John Singleton Copley’s The Fountaine Family 1776 has been accepted for the nation through Arts Council England’s Cultural Gift Scheme and allocated to Tate. Copley was considered to be the leading painter of his day, and this is the only conversation piece by the artist to enter a public collection in the UK. The group portrait, donated by David Posnett OBE, is a rare example of work from the beginning of the artist’s career in England. It is now on public display for the first time and is accompanied at Tate Britain by two preparatory drawings which feature the young boy in the painting, Andrew Fountaine.

Copley was the greatest American artist of the eighteenth century. He was active as a portrait painter in Boston from 1753 to 1774, establishing himself in London in 1775 where he was elected a Royal Academician. The Fountaine Family shows how Copley adapted his style to the British market, emulating the work of Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), whose renewal of the conversation piece format in the 1760s greatly influenced British art. The painting depicts Brigg Price Fountaine, a wealthy member of the Norfolk gentry, standing in the centre of an elegant drawing room at Narford Hall, the Fountaine ancestral home. To the left is his wife Mary and to the right are their two children, Andrew and Elizabeth, with a spaniel playing at their feet. Andrew is also depicted in the two preparatory drawings by Copley hung next to the painting.

The painting remained with the Fountaine family for many years, before being offered at auction in the late 1980s, described simply as English School, circa 1780. Art historical research and technical examination since then demonstrated the attribution to Copley. The two preparatory drawings discovered at The Courtauld Institute of Art in 1988 provided decisive evidence of Copley’s authorship. These drawings will be hung alongside the The Fountaine Family for the first time as part of Tate Britain’s new display.

The Fountaine Family sheds light on a new dimension of Copley’s career and adds substantially to Tate’s representation of this leading eighteenth-century painter. The work is uniquely important in showing an American painter making the transition into the British art world, at precisely the moment of the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of the United States. Copley, a loyalist, would never return to America.

Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain, said: ‘We are delighted to have received this generous gift from David Posnett OBE through the Cultural Gifts Scheme. Examples of Copley’s early British portraiture are rare, and this work adds great depth to our understanding of his career in London’.

The Cultural Gifts Scheme was introduced by the Government in 2013 as an initiative to encourage life-time giving to UK public collections. The addition of The Fountaine Family not only improves Tate’s existing collection of eighteenth-century conversation pieces, but it also illuminates how an ambitious American artist adapted to a distinctly British format and style. The work complements the three Copley works already in Tate’s collection – Portrait of Mrs Gill c1770-1 painted in America; and two major subject paintings painted in Britain, The Death of Major Peirson 1781 and The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham 1779-80.

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The Cultural Gifts Scheme was launched by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport in March 2013 as an important element of its expanding programme to encourage philanthropy for the arts. The Acceptance in Lieu Panel, chaired by Edward Harley, advises Ministers on all objects offered under the Cultural Gifts Scheme. The Scheme is administered by Arts Council England and enables UK taxpayers to donate important objects to the nation during their lifetime. Items accepted under the Scheme are allocated to public collections and are available for all. In return, donors will receive a reduction in their income tax, capital gains tax or corporation tax liability, based on a set percentage of the value of the object they are donating: 30 per cent for individuals and 20 per cent for companies.

Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2015 and 2018, we plan to invest £1.1 billion of public money from government and an estimated £700 million from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.

Tate Britain houses the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day, and is home to the world’s largest collection of works by J.M.W Turner. Located in Millbank, the gallery was originally opened in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art, more commonly known as the Tate Gallery after its founder, Sir Henry Tate. The gallery was renamed Tate Britain in 2000 and belongs to a family of galleries including Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) was an American artist born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was considered the leading painter of his day. He was active as a portrait painter in Boston from 1753-1774. In 1775, after a year of training in Italy, Copley established himself in London. He was elected a Royal Academician and was acclaimed for his dramatic battle scene The Death of Major Peirson 1783, which is also on display at Tate Britain.