Illustrated companion

On the night of the 5-6 January 1781 a small French army landed on the island of Jersey in what was to prove the last of the many attempts made to return the island to France since it had become an English possession in 1066. In the early hours of the morning the French marched straight to the capital, St Helier, captured the Governor, Moses Corbet, and forced him to sign a document of surrender. However, the British garrison and the Jersey Militia, quartered outside St Helier, refused to accept the surrender and organised a counter-attack, led by a young Major, the twenty-three year old Francis Peirson. Positioning his men for the final attack on the town centre, Peirson was shot dead by a French sniper who was in turn shot by Peirson's black servant, Pompey. After some confusion Peirson's troops were rallied by one of the local militiamen, Lieutenant Philippe Dumaresq and a brisk battle ensued in Royal Square resulting in the defeat of the French. News of the splendid victory reached London with great speed, a full report appearing in the London Gazette only ten days later on 16 January 1781, and was particularly welcome at a time when defeat in the American colonies was imminent. One of the City of London Aldermen, the successful engraver and printseller John Boydell, immediately commissioned this painting from Copley, who had already made a name as a painter of modern history with his picture of the death of the Earl of Chatham. 'The Death of Major Peirson' was completed and put on show in May 1784 and one critic later wrote that '... the chorus of praise reached all the way to Buckingham Palace.' The setting of Copley's painting is notably accurate: we are looking towards Royal Square along what is now Peirson Place, where Peirson was shot. The houses on both sides are still as they are shown by Copley, complete with bullet holes in the wall of the one on the left, now a pub. The buildings on the far side of the square are no longer the same but the statue of King George II, in whose honour Royal Square was named, is also still in place.

Copley has, however, considerably increased the dramatic potential of the event by moving Peirson's death from just before the battle to what is evidently the very moment of victory for the British as they pour fire into the Square. The French troops grouped around the statue of George II are clearly in disarray and Copley has contrived that one of their number should be the sniper who killed Peirson, now himself dying from the instant retaliatory shot of Peirson's black servant. In fact, the whole battle scene is a brilliantly staged drama, not least in the way Copley has heightened the effect by introducing the group of terrified women and children running straight out of the picture on the right.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.35