Friday, July 01, 2011

Fundamental Liberties

John Singleton Copley (1737-1815)
The Collapse Of The Earl Of Chatham
In The House Of Lords 7 April 1778

Tate Britain, London
Since 1968 On Loan To The National Portrait Gallery, London

Oil On Canvas
120 7/8 Inches By 89 13/16 Inches


This grand history painting portrays the heart attack and collapse of The Earl Of Chatham (twice Prime Minister and better known as William Pitt or Pitt The Elder) during The House Of Lords’ single most important debate on the subject of The American Revolution, a debate held on April 7, 1778.

Pitt died on May 11.

The painting is an accurate depiction of the events of April 7, 1778, and is based upon numerous first-hand accounts of that fateful day. All sixty-five persons portrayed in the painting sat for Copley during the two years he worked on the canvas.

“The Collapse Of The Earl Of Chatham” was Copley’s second grand history painting, coming closely on the heels of “Watson And The Shark”. It was soon to be followed by “The Death Of Major Peirson”.

Even before The American Revolution, Chatham had urged a change in Britain’s policies toward the Colonies. An advocate of no taxation without consent, independent judges and trial by jury, Chatham had for years warned that America must be awarded fundamental liberties if it was to remain tied to Britain. Chatham had predicted a permanent rupture between Britain and America unless Britain radically changed its policies—and, further, he had foretold that America could never be conquered.

During the April 7, 1778, debate in The House Of Lords, Chatham had argued passionately on behalf of unlimited concessions to the Colonies—anything and everything short of actual independence must be granted immediately. Anything less, he warned, would be a resounding disaster for the nation: Britain would be destined to lose America entirely.

The House Of Lords rejected Chatham’s pleas for reconciliation.

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