to view him as a threat and attempted to thwart Copley clandestinely and, in the end, quite openly. This slim but information-packed volume reads like an enjoyable high school text filled with enticing factual tidbits that bring the story to life. For instance, Copley’s Tory father-in-law, Richard Clarke, was responsible for the security of the tea that was dumped into Boston Harbor. Copley, who was town warden but apolitical, tried to mediate “a solution acceptable to both parties.” However, “[i]n the face of serious threats from a mob that smashed windows in the Clarke residence,” he fled to Salem. This small tome includes an introduction, chronology, notes, list of abbreviations, bibliography, and museums and galleries where the paintings can be viewed. Waters makes no bones about taking sides: He’s clearly in Copley’s corner, even taking editorial snipes at West and making disparaging conjecture beyond the known facts. Galt, whom West tasks with writing his biography, “wrote the apotheosis West wanted, that is, to be remembered almost in a divine light as a great artist. West’s puffing was outrageous.”
A well-written, fact-filled history of two American artists; a must for fans of history and art.