Behind The Scenes, 4 July 2018: American Independence and our Fine Art Treasures
By Terah Walkup, Art Curator
One afternoon I received an excited phone call from fellow art curator Emma who couldn’t wait to tell me her new-found knowledge: Brook Watson was a Janner! Brook Watson is better known as the central figure in an iconic work of American art history: John Singleton Copley’s ‘Watson and the Shark’. It is a monumental painting of a shark attack on a teenaged boy who lost his leg while swimming in Havana Bay. It is part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Watson was born in Plymouth in 1735 but moved to Boston, Massachusetts as a young child when he was orphaned. When he reached his teens, his uncle, a merchant, put him to work as a crew member, which brought him to that ill-fated swim in the harbour. In 1774, Watson met the American painter Copley whom he commissioned to paint the dramatic scene. Watson’s next move brings us to the subject of today’s blog post. Before he commissioned the famous painting of his attack, Watson visited the American colonies and used his mercantile connections to gather intelligence on his American peers regarding revolutionary activity while doing trade there.
As Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives’ unofficial resident American, I delight in bringing in American treats like pecan pie, sweet potato casserole, and chocolate chip cookies to the office and was pleased to write a blog for July 4th, American Independence Day, and shine a light on some of the treasures in our collection with a connection to the American Revolution.
On November 1776, a few months after America issued its Declaration of Independence, a satirical print came out in the London Magazine lampooning the quick turn events had taken. ‘News from America, Patriots in the Dumps,’ is a merciless image of Lord North, who proudly boasts news from a letter announcing the triumph of British troops. An allegorical figure of America, shown as a bare-breasted, dejected woman in revolutionary dress, is jeered at by well-heeled men in silk coats in a sinister depiction of mockery. This print was pasted into a volume of loose prints possibly by Charles Rogers—the principal collector of PMGA’s Cottonian Collection—who perhaps dated the print in pencil, 1776. The events over the next five years would not inspire such confidence as shown in this print on either side.
The most important item in our stewardship to this narrative is the 1761 portrait of Charles Cornwallis, Lord Brome by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Lord Brome would later be more familiarly known as General Cornwallis, the powerhouse general whose loss at Yorktown was the final blow to Britain’s fight against American insurgents during the Revolutionary War. In 1781 General Washington surrounded Cornwallis’s troops at the exposed post in seaside Virginia where Cornwallis had hoped to block French ships from delivering their support of money, supplies, and men to their American allies. Lord North—of the earlier satirical print—would write despairingly in his journal of that day, ‘Oh my god! It’s all over.’
The painter Joshua Reynolds was born in Plympton and was apprenticed in London. He returned to Plymouth Dock as a young professional keen to set up a portrait studio. He attracted prestigious clients from among wealthy merchants, naval officers, and the aristocracy. His professional establishment in Plymouth fuelled his success in London as a portrait painter. The Eliot family, of Port Eliot in St Germans, East Cornwall, were among his first clients and would remain lifelong friends. His portraits of the family is the largest group of surviving early work by Reynolds. It is likely that the portrait of General Cornwallis came into the nationally significant collection at Port Eliot in the 19th century through Edward Eliot’s marriage to one of the granddaughters of General Cornwallis, Jemima. Jemima shared a name with her grandmother, the wife of General Cornwallis. Her portrait was so loved by the General that he brought it with him during his service in India and later sent it back to Reynolds to have it cleaned and to ‘have the colours a little helped.’ It, along with Cornwallis’ portrait by Reynolds, is one of 23 paintings accepted in lieu of tax from the Trustees of the Port Eliot Estate by the UK Government. They are now owned and administered by Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.