Enfilade

New Book | Copley and West in England, 1775–1815

Posted in books by Editor on May 23, 2021

Distributed by Paul Holberton Publishing and The University of Chicago Press:

Allen Staley, Copley and West in England, 1775–1815 (London: Burlington Press, 2021), 176 pages, ISBN: 978-1916237803, £35 / $45.

This beautifully and thoroughly illustrated book, which constitutes the first serious investigation of the relationship between Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, will be of considerable interest to both British and American art historians, and appeal to art lovers from both countries.

West and Copley have always and properly been viewed as the two pre-eminent eighteenth-century American artists, despite the fact that, at the age of twenty-one, West left his native shores in 1760, never to return. He went on to become immensely successful in England, becoming, among other things, the second president of the Royal Academy of Arts. Copley spent half his working life also in England. However, before making the move across the Atlantic, he made his mark as an exceptionally talented artist, who, without any real training, painted likenesses of fellow Bostonians, including ones of figures such as John Hancock and Paul Revere, that have become icons of American history. While those portraits remain his most widely admired works, after 1775 and his resettling in England, he started painting distinctly different types of pictures, initially showing modern historical subjects in emulation of the model provided him by West, following, for example, West’s celebrated Death of General Wolfe, exhibited in 1771, with his own Death of the Earl of Chatham, begun in 1779. For a brief span of time, the two expatriate Americans had a close working relationship, that we can see substantially reflected in both the formal language and the subject matter of many of their best works, but it eventually and inevitably turned into rivalry.

The book begins with a brief prologue discussing the earliest of West’s depictions of recent historical events and of subjects set in America, painted prior to Copley’s arrival in England. It then follows the year-by-year evolution of Copley’s painting from 1775 to his death in 1815, with an underlying focus upon his ongoing give-and-take with West. It ends with examination of hitherto little-known and unstudied major late paintings, from after 1800, by both artists.

Allen Staley is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Columbia University, where he taught for more than thirty years. Prior to Columbia he worked at the Frick Collection in New York and as an assistant curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His engagement with Benjamin West began in Philadelphia with an article about an oil sketch by West, published in the museum’s bulletin in 1965. In 1975 he took on the task of completing the monumental catalogue of West’s paintings begun by the late Helmut von Erff, which led him to think about the artist’s influence upon the work of his compatriot and exact contemporary Copley. The book, after a decade’s labor, saw publication in 1986. His other significant books are The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, published in 1973 with a second edition in 2001, and The New Painting of the 1860s: Between the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement, published in 2011, both products of long-standing love and study of English Victorian painting. In addition to writing countless reviews and articles—the first in The Burlington Magazine in 1963—he has organized or shared in organizing and writing the catalogues of numerous exhibitions.

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