An amazing discovery was made in the course of the restoration programme of the paintings belonging to the parish of St Helier. A copy of the painting of one of the most significant events in Jersey's history was found to be very much more important, and therefore more valuable, than was first thought.
On 7th January 1781, a contingent of French soldiers invaded Jersey and were defeated in a brief but bloody battle in the Royal Square (or Le Vier Marchi as it was then known) outside the Royal Court. The commander of the British forces, Major Peirson was killed in battle, but the French were defeated. The battle was reported in the London Gazette, where it was read by an Alderman of the City of London, called John Boydell. John Boydell was a pushy, successful engraver, whose business was at 90 Cheapside in London. He knew and admired a fashionable American artist John Singleton Copley, who had settled in London and made a considerable reputation for himself painting historic subjects on a grand scale. Boydell's imagination had been captured by the report of the Battle of Jersey and he influenced Copley to paint it.
Copley's painting entitled "The Death of Major Peirson" was unveiled in London in 1784, but not at The Royal Academy, which caused mutterings amongst the art establishment. The painting was an overnight sensation.
Despite Boydell's part in the original concept, it was not until 1796 that he was able to announce in his new catalogue that James Heath, a most respected engraver had made a plate which Boydell was able to publish. He went to great pains in his promotion to say that the production costs amounted to £5,000 and that he was able to sell the engraving for four guineas only.
The next time that the painting came to public attention was in 1864 when Copley's son's estate was auctioned by Christie's, and the painting, still in the family, was included in the list of lots for sale. The States of Jersey were advised of the sale and voted to bid for the picture, up to a limit of one thousand pounds sterling (even though Christie's incidentally sold in guineas). The painting was bought at the auction by the National Gallery on behalf of the Nation for 1500 guineas.
Learning of the States disappointment in their unsuccessful bid to buy the picture, the President of the Royal Academy wrote to the Bailiff suggesting a compromise. He proposed that a full size copy could be commissioned and suggested the name of William Holyoake, who was the School Curator at the National Gallery at the time. The commission was taken up, and so faithfully did Holyoake copy what was before him, that he included the accumulation of surface dirt, which resulted in a softer, darker version than the original in pristine condition.
Until 1995, the original in 1784, the engraving in 1796, and the Holyoake copy in 1864, were the only recognised versions of "The Death of Major Peirson". There are, of course, a multitude of copies by amateur hands since the publication of the engraving popularised this great painting. One such version apparently formed part of a collection of pictures donated to the Parish of St Helier in 1890.
The present Connetable, Mr Bob Le Brocq, has embarked on a programme to restore the collection for the benfit of the parishioners of St Helier so that they may, once again, enjoy their art collection. Mr Le Brocq has invited businesses to sponsor paintings of their choice for restoration, and the Midland Bank agreed to sponsor "The Death of Major Peirson".
The restoration is being conducted through Falle Fine Art, and whilst working on the Town Hall's picture, the restorer discovered that the whole picture had at some time been entirely painted over with new paint, and what lay underneath was a very fine late 18th Century version of the original painting. The restorer was also able to remove the original canvas from a later backing to reveal not only the inscription of the proper title of the painting but also the name of the artist and the date when it was done. The artist was P. Wright and it was dated 1796. That was significant because almost certainly what the Parish of St Helier unknowingly had was the painting commissioned by either James Heath, Boydell's engraver, or Boydell himself, to enable Heath to do the engraving. The original painting by Copley is a vast work and he would have required an intermediate reference from which to work. That particular copy would have of necessity to be as closely observed as possible. The painting has now been r eturned to its usual place in the Public Hall at the Town hall, where it can be appreciated with new pride for what it is - a beautiful 18th Century copy done for a purpose in perpetuating Copley's masterpiece. As such, it takes it's legitimate place in the chronology of "The Death of Major Peirson" by John Singleton Copley.
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