John Singleton Copley

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), [Autograph letter signed to a Mr. Joy regarding Copley's claim to American bank shares related to the sale of his Boston properties], [London, April 24th, 1797]. Quarto. [1]pp., with integral address leaf bearing broken seal and postage mark. Old fold lines. Paper bright and clean. Signature strong and pronounced. Fine.


Provenance: From the noted James S. Copley Library Collection.

Living in London and in declining health, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) wrote this letter to his banker, a Mr. G. Joy of Old Broad Street, on April 24th, 1797. “Sir,” he writes, “will you be so good to inform me what price I can now obtain for American bank shares or if I can yet dispose of any of the 6 percents that you sent to be put in my name in America; and which stock I may part with to the most advantage?”

In 1770, with young Copley’s career going great guns in his native Boston, the artist and his wife purchased from the estate of Judge Samuel Sewall a tract of land facing Boston Common. This property became Copley’s “little farm,” as he called it, one of the most appealing estates in what was then still a relatively suburban neighborhood of Boston. When, in 1773, the original Tea Party rabblerousers dumped barrels of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor, Copley decided it might be more expeditious to continue his career in London, far away from the uncertainties of war. Copley departed for England in June of 1774. Upon his arrival he was readily accepted into the fraternity of artists belonging to the Royal Academy, fellow ex-pat Benjamin West and Sir Joshua Reynolds chief among them. With regular showings at the Academy, Copley enjoyed two decades of critical success and prosperity.

Back home in Boston, a real estate revolution took place in the mid-1790s that coincided with a decline in Copley’s sales. In 1795, it was decided that a new State House, designed by famed American architect, Charles Bulfinch, would be built atop Beacon Hill. To encourage residential development near the site, an investment firm, the Mount Vernon Proprietors, began buying up parcels of land around the hill with the aim of subdividing and reselling at a profit. Copley, who considered his return to Boston unlikely and pinched by lackluster demand, was one of the first to sell. For $14,000, nearly five times his original purchase price, Copley, via his agent in America, Samuel Cabot, surrendered his last link to his native city.

Copley immediately regretted his decision and tried desperately to finagle his way out of the deal. The money earmarked by the Proprietors for the purchase of his land was placed in escrow while John Singleton Copley, Jr., the artist’s son and a well-regarded young lawyer, tried in vain to offer his father a solution. Ultimately, the agreement stood, and the monies were distributed via an American bank for Copley’s use in London.

On April 17th, 1797, one week prior to Copley’s writing of the present letter, Boston attorney Harrison Gray Otis, one of the Proprietors, recorded the deed to Copley’s land. While it is possible Copley’s request for funds is coincidental to the sale of his Boston land considering that American bank stock and “six percents” were popular investment vehicles of the late 18th-century, the timing of his actions must be considered–this letter is almost certainly Copley cashing out, claiming the money set aside for his “little farm.”

Copley carried his regret for  the rest of his life, alternately believing he had sold the property for too little profit or lamenting that he had sold it at all. The artist who once decried the unsophisticated tastes of his provincial American patrons now mourned the loss of the seat of his American identity.

Allen Chamberlain, Beacon Hill: Its Ancient Pastures and Early Mansions (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925), 50-70, passim.

Martha Babcock Amory, The Domestic and Artistic Life of John Singleton Copley (New York: Kennedy Galleries, 1969), 127-131.

Harrison Gray Otis Papers, 1660-1870, Massachusetts Historical Society, Reel Two. <;.