John Singleton Copley

The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781


Not on display

John Singleton Copley 1738–1815
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2515 × 3658 mm
frame: 2790 × 3920 × 160 mm
Purchased 1864


The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 1783 is a large oil painting by the American-born painter JS Copley, showing a dramatic battle scene in a small square lined with buildings. At the centre of the painting, British soldiers in red uniforms support the body of their wounded leader, Major Francis Peirson (1757–1781). Peirson’s blood-spattered white shirt stands out against the bright red jackets of the soldiers, who cradle him below a large, billowing Union Jack flag, behind which flies the troops’ regimental flag, with only the small Union Jack in the upper corner visible. In the right foreground, a mother tries to flee the battlefield with a baby and a child. A golden statue is also visible below the flag. To the left of this group appears a uniformed Black man apparently shooting back at the French forces who have just killed Peirson. In the middle of a crowd of red-clad British soldiers, the man is depicted wearing a navy waistcoat, silver epaulettes, and a distinctive hat plumed with variously coloured ostrich feathers. The intended identity of the Black man is not known, nor is the possible identity of a real person on whom the portrait may have been based. Many of Copley’s contemporaries were slave-owners or had Black servants in their households in Britain. Copley’s own family in Boston, Massachussets, are known to have had in their household an enslaved African child.

On the night of 5–6 January 1781, a small army of French legionnaires launched a surprise attack on St Helier, the capital of Jersey, a Channel Island which had been controlled by the British since 1066. The French captured the Governor, Colonel Moses Corbet, forcing him to sign a document of surrender. However, in defiance of Corbet’s instructions to stand down, Peirson leapt to defend Britain’s possession of the island, leading his men to the market square of St Helier to engage. There he was fatally shot ‘in the moment of victory, after the French had given way,’ as reported in the Glasgow Mercury (11 Jan 1781). The setting of St Helier is depicted in careful detail, facing onto Royal Square along what is now Peirson Place, with the statue of George II in the background. Likewise, in this and other paintings, Copley tried to produce accurate portraits of models to populate his works. In this work, Copley has paid close attention to depicting the likenesses of two figures in particular whom he may have drawn from life: Adjutant Harrison, who cradles the fallen Major, and Clement Hemery, who stands at Peirson’s feet, wearing the blue uniform of his artillery company. In addition, Peirson and probably other figures in the painting were based on models and existing portraits in paintings and statuary. Historians have suggested the possibility that the Black man in this painting was actually modelled by one of two Black servants employed by Captain James Christie (Kamensky, p.320–1). On departing for Jamaica, Christie had left behind two servants named Abraham Allec and Isaac Burton in a rented flat in Golden Square, just a few blocks from Copley’s residence. He had taken them both into his service during his tour of duty in South Carolina. Both were most likely formerly enslaved, had fled to British lines in search of freedom and were taken into Christie’s retinue as ‘servants,’ wearing his livery and being bound to his and his family’s service, although probably not strictly owned by him (Kamensky 2016, p.320). Although the exact position of Allec and Burton in Christie’s household is unknown, at the time Britain was profiting heavily from the trade of enslaved people and the position of so-called ‘servants’ in British households was often closer to enslavement or indentured labour.

Copley’s painting heroises Peirson and celebrates the British victory, epitomised by the Union Jack held aloft above him. At the time, British colonial forces were on the brink of losing their American colonies in the American War of Independence, and despite it being little more than a minor skirmish, this victory did much symbolically to revive confidence in the British Empire. Indeed, the engraver and printseller John Boydell commissioned Copley – who had, since moving to London in 1774, already made his reputation there with The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords (1779–81, Tate N00100) – immediately following the battle in order to take advantage of the moment. Copley accordingly created a fantasy in his work. The propagandistic aims of the picture were apparently successful – when it was first exhibited to the public in May 1784, crowds of people came to see it and, according to one contemporaneous critic, ‘the chorus of praise reached all the way to Buckingham Palace’ (quoted in Wilson 1990, p.35).

This pro-Empire propaganda also informed the inclusion of the Black soldier, whose act of retaliation for the death of the fallen British major isn’t borne out by any historical evidence. Rather, the figure was apparently designed to signify and falsely romanticise the fierce loyalty of the British colonies and people subjected to British exploitation. As Richard Saunders writes, ‘The thought of the duty-bound servant faithfully seeking retribution for a superior’s death undoubtedly warmed the hearts of many Englishmen of similar station’ (Saunders 1992, p.32). The soldier’s elegant livery is striking, especially the plumed ostrich feathers in his hat, which are out of place given the painting’s setting at the remote edges of the American War. The ostrich feathers lend an air of opulence to the soldier’s uniform, reproducing tropes of exoticity that were commonly brought to bear on representations of Black people in art of the period. Overall, the soldier’s elegant dress was probably chosen to elevate the status of the officer the Black soldier served, whose intended identity is also uncertain. Copley’s key to the painting, the ‘Description of the Picture of the Death of Major Peirson,’ published by Boydell on 22 May 1784, labels the figure as ‘3. Major Peirson’s black servant’, but this identification seems to be a later decision. Indeed, in one of Copley’s preparatory sketches (Tate N04984), he labels the man as ‘Capt. Christie’s Black Servt.’. A Glasgow newspaper did mention that a Black servant of Captain Christie ‘distinguished himself greatly’ in the battle (Glasgow Mercury, 18 Jan 1781) but the changes Copley made in the identification of the figure speak more of an artist serving the propagandistic aims of their painting, with little care as to the actual identity of the man.

This is reflective of stereotyped, dehumanising depictions of Black people at the time. It also echoes the contemporaneous position of Black men within the British army, which by the end of the eighteenth century had become the biggest single purchaser of enslaved African men, deemed dispensable in the defence of British colonies (see Roger N Buckley, ‘The British Army 's African Recruitment Policy, 1790–1807’, Contributions in Black Studies: A Journal of African and Afro-American Studies, vol.5, September 2008). Historian Jane Kamensky has commented on the ‘sensational’ effect of Copley’s depiction of a Black figure in such an active role, considering this a ‘striking departure from the figuration of black bodies in European painting’, referring to a tendency for European artists to represent Black figures in passive, subjugated roles (Kamensky 2016, p.326, 323). She argues that Copley’s inclusion of the man in this very active role serves a propagandistic function as it supposedly elevates ‘British liberty’ over the ‘false freedoms of the Americans and their French allies’ (p. 323). This she positions as a positive ‘progression … in the direction of black freedom’, which she sees as beginning with Copley’s earlier depiction of a Black sailor in a position of relative prominence in the painting Watson and the Shark 1778 (National Gallery of Art, Washington) (Kamensky 2016, p.324). However, she concludes that the fact that there is no evidence to support Copley joining any abolitionist cause or of his family freeing their enslaved child makes it impossible to connect Compley’s depiction of Black figures in both paintings with an antislavery conviction. Whether or not one detects antislavery sentiments in Copley’s painting (an assertion that is vague at best), his evident disregard for the individual identity of the Black man in the scene typifies a widespread recourse to undifferentiated, symbolic typology in the treatment of Black people as artistic subjects.

Further reading
Richard Saunders, 'Genius and Glory - J.S. Copley's The Death of Major Peirson', American Art Journal, vol.22, no.3, 1990.
Louise Downie and Doug Ford, The Battle of Jersey and the Death of Major Peirson, Jersey 2012.
Jane Kamensky, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley, New York and London 2016, plate 16, pp.316–27.

Caroline Anjali Ritchie and Arthur Goodwin
February 2022

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Display caption

France invaded Jersey on 5 January 1781. A young commander, Major Peirson, organised a successful counter-attack. Peirson was actually killed shortly before the battle, but Copley shows him at the centre of this scene, dying at the moment of British victory. The Black man to his left, firing back at the French forces represents Peirson’s servant, whose name was not recorded. He was sometimes referred to as ‘Pompey’. There is no historical evidence that ‘Pompey’ was present at the battle. Contemporary critics argue that Copley included him to suggest the loyalty of the British colonies to Britain.

Gallery label, August 2019

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