Arts and Leisure

John Singleton Copley Has a Travel Nightmare (Or Maybe He WAS the Travel Nightmare)

John Singleton Copley, widely considered the greatest artist of Colonial America, made a lousy traveling companion.

In the fall of 1774 he traveled from London to Rome with an English artist named George Carter. At first Copley enjoyed traveling with a sophisticated companion who spoke Italian and French. But then the relationship deteriorated. For weeks, Carter mocked Copley in his diary while Copley sniped at Carter in letters back home.

Copley, the Loyalist

John Singleton Copley, born in 1738 in Boston, came from humble beginnings. The son of poor Irish immigrants, he earned wealth and fame by the time he turned 36. He did it through his now-iconic portraits of such American leaders as Paul Revere, John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

Though he avoided politics, he married a Loyalist and had Loyalist sympathies. In April of 1774 a mob surrounded his elegant home, but fell short of sacking it.

Samuel Adams

On June 10, 1774, John Singleton Copley set sail for England, nine days after the British closed the Port of Boston. He intended to burnish his reputation, meet renowned artists and study masterpieces of European art.

He also needed to figure out if his wife and children should join him in England or if he should return home, where war loomed.

In London, Copley had dinner at the home of Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts. Hutchinson had left Boston after a mob of patriots sacked his mansion.

Copley Goes to Rome

Any artist studying European art just had to see Rome. At first, Copley appreciated Carter, who helped him deal with European coaches, barges and feluccas.

He wrote to his mother that Carter was “well versed in traveling…a very polite and sensable man, who has seen much of the World.”

They left London and spent a week in Paris, where Copley – who loved finery — bought a sword. Carter mocked his pretension, joking that he swaddled it in “various Night Caps…that it might not get tarnished.”

The Nightmare Begins

Things deteriorated over the next five weeks of travel to Rome. Copley’s complaining started to annoy Carter. In his diary he wrote,

My agreeable companion suspects he has got a cold upon his lungs. He is now sitting by a fire, the heat of which makes me very faint, a silk handkerchief about his head and a white pocket one about his neck.

Copley, he wrote, kept adding wood “and complaining that the wood of this country don’t give half the heat that the wood of America does.” He had just finished a “long-winded discourse upon the merits of an American wood fire to one of our coal. ” Then Carter complained they’d been awake an hour, but Copley never asked how he was or how he passed the night.

The Death of Captain Cook by George Carter

The Death of Captain Cook by George Carter

Ladies’ Handkerchief

Carter didn’t think much of Copley’s traveling outfit, either. He described his white French bonnet, which “admit of being pulled over the ears.”

Under his bonnet, Copley wore a yellow-and-red silk handkerchief that flowed halfway down his back. It had a “large Catherine-wheel flambeaued upon it, such as may be seen upon the necks of those delicate ladies who cry Malton oysters.”

Copley also wore a cinnamon-colored greatcoat with a friar’s cape, which hung all the way to his boots.

“Under his arm he carried the sword which he bought in Paris (for protection against bandits, we may be sure},” wrote Carter. He also carried a  hickory stick with an ivory head.

Carter further described him as “very thin, pale, a little pock-marked, prominent eyebrows,.” His small eyes “after fatigue seemed a day’s march in his head,” he wrote.

Eventually they began to quarrel. Copley changed his opinion of Carter, calling him “a captious, cross-grained and self conceited person.” He knew Carter made fun of him in his journal. He wrote that Carter kept a journal “in which he set down the smallest trifle that could bear a construction unfavorable to the American’s character.”

Slimy Snail

Carter called Copley, ‘perfect dead Wait.’ “Thank God we are not wedded to each other.” He wrote that he told Copley they had traveled more than 800 miles from home,

… through all which way you have not had a single care that I could alleviate. I have taken as much pains as to the mode of conveying you as if you had been my wife, and I cannot help telling you that she, though a delicate little woman, accommodated her feelings to her situation with more temper than you have done.

After they parted ways, Copley described Carter as “a sort of snail which crawled over a man in his sleep, and left its slime and no more.”

John Singleton Copley would never see America again, and probably never saw Carter, either.

With thanks to John Singleton Copley by James Thomas Flexner. This story was updated in 2021.

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