Arts and Leisure

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

John Singleton Copley is considered the greatest artist of Colonial America, but he was 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 was delighted to travel with a sophisticated companion who spoke Italian and French, but the relationship deteriorated. For weeks, Carter mocked Copley in his diary while Copley sniped at Carter in letters back home.

John Singleton Copley, detail from self portrait

John Singleton Copley, detail from self portrait

Copley, the Loyalist

Copley was the son of a poor Irish immigrant, born in 1738. By the time he was 36, he had earned wealth and fame 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.

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 tensions were escalating.

In London, Copley was delighted to have dinner at the home of Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts who had left Boston after his house was sacked.

Rome was a must-see for an artist studying European art, and Copley was at first relieved to find George Carter, who could help 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.”

A Sword?

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.”

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, applying fresh fuel and complaining that the wood of this country don’t give half the heat that the wood of America does; and has just finished a long-winded discourse upon the merits of an American wood fire to one of our coal. He had never asked me yet, and we have been up an hour, how I do or how I passed the night.

The Death of Captain Cook by George Carter

The Death of Captain Cook by George Carter


Carter didn’t think much of Copley’s traveling outfit, either:

He had on one of these white French bonnets which, turned on one side, admit of being pulled over the ears; under this was a yellow and red silk handkerchief, with a large Catherine-wheel flambeaued upon it, such as may be seen upon the necks of those delicate ladies who cry Malton oysters–this flowed half way down his back. He wore a red-brown or rather cinnamon greatcoat with a friar’s cape, and worsted binding of a yellowish white; it hung near his heels, out of which peeped his boots. Under his arm he carried the sword which he bought in Paris (for protection against bandits, we may be sure}, and a hickory stick with an ivory head. Joined to this dress, he was very thin, pale, a little pock-marked, prominent eyebrows, small eyes which after fatigue seemed a day’s march in his head.

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

Would phone spying have identified Paul Revere?

Paul Revere, by John Singleton Copley

Carter called Copley, ‘perfect dead Wait.’ “Thank God we are not wedded to each other.” He wrote that he told Copley:

Sir, we are now more than eight hundred 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 wrote of Carter:

He was a sort of snail which crawled over a man in his sleep, and left its lime 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. 

To Top