My favourite painting: John Blashford-Snell

'This inspiring painting reminds me of our patriotic island and its close links with Britain.'

The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781, 1783, by John Singleton Copley RA (1738–1815), 8¼ft by 12ft, Tate Britain, London

John Blashford-Snell says:
As a small boy, my father took me to the Royal Square in St Helier, Jersey, and pointed out where the climax of the Battle of Jersey was fought. Apparently, one of my ancestors took part and I have his sword. For years, a sign outside the pub in the Square said “Here Peirson fell”. Ignorant visitors assumed it was a memorial to a local drunk, so the sign was replaced! This inspiring painting reminds me of our patriotic island and its close links with Britain.

Col John Blashford-Snell is an explorer and co-founder of Operation Drake and Operation Raleigh (now Raleigh International). He will be 80 on Saturday.

John McEwen comments on The Death of Major Peirson:
In 1781, the French invaded Jersey and took St Helier. The British garrison and local militia, led by Maj Francis Peirson, defeated them. Copley shows the climax: Peirson dying while his black servant, Pompey, exacts revenge.

Copley—‘very thin, pale, a little pock-marked, prominent eyebrows, small eyes, which, after fatigue, seemed a day’s march in his head’—arrived alone in England aged 37 with a reputation as a portrait painter in his hometown, Boston. His ambition to be a famous history painter warranted the gamble to leave colonial America, on the verge of revolt, and follow in the footsteps of the Old Masters, whose work he had seen only in reproduction. He would study it first-hand, paint portraits for a living and bring his family to London, the way smoothed by his friend and compatriot Benjamin West RA.

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A Grand Tour to Italy convinced him he could vie with the best, especially in history painting, which West had extended to include contemporary events, an innovation Copley influentially consolidated. It wasn’t simple reportage; that Copley’s artistic hero was Rubens is evident in this masterpiece, in which the fallen Peirson consciously echoes Christ’s deposition.

The picture was commissioned by an art entrepreneur. It was shown privately at Buckingham Palace to George III, who gazed approvingly for three hours, but did not buy, then exhibited at 28, Haymarket, from 8am to midnight, admission one shilling.

The principals were individual likenesses, the houses of St Helier architecturally exact. Mrs Copley and the children posed for the family. The boy, John Singleton junior, became Baron Lyndhurst, England’s first foreign-born Lord Chancellor.