Home Corporate Events John Singleton Copley: The Major Peirson’s Death Painting

John Singleton Copley: The Major Peirson’s Death Painting

by Ikenna Ngere

John Singleton Copley created The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 as a big oil painting in 1783. It shows Major Francis Peirson’s demise at the Battle of Jersey on January 6, 1781.

The Battle of Jersey was one of the last conflicts involving foreign invaders in the British home islands and the final French attempt to conquer the island of Jersey.

The invasion, which was privately planned by Baron Philippe de Rullecourt but supported by the French government, aimed to neutralize the danger that a British naval squadron stationed in Jersey during the American Revolutionary War provided to American ships.

On the night of 5–6 January, about 1,000 French soldiers under the command of de Rullecourt and an Indian named Mir Sayyad landed at La Rocque in Grouville.

On January 6, early in the morning, they took control of St. Helier. Moses Corbet, the Jersey’s lieutenant governor, was found in bed. The 24-year-old leader of the roughly 2,000 soldiers in the British garrison, Peirson, refused to submit despite Corbet’s surrender. Peirson was killed by a French shot as he planned a counterattack.

The British forces, which included detachments of the 95th Regiment of Foot, 78th Highlanders, and Jersey Militia, were under the leadership of Lieutenant Philippe Dumaresq of the Jersey militia. The French were rapidly defeated by the British forces, and the majority of them capitulated.

Painting measurements

Successful publisher and engraver John Boydell, an Alderman of the City of London, hired Copley to create a big picture that measured 251.5 centimeters (99.0 in) by 365.8 centimeters (144.0 in).

The action takes place as the French soldiers make their last stand around the statue of George II in Royal Square, as seen from what is now Peirson Place.

On the hilltop to the top left, additional British reinforcements are apparent. Some of the featured structures and the statue are still standing (some with bullet holes caused by the battle).

Painting depiction

Although Peirson was killed early in the action, the picture depicts Peirson being shot down while leading the final charge (he is in the center of the painting under the huge Union Flag, supported by other officers), giving him a more heroic role and outcome. Pompey, his black butler, shoots the shooter to get revenge on his master to the left.

The black servant of auctioneer James Christie served as the model for Pompey, though it is unclear whether a black servant actually played a role. It is believed that the images of the officers assisting the injured Peirson are accurate portraits (there is no suggestion in contemporaneous sources). Copley based his wife, the family nurse, and his children on the civilians fleeing to the right.

Peirson rose to fame as a national hero, and the painting drew large audiences when it was originally displayed at 28 Haymarket in May 1784. In 1864, the Tate Gallery bought the artwork. A replica was printed on the 10 Jersey pound note between 1989 and 2010, and earlier on the 1 pound note.

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